Azerbaijan: A Yugoslavian Dream

by Aureliusz M. Pedziwol

On Sunday, November 5, parliamentary elections were held in Azerbaijan. The process leading up to the elections had dampened any expectations of a free and fair electoral contest. Election commissions and courts controlled by the government of President Haidar Aliyev denied most of the opposition parties and hundreds of opposition candidates a place on the ballot. Less than a month before the elections, under international pressure, Aliyev relented and allowed some, but not all of the banned parties and candidates to run. International  monitors were organized by the Council of Europe, OSCE, and the National Democratic Institute,  while a separate group of civic monitors from Eastern Europe was organized by IDEE at the request of the Dilara Aliyeva Society for the Protection of Women’s Rights.

In its brief campaign, the secular, pro-western, and pro-democratic opposition succeeded in mobilizing enough support to threaten Aliyev’s control of the new parliament through the ruling New Azerbaijan Party and its partners (including a breakaway faction of the Popular Front). As in Yugoslavia, a new movement of non-partisan civic groups arose to promote citizens’ participation in the elections and support a democratic process for achieving change (IDEE and a number of organizations in the Centers for Pluralism Network have assisted this movement with training and have shared experience through exchanges and internships).

On election day, the government organized a nation-wide campaign of blatant fraud, including ballot stuffing, police intimidation of the opposition, deterring domestic and international monitors, issuing false poll reports, and, when that wasn’t enough, outright falsification of the overall results, which were announced by the Central Election Commission in mid-afternoon (and publicized on television before the polls closed). International observers generally agree that if counted fairly the vote for the Musavat party alone was over 40 percent, and that other opposition parties also received significant votes, making the total for the opposition well over 60 percent and reducing the ruling party to a minority. The official results reported the exact opposite, with Musavat supposedly receiving less than the 5 percent required for entering parliament,  a standard for fraud that surpasses Slobodan Milosovic’s efforts earlier in the fall. Despite a campaign of peaceful protests and other pressure after the elections, the government’s results stand. In January 2001, Azerbaijan was granted full membership in the Council of Europe, despite the Council’s pledge to condition membership on free and fair elections, a move that gave legitimacy to President Aliyev’s electoral theft.

Below is a first hand account of one of the Eastern European election observers, Reporter Aureliusz M. Pedziwol, which appeared in the Polish newspaper Polytyka.

 “If tomorrow you say that Azerbaijan has taken a further step toward democracy, this will mean that you are participating in this fraud!” Jalal shouted into the mobile phone. He is speaking to Ms. Rafaello Mathey from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

 It is dark, after 8 PM. We are standing outside one of the schools in the sixth election ward in Baku, in the Ubinogin district. Precinct election commission no. 21 is located here. It is crowded. Many of the people are observers and members of the commission delegated by the political parties. At 7 PM, when voting ended, they were simply thrown out of the polling station. The police assisted those who did not leave voluntarily.

The delegate of the candidate Eldar Sabiroglu is probably the most irritated among them. “I am a member of the Party of New Azerbaijan,” he explains. JAP, Jeni Azerbejcan Partijasy, is the heavy-handed ruling party of President Heydar Aliyev. “The chairman of the commission explained he had been ordered to see that no observer remain in the building,” he explains. “As the representative of the ruling party I can state that the elections in the 21st precinct in this district were not democratic.”

Annulled signatures
It all started long before the elections, when the candidacies were announced. The Azerbaijani parliament is elected in the following way: 25 deputies are elected from party lists, which are voted on in a proportional system, while the remaining 100 are elected in single-mandate wards in a majority system (Nagorno Karabakh is not participating in the current election).

In order to participate in the elections, political parties had to collect at least fifty thousand signatures and individual candidates at least two thousand. This is where the first problems appeared. The Central Election Commission questioned such a large portion of the signatures gathered by several parties and several hundred candidates that they failed to meet the threshold.

It is easy to imagine the storm that this caused. But it turned out that the most important opposition party, Musavat, was prepared for this eventuality as prior to turning in their signature lists it made copies. Therefore, it was able to demand which of the signatures were falsified, contact the relevant person and confirm the authenticity of the signature.

Under this pressure, President Aliyev showed “good will” and asked the Central Election Commission to allow all parties to participate in the elections. This gave rise to the hope that, this time, the parliamentary elections would be more democratic than those held five years ago. As it turned out, in vain.

Some of the individual candidates denied registration also managed to get the commission to admit that they had made a mistake, but they had substantially less time for the election campaign than their competitors from JAP. For more than 400 hopefuls, however, the road to the parliament was cut off.

“This means the will of more than one million voters was ignored,” says Isa Gambar, the head of Musavat, on Sunday evening.

