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Azerbaijan after the Presidential Elections: Internal and Foreign Policy Dynamics

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The campaign, which ended on April 11, was held ahead of schedule. If it had been held in the “normal mode,” the vote would have taken place on October 17. Thus, the shift of the election date itself already indicates a certain intrigue. Indeed, Ilham Aliyev did not have any real competitors before announcing the shift of the campaign to an earlier date. They did not appear even during the election race, although it should be noted that Ilham Aliyev’s exclusive position in Azerbaijani politics can be explained not only by his notorious administrative resource, which, no doubt, was used to its full capacity.

For many years, the Azerbaijani authorities have skillfully appealed to various strata of the population. Pro-Western intellectuals see it as an embodiment of the principles of secularism and active cooperation with the U.S. and the EU, especially in the economic sphere. In this regard, complaints towards the authorities related to, for example, restraint of freedom are compensated for by a choice in favor of stability and deterrence of Islamic extremists (the threat comes both from neighboring Iran and the Russian North Caucasus, and in the last few years from the “Islamic State”, banned in the Russian Federation and a number of other countries, as well). A paternalistic mindset makes the rural population content with the current government. As for ethnic minorities, they tend to be conservative and not interested in changing the leadership, which might bring unpredictability to their status. An aim to strengthen the army (as a reference: the military budget of Azerbaijan is higher than the national budget of Armenia) makes the armed forces a serious ally of the state. Stability is an attractive brand both for the common man on the street and for businessmen who experienced the short-term rule of the “Popular Front” in the 1990s. At the same time, social discontent is managed by high labor emigration. Azerbaijanis are the fourth-largest group of foreigners on the territory of the Russian Federation: only according to official figures, the number is 620 thousand people, and according to available expert estimates, it exceeds 1 million people.

During the recent election campaign, the absence of a strong secular opposition was also in favor of Ilham Aliyev. Its representatives (primarily the National Council of Democratic Forces, as well as the Republican Alternative Movement (ReAl)) declared their non-participation in the campaign. Previously, the opposition, representing other structures, had repeatedly imposed a boycott, but did not achieve much success in this area. In 2018, ReAl and the National Council of Democratic Forces could not come up with any other effective way to counteract the aspirations of the authorities to extend Ilham Aliyev’s period in office.

Politicians who had already participated in presidential election campaigns were among the competitors of the current Head of State. In 2003, 2008, and 2013, the following candidates stood for election: Gudrat Hasanguliyev (0.55, 2.28 and 1.99% respectively) and Hafiz Gajiyev (0.40, 0.65 and 0.66%). In 2013, Zakhid Oruj (1.45%), Faraj Guliyev (0.86%), Araz Alizadeh (0.87%) and Sardar Mamedov (0.62%) also took part in the elections. Only Razi Nurullayev had not participated in presidential campaigns before.

Ilham Aliyev’s opponents expressed oppositional views in one way or another in different years. At the same time, some of them were often ahead of the government in terms of populism and nationalism. For example, in January 2012, Gudrat Hasanguliyev initiated a renaming of the country to the Republic of Northern Azerbaijan, declaring Azerbaijanis a “divided nation”, and fighting for unity with fellow Iranians. Hafiz Gajiyev is famous for the scandal he raised by claiming the Azerbaijani origin of the Prophet Muhammad, and also for promising a reward for reprisals against writer Akram Aylisli for his allegedly «Armeniaphilic” novel “Stone Dreams” [1] . He also announced full support of Ankara in the face of “Russian imperialism” after the incident with the Russian Su-24 in the sky over Syria.

During the presidential campaign of 2018, all these scenarios were played over again. Razi Nurulaev called for strengthening strategic ties with Pakistan to quickly resolve the Karabakh conflict, and Gudrat Hasanguliyev promised to return “lost lands” in case of his victory. Set against the other candidates competing in populism, Ilham Aliyev maintained the image of a respectable politician, although he did not escape the rigid rhetoric about Karabakh. What is the sense of shifting the election’s date then, if the result was quite predictable?

