Azerbaijan’s Westward Drive

With last week’s presidential elections completed, which Europe’s parliaments declared “free, fair, and transparent,” it is safe to say that Azerbaijan’s political development has advanced at a high rate for years. The recent election displayed this truth in stark relief.

Perspective helps to draw out this picture. Something on the order of 50,000 election monitors — from civil society groups to opposition parties to foreign media to international organizations to international NGOs — observed this election. Monitors were given free access to the vote counting, invited to polling sites, invited in months before to watch the entire process in real time, and offered access to first-of-its-kind polling data. Reporters were allowed to reach out and report their findings to the world. Police were notable by their absence from polling stations. Azerbaijanis gave interviews to media and pollsters from across the world about their views on their government — good, bad, and in-between. Voting was smooth and the ballot collection was open, its integrity assured. Exit polls were held in the open by a first-rate polling firm to check against the election results.

These are the hallmarks of a normal, functioning democracy, and by a supermajority (which basically tracked the exits), Azerbaijanis approved.

Put the election results to the side for a moment and consider the scope of the transparency and attention to process bound up in the election. In a region of the world best-known for impenetrable election processes, back-room deals, and election monitors treated the way one would a particularly unpleasant distant relative, Baku was making a very explicit statement both to its own people and to the world: We are proud of what we have built.

With that said, Azerbaijan does face sadly less-than-unique obstacles to a full, participatory democracy, very few of which are of its own doing. Roughly twenty percent of the country in and surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh is under Armenian occupation, the result of Yerevan’s defiance of international law and resolutions by almost every major international body the world over since the end of hostilities between the two countries nearly two decades ago. The situation is constantly threatening to metastasize, as is the case with the likely imminent failure of the Sarsang Reservoir.

This in turn has led to complications for Azerbaijan’s internal efforts at democracy. Sending election officials, let alone pollsters, to the provinces bordering the Armenian occupation is an exercise fraught with logistical and operational difficulty. (Armenians routinely shoot across the occupation line.) Over one million refugees are internally displaced, and while Baku’s economic development has made caring for these people easier, and polling them has become simpler over the last decade, there are still complications associated with polling them and assigning them to their home provinces.

In interviews with these internally displaced Azerbaijanis and Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates, the American polling firm who performed the country’s first definitive pre-election survey and its largest exit poll ever, it quickly becomes clear that these are among the most fervent of President Ilham Aliyev’s supporters, and almost certainly why his vote total was as high as it was. The pre-election polling AJF performed showed that these men and women were up to ten percent more likely than the populace as a whole to support Aliyev, meaning he sports an approval rating over ninety percent among them and those living in the border provinces. More than most Azerbaijanis, they both understand the stakes of Baku’s foreign policy and how economic development has materially improved their lives.

That Azerbaijan held a clean, orderly election among so many difficulties is a tribute to a nation once firmly under the Soviet thumb. It speaks not merely to good logistics, but to a firm commitment to the rule of law. It suggests that when the Nagorno-Karabakh tragedy ends at last, the effort needed to bring the whole country together politically and logistically will be very nearly solved in advance.

Azerbaijan has cleared many obstacles to be where it is. Today, its people should be proud.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons