Ilham Aliyev, voted, Khankendi, Azerbaijan
Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, voted in Khankendi, Azerbaijan, on February 7, 2024. Photo credit: President of Azerbaijan (CC BY 4.0 DEED)

With more than half the world holding elections in 2024, Azerbaijan finds itself, free-and-fairwise, somewhere in the middle.

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Roughly half the world’s population — more than 4 billion people in at least 50 different countries — will be voting in elections this year. How many of those elections will be truly democratic is anyone’s guess. 

China came close to threatening open warfare against Taiwan if voters chose the wrong candidate. In that case, the intimidation didn’t work: Voters picked the candidate that Beijing did not want. 

That kind of free expression won’t work in Hong Kong, where any politician who strays past the government line is almost guaranteed to end up in prison. The same is true in Russia, where Vladimir Putin expects to be confirmed as president-for-life in less-than-free elections this March. 

As for open discussions on policy in Russia, criticize the war in Ukraine and you will very likely wake up in Siberia or worse. Russia’s leading dissident, Alexei Navalny, might have had something to say about that, if he hadn’t died after being condemned to a gulag north of the Arctic Circle. His crime was posing a credible candidacy against Putin. 

Such extremes stand out, but most of the world’s voters will find themselves caught in the middle, somewhere between freedom of choice and intimidation.

The incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev, who has led the country for the last 20 years, handily won re-election on February 7, with roughly 92.5 percent of the vote. The runner-up received just 2 percent.

Hardly anyone wants to be called a dictator anymore. In the “managed” version of pseudo-democracy, everyone is encouraged to vote, while any candidate who raises too many inconvenient policy issues risks being jailed, shot, or simply “disappeared.” In most of these cases, the choice is between an establishment-appointed incumbent and an array of bland, implausible, and/or semi-repugnant candidates who have no chance of winning. 

Although these “imitation” democracies are not real, they can serve a larger geopolitical purpose in providing a facade behind which dictatorships and genuine democracies can coexist as partners in international institutions that are forced to function in an increasingly interconnected global economy.

Azerbaijan’s recent presidential election is a case in point. Until 1991, Azerbaijan was a Soviet satellite. Today, it’s a supposedly independent nation, with a population of just over 10 million people and around 4 million registered voters.The incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev, who at 62 has led the country for the last 20 years, handily won reelection on February 7, with roughly 92.5 percent of the vote. The runner-up received just 2 percent.]

Short of a revolution, Aliyev can expect to be in office for the next seven years — the normal term for a president in Azerbaijan. The country previously limited its presidents to two terms in office, but the rules were changed in 2009. There is effectively only one functional political party in Azerbaijan, Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, which is not exactly new. Over the last 40 years, Azerbaijan has been run pretty much as a family enterprise. For the Aliyev clan it has proved a lucrative undertaking.

Opposition parties and European observers have pointed out that this election was undoubtedly just as rigged as previous elections in Azerbaijan; but, beyond complaining, hardly anyone seems ready to do anything about it. 

In 2013, Eurasianet, which covers politics in the Caucasus, reported that a new government-approved smartphone app was reporting final election results a day before the voting actually started. Even the voter turnout this time around, which the government reported to be 75 percent, was considered suspect. Why would such a large segment of Azerbaijan’s public even bother to go to the trouble of voting in an election that had no interesting candidates and whose outcome was already decided in advance?

Azerbaijan’s election were originally scheduled for next year, but Aliyev decided to hold snap elections a year early in order to take advantage of the popularity boost that followed the government’s decision last September to force some 120,000 Armenians out of the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and reclaim the territory for Azerbaijan.

Despite the boost in popularity, Eurasianet noted that Aliyev’s supporters were apparently not willing to take any chances. They reportedly engaged in ballot stuffing and “carousel voting,” whereby the same voters were spotted making the rounds of multiple polling places, voting in each one. 

According to Eurasianet, some of the ballot stuffing was even recorded on closed-circuit television. Closed-circuit video cameras had been installed in roughly a thousand of Azerbaijan’s 6,300 polling stations, supposedly in order to build public confidence in the process. It’s anyone’s guess as to what happened in the 5,300 polling stations that had no cameras. 

Ballot stuffing was hardly necessary. Aliyev’s repressive tactics had silenced any journalists bold enough to criticize the election process or Aliyev’s perpetual candidacy. The rest of the media had also been intimidated into silence. In case anyone doubted the seriousness of the government’s intentions, Azerbaijan has an estimated 200 political prisoners who are already behind bars. The six candidates selected to run against Aliyev made no policy recommendations and held back from criticizing Aliyev. That helps explain why the top runner-up scored a whopping 2 percent of the vote.