Formally, the elections were shifted because of the ceremonies dedicated to the centenary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the first national state of Azerbaijanis, proclaimed in May 1918. Visits of representative foreign delegations and negotiations about prospects for cooperation between the pre-Caspian republic and other countries are scheduled for these dates. However, when answering the question about the timing of elections, it should be kept in mind that the 2018 campaign was the first after the implementation of constitutional reforms in Azerbaijan. Due to two rounds of constitutional amendments (in 2009 and 2016), restrictions on the number of legislatures for one head of state were lifted, and the term of office was extended from five to seven years. In this context, the “accelerated” elections were called upon to “cement” this power model in order to shorten the time for possible discussions (not so much in a public format, but among the ruling elite) and avoid unpleasant surprises. In fact, the election of Ilham Aliyev for a new, fourth term signifies the completion of the constitutional reforms.

New Government and Old Staff

Having taken office (the inauguration took place a week after the vote), the Azerbaijani President did not take a path of cardinal personnel changes. Nevertheless, in April 2018, a new prime minister was approved. For many years, Arthur Rasizadeh [2] had headed the office, and after the election he was replaced by Novruz Mamedov. On the one hand, an ‘older than old’ political figure left one of the first posts in the country. At the time of his resignation, Rasizadeh was 83 years old! However, Mamedov is not a newcomer to politics. He is 71 years old. Being a professional French language interpreter, he worked in Africa during Soviet times, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he held various posts in the team of Geydar Aliyev and later in his son’s team. Upon taking up the position of prime minister, Mamedov left the post of presidential aide on foreign policy issues. In this capacity, he was very active in public, making regular statements on international issues.

With Mamedov taking the post, the composition of the government changed slightly. The key ministers retained their seats in the new government. Among them are the “defense” men (Zakir Gasanov, Head of the Ministry of Defense, and Ramil Usubov, Chief of the Ministry of Internal Affairs), as well as Elmar Mamedyarov [3] , a key Azerbaijani diplomat. However, it is worth noting that the head of the State Committee for Diaspora Issues was replaced in the new Government. Fuad Muradov replaced Nazim Ibragimov, who was subjected to public criticism for being unable to cope with his duties.

Most likely, the new Prime Minister will not become an alternative center of power. Mamedov is being called upon to play the role of Aliev’s assistant in the settlement of informal relations within the Azerbaijani elite, representatives of the “old team” (inherited by the current head of the Republic from his father) and the “new” group that has common interests with Ilham’s wife, first Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva. Strengthening the vertical of power requires unity among the ranks. For many years, Ramiz Mehtiyev, another veteran of Azerbaijani politics and long-term Head of the Administration of the President (since 1995), has successfully been playing the role of moderator, but due to his health problems, additional strength is required; otherwise the “cementing” of the power system will be incomplete.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s stability comes with a downside. It is built on the monopolization of the political space and the marginalization of secularist opposition. It is important that the weakness of the secular opposition, the absence of bright leaders and attractive programs, bears a risk of accumulating social discontent with the help of various non-systemic forces (non-state actors). Today, these groups (like radical Islamists) are scattered and not strong enough. Nevertheless, there are certain risks in this regard.

Nagorno-Karabakh, Security, International Agenda

With regards to foreign policy and security, the significance of the past elections can hardly be overestimated. They showed that both the authorities and the opposition (even those who boycotted the campaign) still maintain a consensus on the prospects for the settlement of the Karabakh situation. Even so, different opinions were voiced on this issue. According to Rasim Musabekov, an influential expert and deputy of the Azerbaijani Milli Mejlis, the shift of the election date was connected to a kind of “breakthrough solution” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution, which would involve compromise. At the same time, there was no shortage of statements about the return of not only Karabakh, but also Yerevan. Consequently, the familiar algorithm is still working, when tough rhetoric is combined with promises of progress in the negotiations. On April 21, there was a slight aggravation on the line of contact between the sides. The mass actions in neighboring Armenia and the deepening of the “velvet revolution” (as the leader of the protests, Nikol Pashinyan, called it) could result in destabilization. In March 2008, the most significant violation of the truce at the time was recorded just after clashes between the authorities and the police in Yerevan (on completion of the presidential election).