“My epaulettes are the law!”
The day before the election the Central Election Commission refused to register a group of several dozen international observers from Georgia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Austria and Poland sent to Azerbaijan by the U.S.-based Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE). The group had been invited to observe the elections by the Azerbaijan non-governmental organization Dilara Aliyeva Organization for the Protection of Women’s Rights (OZPZ) in accordance with the electoral law

As late as Friday, the commission assured Novella Jafarova, the head of OZPZ, that everything was in order and that the accreditation credentials could be picked up the next day. So, on Saturday the entire group went to the commission only to find out that OZPZ allegedly had no right to invite foreign observers.

All protests were ignored. The commission held firm, but the observers refused to leave. Finally, the police arrived and demand that everyone leave:

“You are not allowed within three hundred meters of the public buildings,” we are amazed to hear.
“Where is this written? Show us the law!” demands Achtim, a Tatar from Crimea.
“My epaulettes are the law!” the officer arrogantly answered.

Maria Przelomiec from the Polish Council of the European Movement (PRRE) tells a BBC correspondent over a mobile telephone what is happening. After several minutes, a Reuters correspondent and independent Azerbaijani television ANS also arrive.

It is useless. There will be no accreditation.

Pre-election “training”
An older man arrives at the building. He has been delegated by the National Front as a member of the precinct election commission no. 19 in the 18th ward. He has a complaint. His commission met in order to “train” for election day. It began with small talk and jokes. Later everyone, himself included, signed four copies of blank election records, which were then put away. They told him the records would be annulled.

“But they didn’t show them to me. Therefore, I don’t know if they were annulled or not.”

Several hours later on the evening news ANS interviews one of the observers, Petruska Sustrova, a Czech journalist, who says that there hadn’t been any problems the year before, although she was invited by the same organization.

“You cannot be observers, too bad” is how Irena Lasota, the head of IDEE, summed up the commission’s decision. Maria and Dominika go to the city of Ali-Bairamly, one hundred kilometers southwest of Baku. Petruska and Novella go forty kilometers further south to Salyan, while Kurtmolla and Marian head north to Sumgayit. The others remain in Baku.

First thing in the morning
Therefore, on Sunday morning, rather than wearing the hat of an international observer I remain in my normal journalist mode. I put a tape recorder and camera in my backpack.

People from Musavat are already waiting for us at the hotel and we head off for the party headquarters. Along the way we see that election posters have been torn down.

“They do it every night, particularly with our posters,” says one of our new friends. “And we put up new ones in the morning.”

The party’s election headquarters is located on the ground floor. I ask if anything has happened yet. Arif Gadjiyev, the head of Musavat’s election campaign says that word is coming in from all over the country about electoral law violations  and it’s only 9am.

“In more than half the precincts our observers were not allowed to enter the polling stations before they were open,” says Gadjiyev. Therefore they had no opportunity to count the number of ballots that the commission received or to verify that the ballot boxes were empty before they were sealed.

“Policemen are in almost every precinct, although this is in violation of the law,” Gadjiyev continues. “In the districts of Beylagan, Geramboy, Gubadlin and Zangelan both policemen and representatives of state government are openly filling out ballots and stuffing them in the ballot boxes. In the district of Mingechaur our observers managed to open the ballot boxes before the voting began and found one hundred ballots cast for the party of New Azerbaijan and one hundred ballots cast for this party’s candidate in the majority voting.” If that wasn’t enough, we received news that the member of the commission delegated by Musavat had been arrested.

“Get your things, we’re going there!” says one of the staff workers to a colleague from Georgia and me.

“Not detained, but detained”
In the sixth precinct in Baku’s Nizamini district, members of the precinct election commission have been squabbling since early morning. Ilham Kazimov from Musavat wanted to verify that the ballot boxes were empty before opening the polls. The chairman of the commission did not permit it. Therefore Kazimov began to record a violation of the electoral law. He never had a chance, as policemen from the 25th precinct soon appeared and took him away.

We were greeted cordially at the police station. One of the policemen allowed me to photograph a small altar devoted to the president. A large portrait of Heydar Aliyev hangs in the hallway, below which is one of his brilliant aphorisms, adorned with flowers on three stands. A second of the president’s aphorisms graces the wall opposite the entrance.

The officer-in-charge sees us in his office:

“Yes, he is here” the officer admits when we ask about Kazimov. He reaches for some papers. Finally, he finds what he’s looking for: the official record signed by all six members of the commission.

“He insulted the commission with indecent language and hindered its work,” he reads from the text.

The office-in-charge picks up the telephone. We wait. I ask if I can take a picture. “What for?” “For myself.” “Well, alright.” There is a knock at the door. Another policeman enters with Kazimov. We tell him what we found out earlier.