Although Aliyev’s 20 years in office looks impressive, he is, in fact, the second member of what is beginning to look like an established dynasty. Azerbaijan has been there before. Throughout most of the 19th century, Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Qajar dynasty in Iran. Its importance stemmed from its strategic location on the frontier between Asia and Europe. The population, even today, is largely Turkic, Caucasian, and Iranian, and the predominant religion is Shia Islam. 

After the Russo-Persian wars between 1804 and 1813, the Qajars were forced to cede all of the Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, to Russia. World War I brought on the collapse of the Russian Czar’s regime and Azerbaijan achieved a brief period of independence beginning in 1918 and ending when the newly minted Soviet Union absorbed the country in 1920. 

Lenin had reportedly said that the Soviet Union could not survive if it did not include Azerbaijan. Although rich in a number of natural resources, Azerbaijan’s chief resource since the mid 19th century has been its oil and natural gas.

Until 1991, Azerbaijan was run strictly as a Soviet satellite. Its independence was achieved as the Soviet Union, facing national bankruptcy, disintegrated under perestroika. By then, Ilham Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, had become a high-ranking official in the Soviet Union’s KGB. He had started his career by running the KGB’s Smersh battalion toward the end of World War II. Smersh handled internal security in the Russian army and was responsible for executing anyone who showed cowardice or refused to fight. Following his time at Smersh, Heydar worked in KGB operations covering eastern countries, including Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan faced an economic crisis when its land-based oil wells tapped out in the 1960s. Offshore drilling in the Caspian Sea was considered too expensive to be practical. Moscow appointed Heydar to be first secretary of Azerbaijan’s communist party in 1969 and told him to find a solution. Heydar proved effective at reorienting the economy. At the same time he cultivated foreign leaders, including a number of powerful officials in Moscow, by giving lavish gifts, a practice that soon became known as “caviar diplomacy.” 

Heydar was eventually appointed to Moscow’s Politburo. He was forced into retirement when Mikhail Gorbachev took over in 1987, but remained in Moscow until he suffered a heart attack in 1990. In 1991, he returned to Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijan elected a democratic government, Heydar remained a formidable force in the region of Azerbaijan where he lived.

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Set free from the Kremlin, Azerbaijan’s experiment with genuine democracy lasted until 1993. The government had been weakened by friction with Armenia over the Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh. Trying to seize the territory by force, the government was defeated and had to agree to a ceasefire negotiated by the Russians. Russia finally reasserted control in 1993 by backing a coup instigated by Surat Huseynov, an ex-Azerbaijan military officer who had been forced out of the army during the rapidly changing political situation.

In 1993, Heydar presented himself as a candidate in new elections. He won by a landslide and looked firmly in control until his health declined. In 1999, he flew to the US for an emergency bypass operation in Cleveland. In 2003, he collapsed while giving a televised speech just two weeks before the presidential election. Realizing that he faced the end, he withdrew from the race and appointed his son, Ilham, as the only candidate in the race. Heydar died on December 12, 2003. The passing of power from father to son was seamless. 

Azerbaijan was always considered corrupt, but the corruption has usually been selective. It depends mostly on what aspirants can offer that is likely to keep the Aliyev family in power. 

Westerners – in particular, energy-needy Europeans– may not be happy about the repression of free speech, the jailing of journalists, and the absence of any meaningful political opposition. But they are more than ready to look the other way when considering what Azerbaijan has to offer global commerce. 

Although its oil appeared to be running out in the 1960’s, improved technology has made for more efficient offshore drilling. While oil production has dropped off slightly — current yield is 598,000 barrels a year — its natural gas reserves are among the largest in the world. In addition to three major pipelines, Europe hopes that Azerbaijan’s newly completed Southern Gas Corridor may eventually offset Western Europe’s dependence on gas from Russia. 

Bottom line: Azerbaijan’s strategic location and its accessible natural resources count more in most Western assessments than the treatment of the country’s inhabitants. In any case, with enough fossil-fuel money to go around, there has not been a great deal of domestic dissent. Azerbaijan rates as an upper-middle-income economy, with a GDP that is roughly $17,000 per capita.

No one would be so boorish as to publicly question the importance of democracy, but in the final analysis access to energy ranks higher when it comes to international relations. In that context, the criticism of election irregularities can be expected to continue, but don’t expect things to change any time soon.

Editor’s Note: In order to protect the journalist who wrote this story, we are publishing this article under a pseudonym. 

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