However, for Baku, which is extremely uninterested in maintaining the current status quo, there are limits to escalation. Firstly, it is the commitment to the traditional course: pressure on all political azimuths without a descent into war. Secondly, Russia and the West, despite the confrontation over Syria and Ukraine, remain united in their views on the prospects for Karabakh issue settlement. The entire “big three” (the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group: Russia, the United States, and France) favor the implementation of the “Updated Madrid Principles” exclusively through negotiation. To challenge this approach means to oppose oneself to the West and Russia at the same time, and Baku is not ready for this. On the contrary, Baku is trying to use careful balancing between them in its own favor. Iran is a separate issue. Tehran does not support the “Updated Madrid Principles,” but at the same time insists on a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on a compromise between Yerevan and Baku. Turkey is supporting Azerbaijan, its strategic ally, in every way. However, today Ankara is focused on the Middle East (Iraq and Syria) and is not interested in the escalation in Transcaucasia with possible interference from both Moscow and Washington. Thus, the most likely scenario is a maintained status quo with constant attempts to find opportunities for its revision.

First published in our partner RIAC

[1] Published in the Russian literary journal Druzhba Narodov (Friendship of the People) in December 2012 (2012, № 2), narrating about Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict at the beginning of the 20th century and in 1980s. It has a dedication: “In the memory of my countrymen, who left behind their unmourned pain.” At home, the writer was severely criticized as “Armeniaphile”.

[2] For the first time he got this post in November 1996, and gave it up for only a few months (from August to November 2003) to vacate this place for Geydar Aliyev’s successor Ilham, who, after his father’s election as president, immediately returned «the settled post» to its previous holder. Since that time, Rasizadeh has been Prime Minister for almost 15 years. But in this capacity he was more a technical leader than a political player.

[3] Gasanov has been in office since October 2013, Mamedyarov since April 2004, and Usubov from April 1994.

PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Russian State University for the Humanities, RIAC Expert

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Eastern Europe

Latvians will choose their future

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The general elections in Latvia will take place on October 6, 2018. On Saturday Latvians will choose their future. Though it sounds very pathetic, future of the country really depends on the results of these elections.

In an interview with Latvian information agency LETA, Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, commenting the atmosphere during this pre-election period, said that a serious battle of people’s minds and hearts is going on right now.

And this is true. But this fight is too cruel. Just this pre-election period shows all things bad as they are. The “truth” about corruption on high banking and political levels all of a sudden has been poured out on population. “Latvia’s central bank chief has been charged with bribery. A lawyer liquidating the bank that was accused of bribing him was killed in a hail of machine-gun fire. One of the country’s biggest lenders was shut down after the U.S. levied allegations of money laundering and violations of sanctions on North Korea. What’s going on in Latvia? “ ask the authors of article “Where Latvia’s Financial Corruption Scandal May Lead” published in Bloomberg on September 27.

Situation in small Latvia reminds gangster times in the United States, when criminals held people in awe. The difference is only in the fact that American gangsters were not high ranking officials. Gangsters’ activity was officially considered criminal. On the contrary, Latvian case demonstrates activity of corrupted authorities, who influence the whole country, all 2 milllion people.

Ilmars Rimsevics, who’s been in charge of Latvia’s central bank as governor or deputy since 1992, is accused of soliciting a bribe from Trasta Kommercbanka AS, a small lender that was shut in 2016 after being implicated in a $20 billion money-laundering scheme. Specifically, he’s accused of receiving 250,000 euros five years ago.

It is difficult to imagine, that he got a bribe once, ruling the bank for so many years. Nobody saw his misconduct, nobody knew about it. Nonsense!

Now it is a question of trust to all top officials in Latvia.
For example, about 1 percent of all U.S. dollars moving around the world in 2015 were going through Latvia, according to Daniel Glaser, then a top official in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. It means that Latvia had a chance to become the second Switzerland at least.

