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

Azerbaijan Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016. Status: Not Free. Freedom Rating: 6; Political Rights: 6; Civil Liberties: 6



Azerbaijan lies at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, located on the coast of the Caspian Sea with Russia and Iran to the north and south, and Georgia and Armenia to the northwest and west. Situated as such, Azerbaijan’s history has been influenced from all directions by Arabia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. Before being forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921, Azerbaijan had established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, which existed from 1918 to 1920.

The country regained independence in August 1991 as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Until then, Azerbaijan's population was diverse, with large Armenian and Russian populations. A conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenians and Azeris resulted in mass migration of Azeris and Armenians across borders. Azerbaijan lost one-fifth of its territory after Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent and Armenian forces, backed by Russia, seized surrounding territory for a land corridor. Active hostilities have ceased (although with some flare-ups), but the international status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved.

Azerbaijan enjoyed just over one year of democratic rule following independence. In 1993, the former secret police chief and first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Haidar Aliyev, seized power after a military insurrection backed by Russia. Since then, the country has been under dictatorial rule by the Aliyev family (Haidar was succeeded as president by his son in 2003). Formal elections have been regular, but none have been free or fair. Police repression, intimidation, and control over the electoral process and the state-run media have ensured that the Aliyevs and their allies maintain political control.

Azerbaijan is a small country in area (112th in the world in size at 86,600 square kilometers) as well as in population (9.7 million people, ranked 91st). The country's large oil and gas reserves, however, have placed the country in the upper half of the world’s economy. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked Azerbaijan 69th in the world in total GDP in nominal measurement (approximately $74 billion in total output). Due to increased oil production over the last decade, the country’s per capita gross national income, ranked in nominal terms, improved to 78th (approximately $6,800 per annum). Disparity of income, however, is quite high, especially comparing urban and rural populations.

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.


From the First Kingdom to the 20th Century 

The first state on Azerbaijani territory was the Kingdom of Mannae, which ruled from the 10th to the 8th centuries BC. Thereafter, Azerbaijan became the subject of repeated invasion, occupation, and foreign influence. The Persian leader Cyrus the Great conquered the territory in the sixth century BC, followed by Alexander the Great in the mid-4th century BC. After the Seleucid dynasty, an independent kingdom survived two centuries before parts were conquered in turn by the Armenians, the Romans (in the first century BC), and the Persian Sassanid Empire (in the fourth century AD). 

Azerbaijan was seized in the Arab conquests in the 7th century AD and most Azeris converted to Islam. In the mid-11th century, the Oghuz Turks expanded the Seljuk Empire from Central Asia to Anatolia and took over much of Azerbaijan. It introduced the current language, customs, and Turkic identification of the Azeri population. Like much of Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries, Azerbaijan fell to the Mongol army and thereafter came under the rule of the Safavid dynasty in Persia. In 1501, it adopted Shi’a Islam as its ruling theology and converted Azeris and others under its influence (most of the Turkic world remained Sunni). Beginning in the early 18th century, Russia and a revived Persia vied for Azeri territory and it was formally divided in treaties signed in 1813 and 1828. Northern Azerbaijan, corresponding to the country’s current boundaries, was under Russian influence. It began exploitation of oil beginning in the 1870s, which led to a period of economic modernization. Baku, the capital, of Azerbaijan, became an important economic center before World War I, renowned for its cosmopolitan and diverse society, including a large Jewish minority. Southern Azerbaijan remained under Persian control and was incorporated into current-day Iran, where two thirds of Azeri-speaking people live. 

The First Democratic Republic in the Muslim World 

The overthrow of the Russian tsar in 1917 and the end of World War I in 1918 gave Azeris the opportunity to establish their long-held aspiration of national independence. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established in 1918 under the leadership of Mammad Amin Rasulzade, who had created the Musavat Party in 1911 on a platform of Western liberal values. From 1918-20, Azerbaijan was the first and at that time the only democracy in the Muslim world. A liberal constitution was adopted instituting a parliamentary system of government and protections for basic freedoms. The constitution also adopted universal suffrage, extending the right to vote to women before many states in Europe. 

