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Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: Country Studies - Azerbaijan

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 6 Political Rights, 5 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


Azerbaijan, a small country bordering the Caspian Sea and located between Iran and Russia, had a population of 8.5 million in 2006. Despite the country's oil reserves, it remains poor. In 2006, Azerbaijan ranked only 134th ($1,850) for gross national income (GNI) per capita, and 124th ($5,960) for GNI measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), which is readjusted to consider inflation and other factors. As of 2002, the International Monetary Fund estimated that nearly half the population lived in poverty. Azerbaijan's primary export is oil, and oil production has increased every year since 1997. The country is expected to become a major oil and natural gas supplier in the 21st century.


Azerbaijan lies at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. As such, its history has been influenced from all directions: Arabia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. Before being forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921, Azerbaijan established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, which existed from 1918 to 1920.

Before being forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921, Azerbaijan established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, which existed from 1918 to 1920.
The country regained independence in August 1991. Until then, Azerbaijan's population was mixed, with large Armenian and Russian communities and smaller groups from around the Caucasus. A major conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenians and Azeris led to the mass migration of Azeris and Armenians across borders. Azerbaijan lost one-fifth of its territory as Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent and Armenian forces seized surrounding territory.

After regaining independence, Azerbaijan enjoyed just one year of democratic rule. In 1993, the former first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Haidar Aliyev, organized a coup that was backed by Russia. Since then, the country has been under dictatorial rule by the Aliyev family (Haidar was succeeded by his son Ilham in 2003). Although elections have been regular, none have been free or fair. Tactics such as police repression, intimidation, and control over the electoral process and the state-run media have ensured that control remains with the Aliyevs.


From the First Kingdom to the Arabic Conquests The first state on Azerbaijani territory was the Kingdom of Mannae, which ruled from the 10th to the eighth centuries BC. Thereafter, Azerbaijan became the subject of perpetual invasion, occupation, and foreign influence.

In the sixth century BC, the leader of the Achaemenid Persians, Cyrus the Great, conquered the territory, making it a satrap of Persia's Achaemenid dynasty (see "Consent of the Governed," Country Study of Iran). It was then that Zoroastrianism was introduced as the dominant religion, and its traditions can still be felt in modern-day Azerbaijan. Between 334 and 330 BC, Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia, swept over the Persian Empire. After the division of Alexander's empire upon his death in 323 BC, an independent Albanian kingdom survived for several centuries before parts of its territory were conquered by the Armenians, then by the Romans in the first century BC, and then by the Persian Sassanid Empire in the fourth century AD.

Between the seventh and the 11th centuries AD, Azerbaijan was controlled by Arabs, who introduced Islam and were responsible for converting most Azeris to Islam. Arab control ended in the mid–11th century with the takeover of Azerbaijan by the Seljuk Empire, which was established by Oghuz Turks and spread from Central Asia to Anatolia (see "Minority Rights," Country Study of Turkey). Although Azerbaijan was an area of constant travel and migration, with different Caucasian, Central Asian, European, and Turkic peoples crossing and settling, the most dominant modern ethnic and political influences were from the Oghuz Turks, who introduced the current language, customs, and Turkic identification of the Azeri population.

The Mongol Conquests, Turkic and Persian Dynasties, and Russia

Following the Mongol conquests of the region in the 13th and 14th centuries, Turkic and Persian dynasties reascended and ruled much of the Caucasus, eastern Turkey, and the Middle East. When the Safavid dynasty in Persia adopted Shia Islam as its ruling theology in 1501, it converted Azeris and others under its influence. Yet most of the Turkic world remained Sunni. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottomans and Persians fought for control over much of Central Asia, including Azerbaijan. Beginning in the early 18th century, Azeri territory became the object of competition between Russia, which dominated northern Azerbaijan, and a revived Persia, which dominated southern Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani territory was formally divided between Russia and Persia through the treaties of Gulistan in 1813 and Turkmenchay in 1828. In northern Azerbaijan, which later became the present-day state of Azerbaijan, the exploitation of oil beginning in the 1870s led to a period of economic modernization before World War I. Southern Azerbaijan was incorporated into and remains part of Iran.

