The Azerbaijani government refused to accept a US Government delegation ahead of the country’s forthcoming Presidential elections. A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Baku said the visit of the delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia, was “postponed at the request of the Azerbaijani government”. No reason was given.
The delegation was due to travel to Baku from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on September 9 to observe preparations for the presidential election. The U.S. Embassy in Baku expressed regret and added that the embassy continues to monitor the pre-election environment in Azerbaijan and to encourage a free and fair electoral process. There was a more robust response by the State Department in Washington. In a statement it said, “The U.S. regrets that the government of Azerbaijan has objected to the composition of a U.S. delegation that was to make an official pre-election visit to Azerbaijan. As a result, the visit will not take place. The Azerbaijani government’s actions raise questions about the environment leading up to the Oct 9 presidential election. We call on the government of Azerbaijan to ensure a free and fair electoral process that reflects the will of the people. We urge Azerbaijani authorities to respect the freedoms of assembly, association, and speech as well as the rule of law and due process before, during, and after the presidential contest. We also urge the authorities to facilitate the important work of domestic as well as international election monitors.”
The Azerbaijani government had been irritated over the last days by a number of actions of the US Embassy in Baku, according to some sources. These included a statement condemning the continuing harassment of investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova, as well as a rebuttal of an Azerbaijani government narrative concerning former State department employee who has recently been a vocal critic of the Azerbaijani government, Rebecca Vincent. The US Ambassador to Azerbaijan on Wednesday (11 September) also met with key opposition leaders. An embassy spokesperson described the meeting as being in the framework of consultations with different political forces ahead of the elections. The blocking of the visit of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Melia is a serious snub which would not have gone unnoticed in Washington. The State Department had already been under considerable pressure for not taking a tougher line with the Azerbaijani leadership. This latest development may have serious repercussions on long term relations, some think.
Whilst the US Government inter- Agency Mission led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Melia was given the cold-shoulder by Azerbaijan, in Georgia it was welcomed and given the red carpet. Melia had been to Tbilisi before the 2012 Parliamentary Elections and could thus also see the changes that have taken place over this crucial one-year period. In comments to the Press at the end of his visit Melia said that although challenges remain, there is a “substantial consensus” among many stakeholders that the electoral environment is freer and more competitive than it was a year ago. “The domestic and international perceptions of the fairness of the campaign environment, including adherence to the rule of law, media access and transparency will have a direct impact on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic goals,” Melia said during a press conference in Tbilisi on September 11.
The delegation met with President Saakashvili; PM Ivanishvili; parliament speaker David Usupashvili; ministers of justice, internal affairs, foreign affairs and defense; as well as presidential candidates, Chairman of Supreme Court, civil society representatives and also the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church and leaders of other faith communities. The delegation listed a level playing field, the rule of law and due process, respect of fundamental freedoms and campaigning without violence; media freedom and access of voters to a diversity of opinions, as well as constructive engagement of officials with stakeholders among the “key components” for democratic electoral process. Speaking about a level playing field, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State said that the environment must facilitate the free and unhindered participation of all the parties and candidates. “While challenges remain, we are struck by the substantial consensus we’ve heard, expressed from many directions, that the political environment overall is free and competitive, even more so than it was twelve months ago prior to the parliamentary elections,” the delegation said in a statement read out by Melia.
On the rule of law and due process, the delegation said that enforcement of election laws and adjudication of election-related complaints “must be conducted in an even-handed, transparent and accountable manner.” The U.S. delegation has also called on “all political parties and candidates to refrain from violent protests or from provoking violence.” “At the same time we asked those officials, who oversee the security forces, including the special operations forces, to ensure that their people respect freedom of assembly and act with professionalism and restraint,” the delegation said.
On media access, the delegation said that although “media environment appears freer than in the recent past, there are still issues of concern” including the lack of sufficient funding for all media outlets from independent advertising, “which forces the press to look elsewhere to remain financial viable.” On constructive engagement of relevant officials, the delegation noted importance of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections (IAT F), which is now chaired by Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani; previously it was chaired by Secretary of National Security Council Giga Bokeria. The delegation said that civil society groups and political parties expressed the desire for “even more communication and cooperation” with IAT F.
Report prepared by CEW Staff with additional reporting from civil.ge