The Long Soviet Nightmare 

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic lasted for only two years. Buffeted by the turmoil of the Russian Civil War, the government collapsed and the Bolshevik Red Army seized control of the republic in April 1920. In 1922, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were joined together as the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic and incorporated within the Soviet Union. In 1936, the three countries were made separate Soviet Socialist Republics. The 70-year period of Soviet rule was severe. Musavat’s leaders and activists, and many thousands of ordinary citizens, were imprisoned and often perished in prison and labor camps. Tens of thousands more were deported to Central Asia and Siberia, where they often did not survive the harsh conditions. All property was seized and collectivized. Every aspect of life came under the control of the Communist Party and the KGB secret police. So-called “elections” were held routinely, but only to force citizens to vote for the Communist Party, which held supreme power under the Soviet Constitution. Musavat leader Mammad Amin Rasulzade was initially imprisoned but later escaped to Turkey. There and elsewhere in Europe he led international anti-Soviet and anti-Fascist political movements in exile. Back in Turkey, he reformed Musavat with other ex-patriots in exile, where it continued to organize opposition to Soviet rule. 

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Restoration of Independence 

By 1988, the Soviet Union was fraying. Communist General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had adopted the reform policies of glasnost and perestroika to try to stem the USSR’s economic and political collapse. Taking advantage of the openings these policies allowed, Azeris and other nationalities throughout the Soviet Union formed national popular front movements to push for greater autonomy and then independence. The leaders of the Azerbaijan Popular Front, who had been active in the dissident movement, based the Popular Front platform on the original Musavat Party and its liberal heritage. 

At the same time, the national movement in Armenia had sparked a separatist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijan SSR but with a majority Armenian population that sought union with Armenia. Until 1988, Azerbaijan had a diverse population with large Armenian and Russian communities as well as other Caucasian ethnic minorities. Attacks by both Azeris and Armenians against members of the other group resulted in the migration of Armenian and Azeri communities across borders. The Soviet Union used the pretext of ethnic conflict to crack down on large national protests for independence held in Baku and impose martial law in January 1990. 

Under Soviet elections held in 1990, Azerbaijan's Supreme Soviet was still dominated by Communists, but some opposition members had gained seats and succeeded in gaining a declaration of autonomy. In August 1991, Ayaz Mutalibov, the Azerbaijan Communist Party general secretary, was one of two republic leaders to back the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow aimed at preserving the Soviet Union. But he quickly reversed course when it failed in the face of mounting demonstrations organized by the Azerbaijan Popular Front movement. To preserve his own power, Mutalibov dissolved the Azerbaijan Communist Party and immediately held a single-candidate presidential election in September. As the Azerbaijan Popular Front’s public support grew, the Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet now issued a declaration of Independence on October 18. The decision was overwhelmingly ratified by public referendum in December 1991. By default, Mutalibov became the first president of independent Azerbaijan.

In December 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh National Council also declared independence, initiating a full-scale war between Armenian and Azeri forces in which the Russian Federation sided with Armenia. The conflict, which ultimately cost thousands of lives and displaced tens of thousands more, would have a profound impact on the future politics of Azerbaijan.


Azerbaijan, having little history of sovereignty and dominated for most of its history by foreign powers, established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world in 1918 and held elections with universal suffrage. But the democratic republic survived only two years before the Bolshevik Red Army imposed Soviet communist rule, under which false single-party elections were held for 70 years. The Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF), inspired by the memory of first Democratic Republic, successfully pressed the Soviet parliament to declare independence in October 1991, which was approved overwhelmingly in a popular referendum in December. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan enjoyed only a brief second period of liberal democracy before being taken over by a dictatorship similar to those in other post-Soviet republics. 

Azerbaijan's Second Brief Period of Liberalism 

The new independent state declared in October 1991 remained ruled by an undemocratically elected president, the former communist leader Ayaz  Mutalibov, and a ruling national council he appointed. The Popular Front movement succeeded in pressing the national council to call a new presidential election for June 7, 1992. Abulfaz Elchibey, a former Soviet dissident and the founder and chairman of the Popular Front, won Azerbaijan’s first free presidential election with 61 percent of the vote against four candidates. No parliamentary elections were held but a new national parliament, or Mejlis, was formed based on existing members of the Supreme Soviet, including a majority of Popular Front and other opposition members.