The First Democratic Republic in the Muslim World

The overthrow of the Russian tsar in 1917 and the end of World War I gave Azeris the opportunity to establish their long-held dream of national independence. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established in 1918, guided by the ideas of Mammad Amin Rasulzade, leader of the Musavat Party, which aimed to establish an independent Azeri state. The constitution established a parliamentary system of government with universal suffrage, including for women, making Azerbaijan the first democracy in the Muslim world.

The Long Soviet Nightmare

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic lasted for only two years. At first, Azerbaijan succeeded in repelling the forces of the Soviet Red Army. Yet, as with Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan eventually fell under renewed attack beginning in April 1920. In 1922, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were formally united as the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, becoming part of the Soviet Union. In 1936, they became Soviet Socialist Republics. The 70-year period of Soviet rule was a harsh one. Initially, Rasulzade was forced into exile. Azerbaijan's liberal economy was destroyed. Every aspect of life came under the control of the Communist Party and the revolution's "sword and shield," the KGB.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

By 1988, however, the Soviet Union was fraying. An Armenian national movement arose in Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population, seeking union with Armenia. Attacks by both Azeris and Armenians against members of the other group sparked armed interethnic conflict. In December 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh National Council declared independence, initiating a full-scale war between Armenian and Azeri forces, in which the Russian Federation sided with Armenia. Thousands were killed in the conflict, and hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azeris were displaced. A May 1994 cease-fire, still in effect, left Nagorno-Karabakh de facto independent under the control of ethnic Armenians, although without international recognition. Armenian armed forces continue to occupy an additional 20 percent of Azerbaijan as a security zone and corridor to Armenia. Efforts to resolve the conflict by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been fruitless.


Azerbaijan Regains Independence

The Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan (each republic in the Soviet Union had its own supreme soviet, or national parliament) declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991 following the failed coup attempt in August 1989 against Mikhail Gorbachev. The main force behind independence was the Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF), formed in 1989 ("popular front" was a common name adopted by reform and independence movements in the fracturing Soviet Union). Even after elections in 1990, Azerbaijan's Supreme Soviet was still dominated by Communists, and Ayaz Mutalibov, the leader of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and later the president of Azerbaijan, had initially backed the coup against Gorbachev. However, the APF's growing level of public support enabled the party to push for a declaration of independence, which was overwhelmingly ratified in a public referendum in December 1991.

Interethnic conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh contributed to political instability in newly independent Azerbaijan. President Mutalibov was forced to resign in the midst of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, allowing the national council to hold presidential elections in May and June of 1992. Following a brief attempt by Communists to reinstate Mutalibov as president, which elicited stark criticism from his opponents, Abulfaz Elchibey, the founder and chairman of the APF, was elected president in June 1992 with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Azerbaijan's Second Brief Period of Liberalism

Elchibey adopted the liberal ideology of Azerbaijan's earlier independence leader, Mammad Amin Rasulzade, and initiated a range of liberal legislation covering the economy, media, education, and social welfare. In this liberalized environment, an independent media emerged and new parties, unions, and public associations were formed. In foreign policy, Elchibey negotiated the withdrawal of Russian military forces in Azerbaijan, the first post-Soviet republic to do so. However, this democratic moment, like that under Rasulzade, was brief. Elchibey was unable to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or stem the losses for Azerbaijan, leading to a loss of public support. Russia took advantage of Elchibey's weakness and sought to undermine his leadership.

Ilham Aliyev

The Return to Dictatorship

In May 1993, Haidar Aliyev, the former first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and former head of the republic's KGB, organized a coup that was backed by Russian security forces under the pretext of saving Azerbaijan from political chaos and war. In response to the advance of rebel forces on the capital, Baku, in June 1993, Elchibey fled to his home region of Nakhchivan and was formally deposed in August 1993. In October 1993, Aliyev was officially elected as president for a five-year term, claiming to have received 98 percent of the vote. From that point forward, elections in Azerbaijan have been regular but neither free nor fair. The political system has become fully controlled by the Aliyev clan.

