It’s an official message that has been heard before, whether at the Baku-hosted European Games, Eurovision, or even the city’s Formula 1 races: The energy-rich country of Azerbaijan is looking to the future and is eager for positive change.
This time, the Azerbaijani government believes early parliamentary elections on February 9 will convey that message. “In the 21st century,” President Ilham Aliyev told Azerbaijani journalists in December 2019 after announcing the vote, “it is impossible to succeed with old baggage.”
Azerbaijan’s government-controlled mainstream media and officials have spun a series of 2019 government shakeups and presidential denunciations of abuse of office as high-energy “reforms” and a sign that the president intends to ramp up the sluggish, hydrocarbons-dominated economy and clamp down on corruption.
Among the most significant changes, several government heavyweights brought in under President Heydar Aliyev, the current president’s father, have resigned or been removed: 72-year-old Prime Minister Novruz Mammadov, the former grey cardinal for foreign policy, was replaced by presidential economic aide Ali Asanov.
President Aliyev dismissed three other influential political veterans: 81-year-old presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev; 71-year-old Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, who remains secretary of the Security Council; and 59-year-old senior presidential aide Ali Hasanov, who had run interference for the government on its treatment of media.
The fact that graduates of Harvard University (presidential aide Shahmar Movsumov) and Duke University (presidential chief of staff Samir Nuriyev) have now moved into the presidential administration proved reassuring for at least one foreign media outlet.
The Economy Ministry’s new head, 43-year-old Mikail Dzhabbarov, a 43-year-old, U.S.-licensed lawyer who formerly served as minister for taxes and education, has become the symbol of this “rejuvenation” of government.
But Eldar Namazov, a former aide and chief of staff for the late President Heydar Aliyev, cautioned that naming “young reformers to key posts” and declaring plans for “broad, systemic reforms” are not enough. Azerbaijan’s legislative and judicial branches “are still under the influence of conservative forces,” he noted.
After shaking up the executive branch, President Aliyev now needs to switch out those parliamentary deputies who were “tightly linked” to the ousted or resigned officials, agreed Baku political analyst Ilgar Velizade.
“In general, a completely natural change of the political elite is taking place,” he said.
President Aliyev appears to agree. The parliamentary elections were rescheduled from November 2020 so that “steps in the legislative sphere complement the overall course of reforms” the government has in mind, he said.
Overall, election officials have registered 1,637 candidates for the vote; a noticeable 83 percent are running as self-nominated, without official party support. Sixty-four percent of parliament’s current members are among the contenders, according to official data.
But for opposition politicians and some observers alike, little suggests that political reality in this Caspian Sea state will fundamentally change.
Like others before it, this vote, they say, is just another attempt to consolidate power around the ruling family.
President Ilham Aliyev has been in power since 2003, when his ailing father, President Heydar Aliyev, named him prime minister. The elder Aliyev, a former Azerbaijani Communist Party chief and KGB boss, was first elected president in 1993.
The party Heydar Aliyev created, the Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party, now chaired by President Aliyev, has controlled parliament since 1995.
The 125-seat legislature, called the Milli Majlis, has no effective ability to check the president, who essentially serves without term limits.
Against that backdrop, youth activist Bayram Mammadov, released from prison under a 2019 presidential amnesty, considers it naïve to view Azerbaijan’s early parliamentary elections and the government reshuffle as “reforms.”
With “practically no freedom of speech” and political prisoners still in Azerbaijan’s jails, “nothing has changed” in recent months, he said.
“In countries like Azerbaijan, any step undertaken by the government is aimed at continuing the life of the current authorities,” Mammadov alleged. “Yes, the old -- literally and figuratively -- bureaucrats will be changed for new and relatively young ones. But the problem is not the age of the bureaucrats, but their thinking and the system that they serve.”
International monitors have never recognized an Azerbaijani national election as free and fair. No active opposition members hold seats in the Azerbaijani parliament.
A pre-election assessment by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights made familiar recommendations for further attention to “the conduct of the campaign and respect of fundamental freedoms” such as freedom of assembly and press, as well as to the vote count and tabulation, among other areas.
The lack of guarantees for such “fundamental freedoms” prompted the National Council of Democratic Forces, a compendium of opposition parties and civil society groups, to opt out of the election, as it did for the 2018 presidential vote.
But the Council’s Musavat, Republican Alternative, and Umid (Hope) parties will field or support candidates.
“By boycotting the elections, we’re refusing to take part in a farce,” commented Ali Kerimli, 54, chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, one of the Council’s largest parties.
“With control over all the (election) commissions, it’s not hard for the government to falsify the elections even when the real opposition takes part in it,” he said.
Ilgar Mammadov, the 49-year-old leader of the Republican Alternative party and a former political prisoner, believes a boycott only “allows the ruling party to do whatever they want.”
“A boycott can be partly effective only if the attention of the whole world will be on Azerbaijan. But that’s not the way it is now,” he said.
As in the past, the opposition and its supporters have no unified plan for how best to unseat those deputies who back the government.
Yet despite the pessimism about the opposition’s prospects, expectations appear to be growing on social media, a key gathering place for younger Azerbaijanis, that some independent candidates will manage to find parliamentary seats.
Roughly 30 percent of all candidates are under the age of 40. One of them, 27-year-old Mehman Huseynov, a media-rights activist released from prison in 2019, described the election campaign on social networks as “creative” and “interesting” compared with Azerbaijani television, where election coverage is minimal and without candidate debates.
Kerimli conceded that such youngsters may be on to something. “If the dissatisfaction of young people grows, there can be changes,” he said.
In the meantime, opposition members like Republican Alternative Executive Secretary Natig Dzhafarly will make do with hoping for the minimum: “This has nothing to do with democratic elections, but, precisely, more accurate elections without serious violations.”