All across Azerbaijan, the government has posted permanent large signs with popular sayings attributed to President Heidar Aliyev. One of the most common slogans found on these sign posts states simply “Heidar is the Nation. The Nation is Heidar.” During his ten-year reign as President, Heidar Aliev made this slogan a political reality, consolidating immense power in the presidency and its representatives at the national, provincial, and local level, in the process marginalizing other government departments and the parliament.
At the national level, the presidency reigns supreme. Parliament holds little authority and the judiciary lacks independence from the presidency. The presidency directly controls two separate budgets, the national budget and the equally large State Oil Fund. Parliament has almost no power over government spending, as explained by a detailed study:
The judiciary is equally subservient to the presidency. One former judge told Human Rights Watch how he was called to the office of the then-Minister of Justice after he issued an order the president’s office disagreed with, and being told, “Heidar Aliev is your law, your morality, and your principles.”
The absolute control at the national level is replicated throughout the country through the power wielded by the local executive authorities, “who are appointed by and solely subordinate” to the president. To date, Azerbaijan has not fulfilled its commitment to the Council of Europe to reform these structures. At the town and village level, the executive authorities hold vastly more power than the local municipal authority. The executive authority can order the arrest and detention of individuals or the dismissal of employees, and makes decisions on public demonstrations. In the pre-election environment, executive officials regularly used violence against opposition supporters with impunity. The municipal authorities, who were elected and often have opposition representation, are nearly invisible and powerless. Absolute loyalty to the presidency is a prerequisite for executive authority officials.
But the power of the presidency extends much further. In one of Europe’s poorest countries, with high unemployment rates and nearly half of the population living below the poverty line, employment opportunities in both the government and private sector are almost completely linked to membership in the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP). Executive authorities control appointments to employment in the state sector, which accounts for nearly half of all jobs in Azerbaijan. Teachers, electricity workers, and even shopkeepers risk their livelihood if they support the opposition.
The struggle to maintain complete dominance of the presidency at all levels of society is at the root of Azerbaijan’s political crisis, and also a major cause of the abuses documented in this report. The absence of power-sharing institutions in Azerbaijan, like parliament or municipal authorities with real power, makes politics an all or nothing game: a party either controls the presidency and with it all of the institutions of power, as well as most of the employment opportunities in the country; or it controls nothing, and its supporters face impoverishment. In this scenario, it is not surprising that government officials from the national to the local level participated so vigorously in the election abuses and fraud: their jobs and economic survival were on the line.
Ultimately, resolving the political crisis in Azerbaijan will require fundamental institutional reform to limit presidential power and to create democratic power-sharing centers outside the control of the presidency.
10 The Council of Europe has expressed concern about the lack of impartiality in the nomination of judges. See, “Honouring of obligations and commitments by Azerbaijan, PACE Resolution 1305 (2002) [online], www.assembly.coe.int/documents/adoptedtext/ta02?ERES1305.htm (retrieved January 6, 2004). For more analysis of the judiciary’s lack of independence, see, Freedom House, “Nations in Transit 2002,” Azerbaijan, Rule of Law, June 2003 [online], http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/nattransit.htm (retrieved January 6, 2004); and Human Rights Watch, “Azerbaijan: Impunity for Torture,” A Human Rights Watch Report, August 1999, Vol. 11, No. 9 (D), section “Lack of Judicial Redress.”
11 Caspian Revenue Watch, Caspian Oil Windfalls: Who Will Benefit (New York: Open Society Institute, 2003), pp. 98-99 (citing Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 1305 (2002)(1)).
12 Human Rights Watch interview, Baku, October 12, 2003.
13 International Foundation for Electoral Systems, Summary Description of the Division of Powers between Municipalities and State Local Executive Authorities, November 2002.
14 In 2002 the Parliamentary Assembly expressed regret at the lack of progress in “the development of local self-government in Azerbaijan.” It noted that “[t]he executive in Azerbaijan still exercises a predominant role.” It expresses deep concern over the undue interference of the executive in the functioning of institutions. See Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 1305.
15 A 2001 household survey carried out by the Azerbaijani government found 49 percent of the population living in poverty, including 17 percent who were living in extreme poverty. The poverty line is defined by the Azerbaijani government based on a daily minimum calorie requirement, adjusted for age and gender. Extreme poverty is defined as having household expenditures less than half of the household-specific poverty line. Government of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan Republic State Programme on Poverty Reduction and Economic Development, Appendix 3: Poverty Measurement Methodology, (2001) [online], http://economy.gov.az/PRSP/Reports.htm (retrieved January 6, 2004).
16 Statistics from 1998 indicate that the state sector accounted for nearly half the jobs in Azerbaijan. See Joint ECE Eurostat-ILO Seminar on Measurement of the Quality of Employment, CES/SEM.41/24, March 1, 2000 [online], http://www.unece.org/stats/documents/ces/sem.41/24.s.e.pdf (retrieved January 6, 2004).