Published on April 14th, 2018 | by Tony Mallett0
Fireworks and flames in Azerbaijan
Brussels in View recently found itself in the oil-rich ‘land of flames’, otherwise known as Azerbaijan and, more specially, its main city Baku, writes Tony Mallett.
The Azeri capital is located on the edge of the Caspian Sea and, while the weather is generally very warm with clear skies, there’s a reason it’s called ’the city of winds’ with blustery breezes a noticeable feature 365 days of the year.
Anyone interested in taking a look at the fantastic architecture – old and new – could do worse than tune in to the Formula One Grand Prix on Sunday 29 April, which will see rocket-fast racing cars roar through the streets of the city.
And Baku will pop up again in 2020, by the way, when the city hosts several matches in the Euro 2020 football tournament.
In recent years the Republic of Azerbaijan has worked hard to sell its ‘European’ credentials. Despite some human-rights concerns, this effort has been largely supported by Europe and has seen the country host various events such as the Eurovision song contest and a major European athletics tournament.
Just 48-hours after Brussels in View arrived, we heard national flag-bearing private cars honking loudly on the city’s streets and huge fireworks displays lighting up the skies over the city centre. And here’s why…
On Wednesday 11 April, Azerbaijan’s incumbent president Ilham Aliyev swept back into power on the back of a landslide vote.
Independent of the USSR since 1991, the Republic has been ruled by Aliyev since 2003. He was preceded in the role by his father, Heydar, who was president for a decade.
Aliyev secured a fourth straight term in office with the overwhelming backing of 86% of the electorate. Countrywide turnout was around 75% of the more than five million citizens eligible to vote, with Aliyev’s nearest rivals polling around 3% each. Basically, the people love him.
As mentioned earlier, there have been some human rights concerns in the republic and some have questioned the ‘democratic’ process. Therefore, some 800 observers were invited by the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan, including a delegation from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), the third-largest grouping in the European Parliament.
Brussels in View found itself in several polling stations, tagging along with the ECR, to see for ourselves how things were organised.
The day after the polls had closed, ECR delegation leader and Polish MEP Kosma Zlotowski said: “It is our evaluation that the elections themselves were conducted in accordance with the national legislation.
“Eight candidates ran for the office of president, ensuring a politically diverse and competitive environment.”
His colleague David Campbell Bannerman said: “We didn’t see anything that concerned us.”
The British MEP also praised the measures used to identify voters and guard against inaccuracies, saying: “I was impressed with the security measures – ID cards, left-thumb prints and the fact that they had to sign after voting.”
He also said that the enthusiasm to vote among Azerbaijanis was noticeable.
Zlotowski pointed out that some opposition political parties boycotted the elections, which the delegation felt had “affected the inclusive nature of the process, as voters were encouraged to refrain from participating”.
The election took place several months ahead of schedule due to a presidential decree made public on 5 February. This declaration drew criticism from opponents who claimed it gave them little time to prepare for a ballot – hence the boycotts.
The original election date was set for 17 October, 2018.
Brussels in View spoke to another group of observers, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA) and the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council). They said in a joint statement: “The mission did not find any evidence of intervention of administrative or law enforcement authorities in the work at the polling stations.”
It added: “All necessary administrative measures were taken to ensure the free will of the people during the voting day.”
Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim but secular under its constitution. A survey conducted before the election, undertaken by famous pollsters Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates, indicated that the primary concern of voters is national security and that Aliyev is seen as particularly strong in a country surrounded by the powerhouses of Russia, Iran, and Turkey and partially occupied by Armenia.
The Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories – which has resulted in more than a million internally displaced Azerbaijanis – was a key topic for voters with the majority believing that Aliyev is “keeping the country safe” and “representing the nation well internationally”.
The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh has been roundly condemned by the international community and the UN, which passed four resolutions calling for the unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Azerbaijani territories. The conflict between the two countries began when Armenia made territorial claims in 1988.
George Birnbaum, who is executive director of Arthur J Finkelstein & Associates said in the run-up to the polls that the “positive recognition for the job the president is doing is the reason he has the electoral support of the nation”.
In between dodging queues of enthusiastic voters, Brussels in View did find some time to try food and drink in restaurants influenced by Azerbaijan’s surrounding ‘great powers’, Russia, Turkey and Iran, and will be heading back for a ‘proper holiday’ soon.
Hopefully, when no elections are taking place.
The fireworks were good, though…