Elchibey and the Popular Front had adopted the liberal ideology of Azerbaijan's earlier independence leader, Mammad Amin Rasulzade. As in the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, the Mejlis adopted legislation guaranteeing freedom of expression, assembly, and association and liberalizing the economy. In this free environment, an independent media emerged and other new parties, unions, and public associations were formed. The new speaker of the parliament, Isa Gambar, led the re-establishment of the Musavat Party and was elected Musavat’s first chairman. In foreign policy, Elchibey negotiated the withdrawal of Russian military forces in Azerbaijan, the first post-Soviet republic to do so.

Ilham Aliyev

 The Return to Dictatorship

As in 1918-20, however, Azerbaijan’s second democratic moment was brief. President Elchibey was unable to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or stem losses against Armenian forces (one-fifth of Azerbaijani territory was seized for a land-corridor to the separatist republic). Just one year after his election, in June 1993, he faced a military insurrection, led by a former Soviet commander and backed by Russia. To forestall bloodshed, Elchibey fled to his home region of Nakhichevan. In this situation, Haidar Aliyev, who had headed Azerbaijan’s KGB and also served as a member of the Soviet Politburo, took power as interim leader and quickly held an election for president in October 1993. Aliyev had only token opposition and he claimed a Soviet era-style 98 percent of the vote. He then took full control of the parliament, broadcast media, and security services, which he used to repress opposition parties, independent newspapers, and trade unions.

Parliamentary elections were held in November 1995 together with a referendum on a new constitution institutionalizing authoritarian presidential power. Opposition parties competed in a completely unfair setting: the government's Central Election Commission (CEC) disallowed 63 percent of the candidates who petitioned to run; Musavat leaders were arrested or barred from traveling outside the capital; and election activities and rallies were disrupted by police. With the CEC controlling voting procedures and counting, Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party “won” a large majority of the legislative seats and the referendum passed with a reported 91 percent of the population in favor. The 1998 presidential election was boycotted by Musavat and other political parties to protest the adoption of an undemocratic electoral law that provided no safeguards for a free and fair ballot. In a small field, Aliyev was declared the winner with 75 percent of the vote. While international monitors determined that the election process was unfair and that elections did not meet international norms, Western governments recognized Aliyev’s “re-election.”

An Opposition Challenge to the Regime

Although conditions remained unfair, opposition parties decided to compete in the November 2000 parliamentary elections. Despite active government repression, an opposition coalition led by the Musavat Party carried out a vigorous campaign. Mass rallies indicated widespread support for the opposition, but again control over the electoral process determined the result: the New Azerbaijan Party was declared the winner, with only a few opposition members allowed seats. International monitors observed numerous irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, ballot manipulation, a flawed counting process, and restrictions on domestic observers. An independent alternative count indicated that the democratic coalition had in fact won a majority of votes cast.

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 elections.

Elections “Must Be Described by a Different Term”

In August 2003, after another rigged referendum amended the constitution to allow Haidar Aliyev to more easily arrange a successor, he appointed his son, Ilham, as prime minister. He then resigned as president in favor of Ilham, who replaced his father on the ballot for the presidential election to be held in October. The main opposition candidate was Isa Gambar, running as the single candidate of an opposition coalition led by the Musavat party. Again, government control over broadcast media and police repression at every turn placed enormous obstacles to organizing election activities. Nevertheless, the opposition coalition succeeded in carrying out an effective campaign that culminated in huge electoral rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters. On election day, October 15, the CEC quickly declared Ilham Aliyev the official victor with a supposed 77 percent. Gambar was said to receive just 14 percent. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Baku to protest the clearly fabricated results and the stealing of the election but these were put down with brutal force. Following the protests, more than 700 opposition activists were arrested and many were sentenced to harsh prison terms. Observers from the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe 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."

