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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

Will Russia serve the old wine in a new bottle?

Angela 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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Eastern Europe

Lithuania deserves better life

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The latest expressive headlines on delfi.lt (the main Lithuanian news portal) such as “Gender pay gap increased in Lithuania”, “Sudden drop in EU support pushes Lithuania into middle income trap, finmin says”, “Lithuanian travellers spent EUR 186.5 mln abroad this year” and “Lithuania’s Jan-May budget revenue EUR 14.3 mln below target” clearly demonstrate difficult situation in the country. The only positive thing in this fact is Lithuanian authorities do not try to hide the social problems or they just cannot do it anymore.

While in the international arena Lithuania continues to be very active and promising, the internal political and social crisis as well as decrease in living standards of the population make Lithuanians worry about their future. Idleness of the Lithuanian authorities makes the country poorer.

The most acute social problems today are emigration of young people, unemployment rate, increase in the number of older persons and poverty. The appalling consequences of such phenomena are alcoholism and suicides of the Lithuanians.

According to Boguslavas Gruževskis, the Head of Labour Market Research Institute, in the next 5-6 years, Lithuania must accumulate reserves so that our social protection system can operate for 15 years under negative conditions, otherwise serious consequences are expected.

Over the past two years the level of emigration has grown by more than 1.5 times. In 2015 the country left about 30,000 people, in 2017 – 50,000. This is a social catastrophe, because, in fact, the country has lost the population of one Lithuanian city. And the situation with depopulation cannot be corrected by an increase in the number of migrants coming to Lithuania. Their number is too small because Lithuania cannot afford high living conditions for newcomers like Germany or other European countries and may serve only as transitory hub.

As for unemployment rate and poverty, in Lithuania, 7.1% of the population is officially considered unemployed. The more so according to the Department of Statistics for 2016, 30% of Lithuanian citizens live on the verge of poverty, which is 7% higher than the average European level.

One of the most profitable sectors of the economy – tourism, which allows many European countries to flourish, Lithuanian authorities do not develop at all. Even Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis plans to spend his summer vacation in Spain. This fact speaks for itself. Skvernelis notes that spending vacation in Spain is cheaper than in Lithuania. Thus, he is lacking the will or skill to do something with the situation as well as other high ranking officials. He is named one of the main presidential candidates but does nothing to improve the distressful situation.

At the same time, Lithuanian President wants more foreign troops and modern weapons, increase in defence budget and uses all her skills to persuade her NATO colleagues to give help. Probably, she is afraid of her own people, which is tired of helpless and indifferent authorities, and wants to protect herself by means of all these new weapons and foreign soldiers?

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Eastern Europe

Spoiled Latvia’s image in the international arena

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Latvia is actively preparing for one of the most important political event of the year. Parliamentary elections will take place in October 6, 2018. Submissions of the lists of candidates for the 13th Saeima elections will take place very soon – from July 18 to August 7, 2018. But the elections campaign as well as all political life in the country faces some problems which require additional attention from the authorities. And these problems spoil the image of Latvia as a democratic state which might respect the rights of its people.

This is a well-known fact, that the image of the state is composed of several components: it heavily depends on its foreign and domestic policy directions. The more so, internal events very often influence its foreign policy and vice versa.

Latvia considers itself a democratic state and tries to prove it by all possible means. But all attempts fail because of a serious unsolved problem – violation of human rights in Latvia.

It is not a secret that about one third of Latvians are ethnic Russians. Their right to speak and be educated in their native language is constantly violated. This problem is in the centre of attention of such international organizations as OSCE and EU. This fact makes Latvian authorities, which conducts anti Russia’s policy, extremely nervous.

Thus, the Latvian parliament recently passed in the final reading amendments to the Education Law and the Law on General Education under which schools of ethnic minorities will have to start gradual transition to Latvian-only secondary education in the 2019/2020 academic year. It is planned that, starting from 2021/2022 school year, all general education subjects in high school (grades 10-12) will be taught only in the Latvian language, while children of ethnic minorities will continue learning their native language, literature and subjects related to culture and history in the respective minority language. This caused

Hundreds joined a march in the centre of Riga in June to support Russian-language schools in Latvia. The event was held under the slogan: “For Russian schools, for the right to learn in native language,” as the government wants to switch the language of the education system to Latvian.

The European Parliament deputies called for support of Russian education in Latvia. 115 people have signed the joint declaration that will be forwarded to the Latvian Sejm and government. The declaration is signed by representatives of 28 EU countries, and almost all parliamentary factions. Every 7th deputy supported the necessity of the Russian school education in Latvia. The document authors marked that this is unprecedented expression of solidarity towards the national minorities, especially Russian residents of the EU. Authors of the letter sharply criticize the education reform that takes away from children of national minorities the right to study in their native language.

On the other hand the parliament contradicts itself by rejecting a bill allowing election campaigning only in Latvian.

The matter is in parliamentary election will take part not only Latvians, speaking Lantvian, but Latvians, who speak Russian. Their voices are of great importance either. The authorities had to recognize this and tempered justice with mercy.

After years of oppressing Russian speaking population and violating their rights Saeima committee this month rejected a bill allowing election campaigning only in Latvian.

It turned out that politicians need ethnic Russians to achieve their political goals. They suddenly remembered that Campaigning Law should not promote discrimination because publicly active people should not have problems using the state language.

“Wise” deputies understand that Russian speaking children are not going to participate in the elections while Russian speaking adults can seriously damage political plans. Only this can explain the controversy in the Parliament’s decisions.

In Russia Riga’s decision to transfer the schools of national minorities to the Latvian language of teaching considers as unacceptable and could cause introduction of special economic measures against Latvia as well as condemnation by the international community.

So, Latvia’s on-going war against its residents also could become a reason for deterioration in attitudes not only with Russia but with EU and OSCE that will have unpleasant economic and political and even security consequences for Latvia. It is absolutely clear that making unfriendly steps towards own citizens and neighboring states, Latvia can not expect a normal attitude in return.

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