“It’s all lies,” he says. “I only wanted to read the section of the electoral law to the chairman that refers to the rights of observers, but he didn’t like that.”

“Since this gentleman is not being held, may he leave with us?” I ask the officer-in-charge.

Therefore, we leave Kazimov at the police station and go to his election commission. Two precinct commissions, the fifth and sixth, are located next to each other in a small, cramped hall of some office building. The chairman of the fifth commission freely discusses the course of the voting. Everything is fine, approximately ten percent of the voters have voted so far. The ballot boxes were sealed in the morning, all of the observers are able to verify that they were empty beforehand. They can confirm it.

“Yes,” admits one of them from Musavat, “they were empty.” “But,” he adds immediately, “we do not know how many ballots the commission had.”

The chairman of the sixth commission will not speak to us. He doesn’t speak Russian and does not agree to use a translator.

Scandal in precinct no. 23
We return to the headquarters of Musavat, but not for long. We receive news from another precinct that the observers there found approximately one hundred ballots in the chairman’s room. This time we go with Jalal.

Baku, Nasimi district, ward 27, precinct no. 23. We hear a row and calls for us to hurry through the commission’s door. We run into the building. Inside is a man with two big stacks of ballots. I shove a microphone at him.

“We found two packages of one hundred ballots each in the chairman’s room,” Jeyhun Ismaylov, a candidate for deputy, explains to me. “Ryezane, gatovyie shtoby bryasat”, Jalal translates from Azerbaijani to Russian. “With the corners already cut, ready to be thrown into the ballot box.” Electoral law requires the corners be cut off. All the cut corners bear an imprint. The corners are then collected separately for verification purposes. The number of corners collected by the commission must correspond to the number of ballots in the ballot box.

At this moment, one of the members of the commission grabs Ismaylov and yells in Russian:

“Ani nye ryezane, ani nye gatowe!” “Neither cut nor ready,” he yells. “Ryezane! Ryezane! Ryezane!” “Cut! Cut! Cut!” Ismaylov responds. A struggle for the ballots begins. Everyone is now yelling in Azerbaijani. Of course, I don’t understand any of it. Suddenly, Jalal leans into the microphone:

“Violence against the candidate! Violence against his delegate!” he shouts, switching to English.

Finally, the falsified ballots land on the commission’s table and we have to leave the polling station.

Lunch break
We head out of Baku, travelling north on the road to Sumgayit. First, however, we stop in Jeyranbatan. Our next goal is precinct commission no. 34 in the 46th ward of the Absheron district.

We see a broken window to the right of the door of the polling station. The glass on the ground is spotted with blood.

“What happened here?” we ask.

“During lunch, at one o’clock, we wanted to eat here,” says the commission chairman, Jamil Musayev. “We invited Sabir Gurbanov, Musavat’s observer, to eat with us. There was a man with him who was violating the electoral law so we threw him out of the polling station.”

“Both of them were standing outside in front of the window,” the chairman continues. “I was inviting him to lunch when he hit the window. The glass shattered cutting me and probably his hands. He ran off somewhere and I haven’t seen him since.”

We find Sabir Gurbanov at the police station. His hand has already been dressed. We wait for some time as they fill out the paperwork inside. Finally, he comes out and tells us what happened.

In the morning, chairman Musayev did not agree that the ballots, which were supplied to the commission, be counted. Later, attempts were made to violate the law as people tried to put two or three ballots into the ballot box, but the observers didn’t allow it.

“At 1:45 PM, another observer and I were invited to lunch in an adjacent room. We declined. They tried to force us into the room but we resisted. Finally, at 2 o’clock they showed us the door and closed the polling station,” Gurbanov told us. “We stood outside and watched the ballot box through the window. We watched as the chairman approached the box and opened it. A woman, who was not a member of the commission but present the entire day, threw a stack of ballots into the box. I began screaming “Shto dyelash?” “What are you doing?” and banging on the window. It broke.”

I have good news and bad news
11 PM. A press conference at the headquarters of Musavat.

“I have good and news and bad news” announces party head Isa Gambar to journalists. “The good news is that Musavat has won in the proportional voting.” In those places where the independent observers were able to remain in the polling stations until the results were finalized, the opposition party’s victory was obvious: Musavat received from 50 to 70 percent of the votes. These are the results coming in from all corners of Azerbaijan.

“The bad news is that nationwide the election has been a farce,” continues Gambar. “This was obvious throughout the day, but the real fraud began after 7 PM, when the vote counting started.”