The Further Consolidation of Dictatorship

Parliamentary elections in both November 2005 and 2010 were even more rigged than previous ones. The democratic opposition was both battered by repression and fractured as a result of infiltration and police manipulation and could not mount as serious a challenge as in 2000 or 2003. There were no longer even any token opposition members of parliament. In 2008, Ilham Aliyev handily “won” presidential elections  against marginal candidates, supposedly with 87.5 percent of the vote. He then pushed through a referendum removing the two-term limit for the presidency and thus the last remaining constitutional limitation on his rule. He ran for another five-year term in an election held in October 2013. According to official returns, Aliyev won 84.5 percent of the vote. A united opposition candidate, Jamil Hasanli, a well-known filmmaker, got just 5.5 percent. It was later discovered that the Central Electoral Commission had input the figure of 72.5 percent for Aliyev in a smartphone “app” days prior to the election, but apparently not even this margin of victory was sufficient to satisfy the incumbent. International observers from the OSCE documented “widespread irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and . . . fraudulent counting.” It also stated that the election “was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association . . . voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment.”

Current Issues

In all of Azerbaijan's elections since the 1993 coup, government control over electoral procedures, the state media, and, not least, the police denied any possibility of free or fair elections. Today, Azerbaijan is under the full political and economic control of President Ilham Aliyev and the Aliyev “clan,” made up of family members and his closest backers in the security forces and state oil sector.  While his father, the ex-Soviet communist party and KGB chief Haidar Aliyev, put in place the basic features of Azerbaijan’s dictatorship after his 1993 coup, Ilham Aliyev has successfully institutionalized and extended its repressive features. Civic groups and political parties continue to oppose the government and press for democratic change and human rights, however their members are increasingly put in jail, harassed, or forced into exile. The space for open criticism and activity has been greatly narrowed.

Starting in 2009 with the passage of a law on NGOs that placed restrictions on receiving foreign money, the government has steadily increased repression on civic associations, independent trade unions, and political parties. Even as Azerbaijan assumed the position of the rotating Council of Europe presidency in 2014, the regime heightened the campaign of repression by putting in jail many of the country’s most well-known civic and human rights defenders: these included the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus; the human rights lawyer Rasul Jafarov; and the head of the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety, Emil Huseynov. There is effectively no independent media. Only small newspapers are allowed and even then, many journalists from independent news outlets are imprisoned, including internet bloggers. As described by a BBC report (see Resources), “Over the last two years dozens of journalists, opposition activists and bloggers have been arrested in Azerbaijan, accused of possessing drugs or weapons . . . [o]r charged with hooliganism.” While Leyla and Arif Yunus were released from prison in late 2015 after two years of hard-regime imprisonment, they were in weak physical condition due to poor medical treatment for severe heart illnesses. Meanwhile, a journalist for Radio Free Europe, Khadija Ismailova, was sentenced to 7½ years’ imprisonment in September 2015 for her articles reporting on the vast wealth and corruption of the Aliyev family and his government supporters. Many other journalists and political activists remain in prison. There is little criticism of Azerbaijan by European institutions or the U.S. government for such human rights violations. One reason is Azerbaijan’s successful “caviar diplomacy” — the government’s effort to solicit support among Western politicians through expensive trips and other forms of bribes (see, for example, the article in the Guardian in Resources). 

The regime’s hold over oil resources and its use of revenues for construction of large “modern” buildings in Baku is constant. The cost, however, has been large: many of the capital’s old neighborhoods and much of the city’s fin-de-siecle architecture has been destroyed. And, in fact, economic conditions for most in the country, including Baku’s citizens, are desperate, sparking ongoing protests. In January 2016, a series of protests organized in the regions against shortages in basic goods were attacked by police and forcibly dispersed. Due to social media postings of the demonstrations and the police attacks, the head of the presidential administration announced new limits on the internet.

Elections continue to be regular, unfair, and unfree, serving merely to provide the appearance of legitimacy for the dictatorship of Ilham Aliyev and to institutionalize its rule. The November 1 2015 parliamentary elections saw little competition and YAP continued to take a decisive majority of seats, while so-called independents tied to the government won most of the other seats. The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights did not even observe the elections due to restrictions placed by the Azerbaijan government, which had earlier closed the OSCE’s office in Baku. As Arif Hajili, the new chairman of Musavat, stated, “The situation is worse than after the Soviet elections of 1990. Today, there are not even any opposition members.” A number of leaders and activists of Musavat remain in jail as political prisoners charged falsely with trumped up charges. But there is also a cumulative effect of repression: hundreds of Musavat activists imprisoned since 1995 are generally unemployed, unable to find work. “They have given up everything to defend democracy,” Hajili states.