“The National Council is a qualitatively different structure.”

Murad Gassanly

CEW interviewed Murad Gassanly, the official representative of the Chairman of Azerbaijani National Council of Democratic Forces in the United Kingdom, about the plans of the opposition and the situation around the elections in Azerbaijan:

Q1: It seems that the opposition in Azerbaijan has been able for the first time to unite behind a single candidate and political platform ahead of the forthcoming Presidential elections. How important is this step? To what extent has compromise been necessary, and possible?

This is indeed an unprecedented development in Azerbaijani politics – all major political parties, organisations and civil society groups are united within the framework of the National Council, and a common candidate has been chosen to represent the democratic movement in this election. There have been previous attempts to unite the opposition but the National Council is a qualitatively different structure.

Firstly, the unification initiative belongs not to political parties but to civil society, intelligentsia and youth groups, who championed the idea of running a single, non-partisan, pro-democracy candidate. As the result the National Council is a broad church coalition, which includes major parties, civil society organisations and NGOs, ethnic minorities’ representatives, youth activist groups, members of academia and artistic community, religious leaders. There are many members who have served in previous Azerbaijani governments. For example, National Council Executive Committee Chair Eldar Namazov served as a senior advisor to Heydar Aliyev’s presidency.

It is precisely because non-partisan opposition actors had assumed leadership in establishing the National Council, that the organisation had attracted such extensive support inside the country and amongst Azerbaijani Diaspora communities in Russia, US, Europe and Turkey. There is considerable public trust in the leadership of the National Council and this is due to the high esteem in which figures such as Rustam Ibragimbekov (Oscar-winning film director and the National Council Chairman) and Professor Jamil Hasanli (our candidate) are held by ordinary Azerbaijanis.

Secondly, it is important to note that the National Council is not a political party or an ideological union – it is a pragmatic coalition, designed to bring together those who share basic common norms and values – a commitment to democratic principles, free elections, human rights, the rule of law, a peaceful and just resolution to the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, and liberation of Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories. Its aim is to challenge a decade-long authoritarian rule of President Ilham Aliyev, and his unconstitutional attempt to run for a third term as president. The objective here is to ensure a stable and managed transition to democracy and this is reflected in the Manifesto of our single candidate, Jamil Hasanli. Whilst there are significant differences between various groups represented in the National Council there is a firm agreement on the need for unity in the name of national interest and democratic progress in Azerbaijan. It is clear that no political party is capable of challenging the deeply authoritarian ruling regime on its own, and the recent experience of those who chose to stay outside the National Council is a telling reminder of this. National Council is the only credible opposition force in Azerbaijan today. This is precisely because it is a united coalition, representing amalgamated material and normative resources and assets of many different parties and organisations, a wealth of human resources, intellectual capital, campaigning experience and resources.

Creation of the National Council and its impact on Azerbaijani politics are likely to be the most important long-term consequences of the 2013 election year.

Q2: Why was Jamil Hasanli chosen as the candidate of the opposition?

Jamil Hasanli was chosen as our single candidate after the Central Electoral Commission disqualified our original candidate, National Council Chairman Rustam Ibragimbekov (whom I represent in the UK) from participating in the election. He was prevented from running on the grounds that he had a second (Russian) citizenship in addition to his Azerbaijani one. Mr Ibragimbekov had applied to have his Russian citizenship annulled. However, following President Putin’s visit to Baku last month, it became clear that Russian authorities will not complete the legal process in time for the election. I leave it to your readers to draw their own conclusions about this. Suffice to say that we are strongly opposed to Azerbaijani national interests being used as bargaining chips in Ilham Aliyev’s quest to retain his hold on power. Little is known about what was agreed between Aliyev and Putin in Baku. But we do know that Mr Ibragimbekov’s candidacy was clearly impacted by Putin-Aliyev talks. This, of course, puts an end to all speculations about alleged Russian support for Azerbaijani opposition. We have no support from outside forces; we have no support from Moscow; there have never been any Kremlin-inspired conspiracies.

Q3: OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation reports of previous elections in Azerbaijan highlight significant shortcoming in the electoral process. How do you assess the prospect of a free and fair election this time round?

We understand that it is highly unlikely that elections will be free and fair. OSCE ODIHR pre-election report already paints a grim picture – there are no conditions for real, competitive elections. There are severe restrictions on media reporting of campaigning by our candidate and a campaign of vicious persecution against opposition activists and independent media is underway. The ranks of political prisoners continue to swell whilst politically motivated arrests, including that of opposition family members, are a common occurrence. Only this week Turkel Kerimli, the son of opposition Popular Front Party leader Ali Kerimli, was detained on trumped up hooliganism charges for 25 days.

Systemic conditions are also pretty bleak – all election committees (vote counting boards) are made up of governing party officials. Much of the fraud usually occurs at the counting stage and despite repeated recommendations from the OSCE and the Council of Europe, the system has not been reformed. 

