On 1 November Azerbaijan will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. The results are unlikely to break the established pattern of the presidential New Azerbaijan Party sharing the 125-seat parliament with ‘loyal opposition’ parties and pro-regime ‘independents’. More genuinely oppositional parties Musavat and the Popular Front have for many years been reduced to largely symbolic opposition. New opposition parties seeking to re-negotiate the terms of party politics have been removed from the political arena. REAL (Republican Alternative), a political movement established in 2009, saw its leader, Ilgar Mammedov, sentenced to seven years in March 2014; he is reported as having been severely beaten up in prison on 16 October. REAL has said it will not recognize the election result, while Musavat has declared a boycott.
The election follows an unprecedented period of polarization between Azerbaijan and Western interlocutors. In July-August the rushed mid-summer trials and imprisonment, after prolonged pre-trial detentions, of well-known human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova further inflamed mounting international criticism of Azerbaijan’s lock-down on independent civil society.
The Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe in June and the European Parliament in September issued robustly worded resolutions itemizing a long list of human rights and legislative concerns. In October the Council of Europe withdrew its participation from a working group on human rights aimed at re-establishing dialogue between the authorities and civil society. The EU’s relations with Azerbaijan are at standstill. The OSCE announced in September that for the first time it would not field an observer mission, citing governmental interference in the numbers of observers to be fielded. This decision followed the closure of the OSCE’s Project Coordinator’s Office in Baku in July. Independent domestic observers of the 1 November poll will be more isolated than they have ever been.
Challenges of change
Yet the struggle to legitimate or condemn the November poll obscures more important challenges underlying contemporary Azerbaijani politics. A first challenge is to manage public expectations in a situation where previously unlimited resources are now limited. Azerbaijan’s social contract in the era of oil windfalls has relied more on a paternalistic public expenditure model than a ‘taxation for representation’ model. President Ilham Aliyev now has to manage a slowing economy with fewer resources amid both public anxiety and frustration.
A second and related challenge is to contain elite divisions that would make public anger available for competitive mobilization. The ruling elite in Azerbaijan has been remarkably cohesive over the last 15 years. Part of the reason is the cost of breaking rank, as the scandal that followed Azerbaijani diplomat Arif Mammedov’s public criticism of government over a 28 May high-rise fire in Baku, in which faulty building materials were held responsible for the deaths of 16 people, indicates. Mammedov was recalled from his post as Azerbaijan’s representative at the Organization of the Islamic Conference and proceedings against him on corruption charges were subsequently opened.
These developments reflect the fact that Azerbaijan’s insulation from regional and global trends has never looked so fragile, as the country comes under unprecedented fiscal pressures arising from the prolonged decline in the oil price. Surprise and dismay greeted the February devaluation of the manat, in which the national currency lost a third of its value, unexpectedly lending the multi-billion outlay in hosting June’s European Games an air of ill-timed extravagance. In August the death in custody of a young man, Bahruz Haciyev, in Mingechevir led to street clashes between residents and police. At least eight people have immolated themselves in protest at bureaucratic malpractice since the beginning of 2014.
Tensions are evident in the mixed messages emanating from the Azerbaijani establishment. That the decision was taken to continue with controversial civil society trials bound to invite international opprobrium is evidence of jangled nerves that the government could meet a fate similar to Viktor Yanukovych’s regime in nearby Ukraine. On the other hand, the Azerbaijani government has undertaken a number of moves to assuage public opinion. President Ilham Aliyev allegedly intervened personally to ensure that Mingechevir’s police chief was relieved of his duties after the August clashes in the city. In the run-up to the November election a flurry of new laws improving conditions for businesses have been announced, and licence-granting rights transferred from the Ministry of Economic Development to the widely acclaimed ‘ASAN’ public service centres, Azerbaijan’s showcase anti-corruption initiative comprising a cash-free ‘one-stop shop’ for more than 200 services.
Of course promises will be made during election campaigns. Yet the demonstrative purge of the Ministry of National Security, involving the firing of the minister and numerous high-ranking personnel, has sent a powerful message two weeks prior to election-day that there are now fewer ‘untouchables’, even among loyalists.
The dilemmas of managed change
President Ilham Aliyev’s preferred change strategy appears to be the gradual transformation of Azerbaijan’s elite through the managed introduction of more reform-minded figures. There is little evidence so far to suggest that this strategy can work outside of ‘softer’ policy portfolios such as education, youth and culture. It is also uncertain whether in a more economically constrained situation, elite cohesion can be maintained while shearing off its more corrupt elements.
Elite divisions could potentially render competitive party politics, and hence parliamentary elections, more relevant as a forum for the negotiation of change. The risk, however, is that party politics and civil society at large have been so thoroughly de-institutionalized that a new competitive politics could be difficult to contain. Whether, and how, change can be negotiated within a single elite or between competing elites therefore remain outstanding questions in Azerbaijani politics regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s poll.
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