But Latvians did not even feel the benefits. They tried to survive in 2015 and they continue to survive in 2018. Nothing has changed. Rich people have become richer and poor have become poorer. That is Latvian Reality.

The other news stroke Latvians this week. Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis confirmed that EUR 2 million more could be allotted for national defense.

He said with pride that “thanks to the increasing budget revenues, the funds will not have to be taken away from other national economy sectors.”

A question arises: why should these additional revenues go to defense and not to other national economy sectors? Is it the sphere that needs money most of all?

Corrupted political system decides for people where their money should go and for what purposes. It is well known that it is very difficult to track money spending in military sphere because this sector of economy is not transparent to the society due to security measures.

The only thing Latvians can do under such circumstances – to choose the right politicians to rule the country and they are surely should not be the same corrupted officials.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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DELFI, which is the major Internet portal in the Baltic States providing daily news, stated on September, 10 that the number of emigrants from Lithuania exceeds that of immigrants by 1,000 in August. Shocking statistics shows that the country has registered a negative migration balance. Some 4,382 people left Lithuania in August. Thus, Lithuanians are leaving the country despite authorities’ claims on economic growth, stability and favorable perspectives.

On the one hand, according to “Lithuanian economy review – 2017”, the GDP growth in Lithuania accelerated. In 2017, as compared to the previous year, Lithuania`s GDP increased by 3.8%. On the other hand, this fact contravenes the increasing number of emigrants.

What makes people change their life and say “Good bye” to their homes? This is a rhetorical question. The answer lies on the surface.

Lithuanians do not satisfy with their standards of living. For example, survey of public opinion and market research company “Baltijos tyrimai” reveals that Lithuanians still haven’t domesticated the Euro. The pool conducted in July shows that more than 46,3% of Lithuanians blame the European currency in lowering their life standards. In other words they do not agree with the authorities’ decision to adopt the euro.

People compare their life with the other European countries and it is not in favor of Lithuania. The words and promises are not fulfilled, corruption flourishes. Thus, Freedom House document “FREEDOM IN THE WORLD 2018” reports that “the major problem for Lithuania’s democracy – corruption – continued to dominate the public sphere, as a series of scandals plagued members of the Seimas (parliament) and public institutions. Even Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė on Monday called on lawmakers not to waste their time on squabbling.

Officials, who today name themselves democrats, did not manage to get rid of Soviet thinking and way of behavior. When they get political power they forget about their duties. Permanent political scandals in small country led to the fact that people stopped believing authorities. And authorities’ activity is seemed to be suspicious in all spheres of life.

Thus, Lithuanians are wary of a new agreement on the country’s defense policy for the next decade signed by Lithuania’s parliamentary parties on Monday. The document calls for joint efforts to resist “irresponsible speculation that sets defense funding in opposition to other sensitive areas”. It means that Lithuanians do not have the right to decide to what area allocate budget money though they pay taxes. They do not have the right to speak on this topic and express their opinions if they contradict the official point of view. The parliament members forget the basic human rights. Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations states that ”everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

An ordinary person cannot solve the puzzle why television and Government controlled media describe his country just another way he sees it. Freedom House states also that “Regional economic disparities remain acute. The minimum wage remains one of the lowest within the EU, and the share of the population at risk of poverty and social exclusion is a little over 30 percent.

This discrepancy forces Lithuanians to seek better life abroad, usually in Old Europe. More than 20 years of expectation is too much. Life is too short to waste it to sit around waiting for changes.

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Eastern Europe

Will Russia serve the old wine in a new bottle?