Furthermore, there are issues of constitutional importance. It has been argued by Azerbaijani legal experts that the 2009 referendum which has changed the Constitution and removed presidential term limits was in fact unconstitutional. It is now being suggested by international legal experts that the changes violate Azerbaijan’s obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.

In addition to that it is also argued that even if the 2009 referendum was legal, Constitutional changes only affect new presidents elected in 2013 and thereafter. Mr Aliyev was “elected” and inaugurated under the old Constitution in 2008. As laws do not have retroactive powers he is still bound by a two term limit. Mr Aliyev’s candidacy is therefore unconstitutional. We believe we have sufficient grounds to launch a judicial review. Given the corrupt nature of Azerbaijani legal system and absence of independent courts we intend to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights, should our right to fair trial in Azerbaijan not be respected. Our candidate is consulting widely on this issue (including on international level). This matter is likely to have major political and legal repercussions. Even if the election is rigged and Aliyev is again “elected” to presidential office, there is a big question mark over his legitimacy; and the legitimacy (and legal validity) of any treaties or commercial agreements he may sign after 1 January 2014.

Q4: The opposition often complains of harassment and intimidation by state agencies and officials. Yet many people say that the claims of some opposition leaders that Azerbaijan is one of the most totalitarian states in the world are grossly exaggerated. What is your view on this?

Azerbaijan is rapidly becoming the most authoritarian regime in Europe, second only to Belarus. There are over 100 political prisoners, independent and opposition journalists are harassed, physically attacked and viciously persecuted. Any manifestation of independent thinking or political criticism is stifled. The litany of abuse is long and the issue has been widely discussed and documented by international human rights and democracy watchdogs. See for example this month’s reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The Aliyev regime, however, is very sensitive to criticisms of its human rights record and growing corruption and authoritarianism. To manage these criticisms the regime has embarked on an expensive public relations campaign across Europe and the world. For example, recent investigations by European pressure groups revealed the extent of Aliyev regime lobbying in the Council of Europe. In other cases the regime had actually set-up its lobbying outfits in London, Moscow, Berlin and Washington. There are British MPs who we know openly receive payments from lobbyists linked directly to various Aliyev regime oligarchs. These individuals and groups are directly engaged in creating a positive image for the Aliyev regime. It is shameful that there are such politicians, as well as journalists, so-called experts and commentators-for-hire, here in the West, who are happy to engage in whitewashing a regime like Aliyev’s (on commercial basis, I should add).

But there is another element to the problem – oil. The different standards applied to Belarus and Azerbaijan are an indication that whilst Azerbaijan might be a corrupt dictatorship, it is, unlike Belarus, an energy-producing and exporting corrupt dictatorship.

Q5: Regardless of what happens on 9 October the National Council is going to face challenges. Is co-operation between the political forces gathered in the National Council sustainable long term?

Whilst the National Council has been set up primarily to contest the 9 October election, it is a rapidly institutionalising structure. There is a pragmatic division of labour between parties, non-partisan grass root groups, policy experts and so on. The experience of this election campaign, the success with which the National Council overcame problems with Rustam Ibragimbekov’s candidacy registration, elected a new candidate and remained united in the face of these serious challenges – all this contributed to a new appreciation for political unity. There is a strong recognition of its practical advantages for everyone involved. Naturally there will be reforms of the National Council – the format and the make-up is likely to change (in fact, it may well grow). But it is clear that the National Council is no mere electoral alliance. As stated above, it is likely to be the most important development of this 2013 election season.

Q6: What do you think should be the role of the international community before and after the Presidential election in Azerbaijan?

Naturally, the international community should hold Azerbaijani authorities true to commitments Azerbaijan had undertaken– for example, as member of the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Supporting political prisoners, speaking out against human rights abuses and ensuring international observation of elections are all important measures.

But it is important to recognise that the international community and the West especially, are rapidly losing influence and prestige in Azerbaijan – Western media outlets are banned from Azeri airwaves since 2008 (BBC, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America radio channels); pro-Western organisations and think tanks, such as the Free Thought University have been shutdown; European bodies such as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, have lost all credibility as the result of the lobbying scandals. Non-resolution of the Karabakh conflict and growing dissatisfaction with the OSCE Minsk Group-led mediation efforts are also contributing to growing anti-Western sentiments in the country, which are fuelled by crude regime propaganda on state TV channels e.g. the recent anti- Germany campaign in state media.

Euro-Atlanticism, which once was explicit in both the Aliyev regime and the democratic opposition political programmes, is now rather muted. It is for this reason that the National Council has decided to delegate all major foreign policy decisions to a future, post- Aliyev government. There is no longer a foreign policy consensus in Azerbaijan. This is very disappointing for those of us who see Azerbaijan as a member of the Euro-Atlantic democratic family.

The international community and especially those countries with strategic presence in Azerbaijan (US, UK, Turkey) need to ponder carefully about their long-term interests in the country and the wider region, and the consequences of the current status quo. This election offers the West a great opportunity for a new, more principled policy on Azerbaijan. We will be watching.

CEW interviewed Murad Gassanly on 25 September 2013.