“We do not believe that this election was free or fair,” says the party head a moment later. More than 400 candidates vying for seats in the parliament from the single-mandate wards were refused registration. Each of them collected approximately 2300 signatures, which means that the will of approximately one million voters was ignored, as each voter could sign only one petition. According to Gambar, it can be assumed that precisely these people would have participated in the election, as they were actively involved before the voting by supporting a specific candidate. One million people make up almost one fourth of the entire electorate. With a turnout of approximately 50 percent, this means that the will of almost half of those voting was ignored.

“Therefore, we believe that this parliament will not represent the will of the people,” concludes Isa Gambar.

“This is not about us being in the parliament. We simply want free and fair elections in Azerbaijan,” he adds a moment later.

In the provinces
Those observers who had been out in the provinces return to Baku during the night and in the morning. They had not witnessed any major violations but they did observe a wide array of voting irregularities. The scale of these irregularities is astounding. Cheating was widespread and even involved the simplest operations.

“Most notable was the wide variety of ballot boxes, which were sealed in many different ways,” says Maria Przelomiec from PRRE. “Sometimes they were simply taped closed and could be opened and closed without leaving any trace. Quite often the ballot boxes were placed several dozen meters from the independent observers so that they were unable to see how many ballots the voter was casting.”

But most interesting, in Maria’s opinion, was the discrepancy concerning voter turnout: according to some precinct commission chairmen the number of voters was as much as two times higher than that reported by commission members delegated from the opposition party. Then, in the wards, the numbers were doubled again. Well, the “additional” ballots thrown into the ballot boxes by the handful did have to be accounted for in some way.

Petruska Sustrova was amazed that in a small village where a total of 600 people live, 93 sent requests that a ballot box to sent to them because they are either elderly or too ill to go to the polling station. Therefore, they looked at these requests and noted that the same person wrote many of them and the signatures are identical. She witnessed the commission chairman tear up all the requests without a second thought. But after an hour the chairman had a new list of 78 infirm people, but this time without requests. The chairman was amazed that the observers intend to accompany the ballot boxes to these people and initially refused to permit it, but she finally gave in. A special bus arrived and took the delegation a hundred meters to the first person on the list. She wasn’t home, she had gone to Baku. The second person on the list was surprised by the visit. Moreover, she had already voted.

No more illusions
The morning dispels all final doubts and hopes. Azerbaijan state television, AzTV, announces the election results based on just one fourth of the votes counted. The governing JAP received 75 percent of the votes, the next two parties (including Musavat in third place) each received 4.5 percent, too low to enter parliament based on the 6 percent threshold.

“One would have to be blind not to see these violations,” Ivlian Haindrava, chairman of the Georgian Republican Party and an observer for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, told me later. “We found 150 ballots already filled out for the ruling party and ready to be thrown into the ballot box. They were in a safe in the chairman’s room. We forced him to hand them over,” added Manfred Müller, SPD deputy to the Bundestag and member of the joint OSCE and Council of Europe mission. Deputy Andrzej Potocki, a member of the NDI mission couldn’t believe his own eyes: “In the presence of international observers the ward commission rewrote the reports coming in from the precincts. The chairman took a seal out of his pocket and stamped them.”

“This was not a fair election. In my opinion, it should be repeated,” is how Peter Weiss, deputy to the Slovak parliament and a member of the OSCE mission, summed up the fraudulent elections in Azerbaijan. “It is my personal belief that the parliament selected in this way has no legitimacy and does not represent the people,” says Manfred Müller.

What next?
On November 10, Isa Gambar announced that the most important opposition parties decided to begin a series of street demonstrations against the regime of Aliyev. The opposition dreams of a Yugoslavian scenario of events and its representatives are not afraid to admit it.

The first demonstration, attended by 15 thousand people, was held on Saturday, November 18. The police were out in full force but did not intervene.

Demonstrations were also held in several other cities of Azerbaijan. In Sheki in the north of the country, demonstrators battled with police. The authorities announced the arrest of 26 people. Independent sources say more than 40 people were arrested.

On Sunday, in Baku, police detain Arif Hadzijev, the general secretary of Musavat, for two hours.

On Monday, several hundred people again take to the streets in Baku.

In the opinion of Etibar Mamedov, the chairman of the opposition National Party for the Independence of Azerbaijan (AMIP), the reasons for the events in Sheki are the catastrophic social situation, mass unemployment, police violence and the lawless activity of the authorities during the elections.

The general secretary of the ruling JAP, Ali Ahmedov, states that only three and a half thousand people participated in the demonstration in Baku. In his opinion, people with criminal inclinations are behind the events in Sheki. Ahmedov claims that the opposition provoked the people and money for organizing the unrest came from abroad.

Where have we heard that before?