November 1, 2005

November 1, 2005 | Commentary on Middle East

Azerbaijan intrigue

Parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich republic on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, are scheduled for Nov. 6.

They have all the trappings of a James Bond movie. In fact, the film "The World is not Enough," which centered on the struggle to control Caspian Sea oil, was shot in the capital, Baku, in 1999.

But now it is life's turn to imitate art. Today's intrigue in Azerbaijan includes power struggles, a clash between geopolitical giants the U.S., Russia and Iran, an ethnic conflict with Armenia, and refugees. Add corruption, lots of oil and gas, and serve hot. This is a perfect mix for a first-rate thriller.

This is a three-way struggle. President Ilham Aliev's party, New Azerbaijan, is pitted against a fractious opposition coalition called Azadlyg (Freedom). There is also a struggle inside the Aliev political machine that he inherited from his father Heydar, who ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist for three decades.

The recent scandal, which is still developing, involves arrests of Ali Insanov, the notoriously corrupt former minister of health, and Farhad Aliev, the ex-minister of economic development. Farhad and his brother Rafiq, the owner of the largest private petroleum company (no relations to President Ilham Aliev), are accused of funding Rasul Guliev, opposition leader who was recently arrested in Ukraine and returned to London. Azerbaijan issued international warrants against Mr. Guliev on charges of embezzlement and sedition.

Ministers of finance, labor and a presidential aide were also dismissed and arrested. The minister of education, also widely reported as corrupt, may be next. These steps are likely to position President Aliev as a tough leader who fights corruption and will increase his popularity.

The United States is watching oil-rich Azerbaijan like a hawk. The Bush administration expects the "upcoming election in Azerbaijan to be fair. Azerbaijan "has to realize that a free, fair and just election will advance this country's democratic development," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said last week in Moscow.

However, this is a tough test of the Bush administration in a strategically important area, coveted by Russia, China and Iran. The Nov. 6 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan put to test the declared U.S. policy of promoting democratization. Washington is trying to reconcile the reality of national interests with a deeply felt desire to see the world free and democratic.

American interests in Azerbaijan include oil production in the Caspian, attracting oil from Kazakhstan for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which will be opened this fall, settling the Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, and possibly deploying troops and building a military base for a future confrontation with Iran, if and when it comes.

Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia who is close to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Baku recently, said the U.S. does not export revolutions. "Revolution is a failure," Mr. Fried said. But U.S. supports "orange revolutions" if that means support for freedom, reforms and democracy, he added.

This assessment compliments Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar's view that "an orange revolution is not expected in Azerbaijan." Mr. Lugar should know: he was the personal envoy of President Bush on the ground in Kiev during the Ukrainian revolution of December 2004. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has launched a sense of the Senate resolution calling for transparency in elections. The resolution was co-sponsored by Mr. Lugar and fellow Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a friend of Azerbaijan, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware.

The outcome of the elections will be judged on their transparency and lack of government interference. The U.S. Agency for International Development is funding a large exit poll mission with over 1,000 exit poll stations, which will provide independent results shortly after the elections are over. This works in Mr. Aliev's favor, as experts pointed out that accusations of stolen elections could trigger popular unrest, which occurred in Georgia and Ukraine. 

The U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Reno Harnish, sounds upbeat. He said that Azerbaijan is moving toward democracy and rejected any comparisons to Uzbekistan. Mr. Harnish, the Turkish newspaper Zaman reported, also highlighted the Caspian Guard project that the U.S. will operate with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. This project is significant for counter-proliferation efforts and for any future conflict with Iran.

Two senior analysts with close ties to the U.S. military who requested anonymity bemoaned the loss of the Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan and pointed out that the repeated loss of military facilities may send a wrong signal to Russia, Iran and China. Bluntly put, U.S. may look like it puts abstract ideals of democracy above geopolitics and strategy. The analysts say that the recent outcomes in Georgia and Ukraine demand caution.

Alexei Malashenko, the leading Caucasus affairs expert at the Carnegie Endowment Moscow Center pointed out that President Aliev and his party are significantly more popular (with 65 and 40 percent respectively) than all the leaders of the Azadlyg coalition combined and their parties, who poll 10-15 percent.

The U.S. is calling for free, fair and transparent elections because the Bush administration, all institutions and factions included, believes that such elections will make Azerbaijan stronger and more stable. Washington believes that whoever wins fairly in Azerbaijan -- most probably President Aliev's party -- will continue being a friend to America. 
    
Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His last visit to Turkey was in June.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in The Washington Times