After seizing power, Aliyev called for parliamentary elections in November 1995, which did not meet international standards for fairness and further solidified the pattern of nondemocratic elections. The government's electoral council prevented four parties from participating and prevented 63 percent of the candidates from running. Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) claimed most of the legislative seats.

Aliyev was reelected president in 1998 in an election that permitted opposition candidates to run, including the main opposition leader, Isa Gambar, who had been the Speaker of parliament under the Elchibey government and was the leader of the revived Musavat Party. Aliyev was announced the winner with approximately 75 percent of the vote. However, international monitors observed widespread instances of fraud and irregularities and concluded that the election did not meet international norms. Parliamentary elections in November 2000 were equally flawed. International monitors observed significant irregularities, including the disqualification of numerous candidates, ballot box stuffing, ballot manipulation, a flawed counting process, and restrictions on domestic observers.

The Method of Power

In all of Azerbaijan's elections since independence from the Soviet Union, government control over electoral laws and procedures, the state media, and, not least, the police denied any possibility of fair campaigning or electoral results. Yet even with such control over the electoral process, authorities routinely resorted to illegal means to produce results favorable to the government.

In all of Azerbaijan's elections since independence from the Soviet Union, government control over electoral laws and procedures, the state media, and, not least, the police denied any possibility of fair campaigning or electoral results.
Journalists have been subject to harassment and intimidation, opposition candidates have been disqualified, and monitors have not been permitted to observe all stages of the election, particularly the tabulation of votes. A great deal of the fraud has occurred at the regional election centers, where numbers have been simply written in to reflect a quota system established by the ruling party. The absence of consistent international pressure has enabled the government to maintain its control. For example, Azerbaijan became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001 despite the country's fraudulent elections, which were criticized by the Council's own observers for not meeting international standards for fairness.

Elections Are Not the Proper Term

The pattern of manipulation by the government has continued. A referendum for amendments to the 1995 constitution was organized in 2002 with the aim of amending the succession law to make it easier for Aliyev to choose his successor, in this case Ilham Aliyev, his inexperienced son. With this new power, Aliyev appointed his son prime minister in August 2003. Aliyev then withdrew his candidacy in the October 2003 presidential election in favor of Ilham. The main opposition candidate in the 2003 election was once again Isa Gambar, although at that point he was the single candidate of the Musavat Party and Our Azerbaijan, a multiparty opposition coalition. Gambar remained committed to bringing democracy back to Azerbaijan through the election.

Again, however, the chances were stacked in favor of Ilham Aliyev. The insurmountable difficulty was that the government nominated the majority of the members of the electoral commissions (there was a three-tiered system to administer the elections at different levels of government) and access by both domestic and international observers was sometimes limited. Not surprisingly, Aliyev was declared the victor with 77 percent of the vote while Gambar was given 14 percent. As with previous elections, domestic and international observers severely criticized the election, reporting instances of preelection intimidation, limits on public rallies, and flaws in the tabulation of votes. Following demonstrations in Baku after the election, more than 700 opposition activists were arrested, some of whom remained in prison throughout the year. The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe's observer group concluded that "if the word 'elections' is to retain its meaning, the events of October 15 in Azerbaijan must be described by a different term."

Parliamentary elections in November 2005 were also flawed and did not meet international standards for fairness. Members of Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party secured the vast majority of legislative seats. Many of the leading opposition activists were detained for much of the period; heightened repression intimidated local activists and further weakened opposition party structures. Press freedoms were greatly restricted in advance of the November election, and the main opposition paper (Yeni Musavat) was forced to stop publication for a few months in early 2005 following libel charges. In October, prior to the election, Aliyev arrested members of the government, including the ministers of health and economic development, on accusations of organizing a coup, thus further consolidating his control over the government. It is unclear if the conditions exist in Azerbaijan for significant democratic opposition in the future.


Despite the large potential for wealth from Azerbaijan's vast oil and natural gas reserves, the country has become one of the region's poorest during the post-Soviet era, measured by the percentage of poor or by per capita income. In general, corruption is pervasive throughout the country. Azerbaijan ranked 150th (out of 179 countries) on Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, placing it among the most corrupt states globally. Instead of growing up in a democracy, a new generation has now been raised in a post-Soviet dictatorship.