The international community invested financially and diplomatically in the 2003 presidential elections at level unprecedented for Azerbaijan. Intent on avoiding the massive fraud that characterized prior elections in Azerbaijan, the OSCE/ODIHR and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe worked closely with the Azerbaijani government to revise its Election Code, consolidating five prior election laws into one central Code. The governments of the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other countries were the main financial backers of major technical election reforms, paying for thousands of transparent election boxes, as well as voter education posters and media announcements aimed at voter education and preventing fraud.
During the election period, the OSCE and its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed one of its largest-ever election observer missions. It joined with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to form an International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), consisting of twenty long-term observers (who were deployed about one month prior to the election) and some 600 short-term observers (who were deployed just days before the election). During the pre-election period the long-term OSCE/ODIHR observers often directly intervened to stop abuses, particularly arbitrary arrests and police beatings. Staff from many embassies also monitored the pre-election climate, attending opposition and government rallies and raising concern about abuses with government authorities.
This prominent role led many Azeris to see the international community—and the United States and OSCE in particular—as the “guarantors” of a free and fair election. Consequently, the mild responses by the United States, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe to the massive fraud left many Azeris bitterly disappointed.
In light of the severe election abuses witnessed by their observers, the initial statements of the IEOM were alarmingly upbeat. The head of the OSCE parliamentary delegation, Giovanni Kessler, stated on October 16 that the election showed “an increased vitality of political life and serious efforts in Azerbaijan towards democracy and international standards.” Guillermo Martinez Casan, head of the PACE delegation, stated that he hoped the election could “mark the beginning of a new era in Azerbaijan in which progress could be achieved through cooperation of all democratic forces in the country.” Only Peter Eicher, who headed the OSCE/ODIHR observer mission and had repeatedly spoken out about abuses during the pre-election period, gave an accurate assessment: “This election has been a missed opportunity for a genuinely democratic election process…. Future progress towards democracy will depend first and foremost on the political will of the authorities.”
The undeservingly upbeat assessment of the elections led to an unprecedented dissenting statement from 188 election monitors from the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE) who had accounted for nearly one-third of the OSCE/ODIHR monitors. The dissenting opinion offered a critical overview of the election violations that IDEE monitors had witnessed, and concluded that the presidential election “cannot be qualified as what in the practice of civilized nations is called ‘elections’.”
While the OSCE’s full preliminary and final election reports were thoroughgoing and balanced, it is the OSCE’s initial statement that is most widely publicized and serves as the benchmark for other institutions’ assessments of the elections. The European Union is a case in point. Its statement referred to “shortcomings,” police violence and “unequal conditions for candidates,” but acknowledged “progress over previous elections” and stated that “the election shows significant efforts towards international standards.” Two weeks prior to the elections, when government efforts at manipulation had already been under way for some time, the European Union missed an important opportunity to make a strong public stance on the elections. Its statement on the conclusion of its Cooperation Council meeting with Azerbaijan merely said that the E.U. “will watch closely the presidential elections in Azerbaijan. . .” without flagging problems that had already become apparent.
The post-election crackdown led to a more concerned stance from the international community. Significantly, in numerous incidents described in this report, the OSCE/ODIHR mission played a critical role in preventing and stopping excessive police force against demonstrators and in seeking the release of individuals arbitrarily detained.
On October 20, the head of the OSCE/ODIHR, Ambassador Christian Strohal “deeply deplored” the post-election events in Azerbaijan, stating that “a post-election period should not be the occasion for a general crackdown on the opposition.” Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer and PACE President Peter Schieder expressed public concern about the “arrests of journalists and opposition leaders, excessive use of police force against protesters, as well as the seizure of opposition newspapers.” On October 29, four U.N. Special Rapporteurs and Representatives—dealing with freedom of expression and opinion (Ambeyi Ligabo), extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (Asma Jahangir), torture (Theo van Boven), and human rights defenders (Hina Jilani)—issued a joint statement expressing their concern about the post-election violence and abuses in Azerbaijan.
