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
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
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
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
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.
is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His last visit to
Turkey was in June.
First appeared in The Washington Times