Autumn 1998 (6.3)
Presidential Elections - 1998
Moving Ahead on the Road to Democracy
Despite the Bumps
by Adil Bagirov
Since Azerbaijan International is published only on a quarterly basis, we cannot bring you the day-by-day developments leading up to the upcoming elections. Therefore, we have chosen to discuss larger issues related to the process of democratization inherent in the conduct of free and fair elections in Azerbaijan. Adil Bagirov, our columnist for Media Watch, provides an overview of the historical context that exists on the eve of elections in his country.
The stage is set for elections for the Presidency of Azerbaijan to take place on October 11, 1998. Six politicians have declared their candidacy. President Heydar Aliyev is expected to win a second term. In the meantime, the mass media, political parties, governmental institutions and human rights groups are keeping a watchful eye on the country's general progress towards democratization. Naturally, questions arise such as: Is there democracy in Azerbaijan? Are the election laws democratic? Does the incumbent president of Azerbaijan support democracy? Are human rights improving or deteriorating?
There are no easy answers to these questions. It would be wrong to claim that Azerbaijan Republic is a fully democratic state, identical to those of Western Europe. Indeed, Azerbaijan has just begun its journey along this path.
However, it would be equally wrong to expect, as many mistakenly do, that Azerbaijan could make such an enormous transformation in such a short period. After all, it took decades, even centuries, for the West to achieve the level of democracy that they experience today. People forget that even such solidly "European" countries as Spain and Portugal began embracing a democratic form of government only in the early 1980s. Azerbaijan has only had the chance to move towards democracy since December 1991 - not even seven years yet! It should be noted that none of the other former Soviet republics have yet to achieve Western-style democracy, either. This includes the Baltic states, as well.
The reality is that the process of democratization in Azerbaijan is plagued by numerous post-Soviet economic, social and political transition problems. These are well known. Nearly 15 percent of the population (nearly 1 million people) have been displaced from their homes and communities because of the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Some 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory is still illegally occupied by this hostile, militarized neighbor.
In addition, Azerbaijan has had to deal with unjust, biased legislature in the U.S. Congress (Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992) which denies direct aid to Azerbaijan's government to help alleviate some of these difficulties. Such discriminatory laws, pushed through by retaliatory Armenian lobbyists, do not help to alleviate severe economic problems or to bring about a politically brokered, lasting peace in the region.
Meanwhile, the Western media has been satisfied in ignoring and downplaying the positive movements and changes which are contributing to democracy building in Azerbaijan. At the same time, they seem eager to jump at the chance to report on developments that are negative. Of course, it is critical to expose outright undemocratic actions, however it should be noted that such activities do not happen in Azerbaijan at any greater frequency than in any of the other Former Soviet Union republics, especially the Caucasus.
Obviously, there is no such thing as a "poor democracy." That is, when the population of a country has such a low income per capita and are experiencing serious financial and economic hardships. Such people cannot be expected to rush out and embrace democracy. Obviously, bread takes priority over democracy.
One cannot expect a pensioner receiving the equivalent of $6-10, or workers earning $30-40, to be very interested in flirting with democracy, especially when memories of much better times are not too distant past, when people were able to live, not merely survive, and when there was no such word as "democracy" in the political scheme of things.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that Azerbaijan is more democratic today than at any other time in history. Opposition parties of all types exist, as do sophisticated human rights and other watchdog organizations which work to foster democratization. Dialogue between the current government officials has taken place both with the opposition and the more radical elements, as well as the more moderate groups. The infamous GlavLit, the committee responsible for media censorship, has been abolished.
Presidential Election Law
Nearly all the suggestions made by the relevant international organizations, Parliament deputies and opposition leaders, have been reflected and incorporated into the texts of the Laws on Presidential Elections, which, it should be noted, is the most progressive election law in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). Mass rallies and protests by radical opposition are held.
Free air-time has been arranged on state television and radio. Funding from the state budget has been equally allocated to all six presidential candidates. More than 300 international observers are expected to come to Azerbaijan to watch the election proceedings. The OSCE (Organization for the Security and Cooperation of Europe) and the Council of Europe have already dispatched teams of observers to monitor the situation in the country prior to Election Day. These are great achievements for Azerbaijan and provide the best showcase that democracy is possible and that the democratization process is alive and moving forward in the country.
Nevertheless, certain forces seem bent on painting a negative image of Azerbaijan no matter how much progress is made. Sometimes one gets the impression that no matter how democratic the elections may turn out to be, claims will still be made about "failed democracy" and the rise of a "totalitarian regime" in Azerbaijan.
Such persistent accusations, of course, do not foster the democratization process. In fact, they damage it and most surely anger many circles inside the country, particularly the government. Of course, these activities might be part of a deliberate strategy set on destabilizing the situation inside the country which would have repercussions in the international community. But to avoid a repeat of the scenario that occurred during the turbulent period immediately following the break-up of the Soviet Union (1991), more objectivity and less outright prejudice should be exercised.
It should be understood that for Azerbaijan to attain its final goal - Western-style democracy - Azerbaijan must remain on an evolutionary path. Democracy is a political system that is based on its members having a mentality of openness. This does not necessarily mean that democratization must move forward at a snail's pace nor does it mean closing one's eyes to violations of human rights and other undemocratic actions. However, it does mean that Azerbaijani mentality of its citizenry as a whole should be allowed to develop in parallel with the democratization process. The process cannot be forced. One cannot dictate democracy. It takes time to undo 70 years of politicization which is the antithesis of democratic individual freedom and self-determination. The revolutionary path pursued by countries which have tried to leapfrog developmental stages has rarely led to the desired final destination. History is replete with many such examples.
Adil Bagirov helps organize a Web page with updates about developments related to Azerbaijan's Presidential Elections at <http://www.azerbaijan-america.org/elections 98/index.html>.
Or simply go to Azerbaijan International's Web Site: <azer.com>. Click on Election Coverage. Updated daily through elections in mid-October.
From Azerbaijan International (6.3) Autumn 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.