The final OSCE/ODIHR report, issued on November 20, was considerably stronger than previous statements in recognizing the serious violations that had taken place during the elections and the post-election crackdown. Ambassador Strohal, who traveled to Baku to release the report, expressed his personal disappointment with the elections, considering that “ODIHR has worked intensively with Azerbaijan since 1998 to improve the election process.” Ambassador Strohal called on the Azerbaijani authorities to institute an independent and thorough investigation into the election violations, but stopped short of calling for—or offering—the international participation in the investigation which would be crucial to prevent it from turning into a whitewash. Ambassador Strohal also called for the appointment of a Special Elections Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute persons guilty of breaking the election laws.
The U.S. response to the election fraud and post-election repression was confused and contradictory. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage—who served as co-chairman of the United States-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce (USACC) and was the 2002 recipient of USACC’s “Outstanding Leadership Award”—phoned Ilham Aliev on October 17 to note his “strong showing” in the election and to express America’s “desire to work closely with him and Azerbaijan in the future.” Armitage’s phone call led to scathing criticism in the U.S. press, with the Washington Post editorializing that “in effect, the baby dictator and his dad were congratulated by a top official for their effectiveness in stealing votes and were promised smooth sailing by Washington.” The State Department quickly issued a stronger statement about the elections, stating that “Azerbaijan’s leadership missed an important opportunity to advance democratization by holding a credible election,” and calling for an independent investigation. The United States Senate also adopted a resolution, sponsored by Senator John McCain, declaring that the election fraud “cast serious doubt” on the victory of Ilham Aliev and calling for the establishment of a commission of investigation with international participation.
Despite the stated support of the United States for an investigation into election abuses, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any serious attempts by the U.S. administration to foster the establishment of such a commission. Top administration officials have generally attempted to distance themselves from any discussion of the flawed presidential elections, preferring to continue with “business as usual” and focus on military and economic matters. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited President Ilham Aliev in Baku on December 4, 2003, to discuss military cooperation, he openly congratulated Aliev on his election victory, and refused to answer questions about whether the presidential elections had met international standards.
Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, shares a border with Iran, a country that has been the focus of Bush administration’s democracy rhetoric. The lack of willingness by the U.S. administration to take a strong stance on the election abuses and the post-election crackdown in Azerbaijan calls into question the commitment of the Bush administration to its recently announced core foreign policy objective of spreading democracy and respect for human rights in the Middle East.
128 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, OSCE/ODIHR, Joint Press Release: Azerbaijan Voting Generally Orderly But Electoral Process Still Short of International Standards in Several Respects, October 16, 2003.
130 Institute of Democracy in Eastern Europe, Votum Separatum/Dissenting Opinion of the Institute of Democracy in Eastern Europe observer mission from the OSCE/ODIHR Preliminary Report about the Presidential Elections of October 15, 2003 in the Republic of Azerbaijan, October 18, 2003.
131 Declaration by the Presidency on behalf of the European Union on the presidential elections in Azerbaijan, October 17, 2003. Available at 222.ueitalia2003. Accessed November 4, 2003.
132 Fifth Meetings of the Cooperation Councils between the European Union, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, Brussels, 20 September 2003, 13071/03 (Presse 284).
133 OSCE/ODIHR, “OSCE Human Rights Head Deplores Wave of Arrest in Azerbaijan,” October 20, 2003.
134 Council of Europe voices concern over post-electoral developments in Azerbaijan, press release 518a (2003), October 20, 2003.
135 United Nations, Human Rights Special Rapporteurs Express Deep Concern over Situation in Azerbaijan, October 28, 2003.
136 OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE/ODIHR Human Rights Chief Calls on Azeri Authorities to Recognize Violations During Presidential Election, November 20, 2003.
137 State Department Office of the Spokesman, Armitage-Aliyev Phone Call, October 20, 2003.
138 “A Strong Performance? (editorial),” Washington Post, October 22, 2003.
139 Bradley Graham, “Rumsfeld Discusses Tighter Military Ties with Azerbaijan,” Washington Post, December 4, 2003.