Anzhela Amirjanyan

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Nowadays, one of the main features of global political developments are non-violent or color revolutions. These revolutions are brought about by wide-spread corruption, poverty, unemployment and a deep gap between masses and the ruling elite with the latter being the biggest political risk for the ruling party. Most analysts argue that these factors are combined also with outside support, which can culminate in the revolution. However, what happened in Armenia after a few weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the Velvet revolution, that brought down the regime and has exercised true people power, is considered to be unprecedented for it didn’t owe its origin to the external assistance or wasn’t an attempt by ‘‘US to export democracy’’ in Armenia. The geopolitical factor was initially excluded.  In fact, Russia has traditionally had negative attitude towards color revolutions and has seen them ‘‘as a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties’’.This means that Russia, desperate to maintain its own standing in the Caucasus, was likely to intervene in the events unfolding in Armenia. However, the Kremlin didn’t view turmoil in Armenia as a Ukraine-style revolution. Asked if Russia would intervene, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the matter was “exclusively an internal affair” and Russian action would be “absolutely inappropriate”. Moreover, after Armenia’s unpopular leader Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Armenians “a great people” and wrote, “Armenia, Russia is always with you!”

The prospect of a Russian intervention was low for 2 key reasons

One of the possible reasons behind Russian inaction was that Moscow didn’t regard the revolution in Armenia as a threat to its geopolitical prerogatives, but rather as an opportunity to make a strategic move through a global panic over Russia’s continued warlike behavior. Satisfied that this is genuinely an internal Armenian issue directed at an incompetent and ineffective government, Russia proved with its muted response to Armenia’s color revolution that Kremlin embraces the policy of non-interventionism.

Secondly, a rapid spread of pro-Western sentiment among local journalists, civil society representatives and youth was prevalent in Armenia in the past decade. This process only accelerated after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly decided in 2013 to join Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) over EU Association Agreement.Yerevan’s decision of September 3, 2013 to involve in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was mostly conditioned by Moscow’s ultimatum imposition, which left a deep track in the perception of Armenia-Russia relations and formed a comparatively new cliché. Anti-Russian sentiments were on rise in Armenia in recent years due to major levers of influence that Russia maintained over Armenia: Armenia’s corrupt oligarchic system and the military threat coming from Azerbaijan. Civil society and the opposition in Armenia viewed Russia as the sponsor of the autocratic, oligarchic system of governance in Armenia. They have traditionally criticized the government for having closest ties with the country which provides 85 percent of arms export to Azerbaijan-a country which is in continuous conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.  This anti-Russian sentiment reached its apex in 2016 when the intense fighting broke out in Karabagh known as Four-Day War. This drew the public attention to the Russian-supplied arms which played a role in the deaths of dozens of soldiers.

Both opposition leaders and civil society members demanded not only Armenia’s exit from the EAEU, but also an end to the Russian military presence in the country. The anti-Russian rhetoric was useful for both the Armenian government and the opposition to alert Russia not to take Armenia for granted.Hence, in one way the April Revolution in Armenia was a test for Russian-Armenian relations, and Russia viewed it as a new impulse for mutually beneficial relations aimed at restoring the damage of Russia’s protective image among Armenians.Needless to say,Armenia is important to Russia, as losing Armenia would cause fundamental changes in Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus. Furthermore, Armenia can’t cherry-pick among its closest allies because its landlocked position limits the freedom to maneuver in its foreign policy and its economic and defense imperatives dictate a close alignment with Russia. This was reaffirmed by new prime minister and protest leader of Armenia, Nikol Pashinian, who not only supported maintaining the current Russian-Armenian relationship but also suggested a “new impulse” for political and trade relations during the meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 14. During another meeting a month later, Armenian PM expressed his hope that ‘’the relations will develop more effectively on the basis of mutual respect for the best interest and sovereignty of the two States’’.

On the whole, Armenia will continue to pursue its “Complementarian” or multi-vector foreign policy, which means that no radical change in the realm of foreign policy is expected to take place.  Yet there is no strong anti-Russian current in Armenian political and society rhetoric. The recent civic movement was significant in realizing the potential of Russian-Armenian mutual relations for economic development and security. Undeniably, Russia should adopt new approaches towards Armenia and it should realize that under new circumstances the backward-looking policies are destined to be counter-productive. In Armenia people hope that Kremlin wouldn’t serve the old wine in a new bottle.

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