What I Saw

Friday, July 30, 1999

Monitoring the October 1998 presidential elections gave me the opportunity to visit Azerbaijan for the first time. The nonprofit organization that sponsored the mission, the International Republican Institute (IRI), is dedicated to promoting democracy worldwide and works closely with the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Our eighteen-member team, headed by Mark Palmer, the former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, consisted of five delegates and thirteen IRI staff members.

My observation group consisted of four persons, including an interpreter and driver. We drove from the capital, Baku, to Lenkoran, a town close to the Iranian border, to observe the elections in territorial districts 22 and 23. Other missions were dispersed throughout the country. On the day following the election, the various groups drove back to Baku to participate in the IRI press conference.

The polls were open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with 4.3 million registered voters, 4,245 voting stations or precinct election commissions (PECs), and 82 territorial election commissions (TECs).


Azerbaijan, a Caspian Sea republic approximately the size of the state of Maine, has a population of 7.7 million and is 93.4 percent Shiite Muslim. More than 90 percent of the population is Azeri, in addition to a number of ethnic minorities, including Russians and Jews. Because Azerbaijan is the linchpin for the U.S.-backed main pipeline route for exporting oil from the Caspian region, it has received increasing attention from the West.

Azerbaijan has experienced a severe economic decline since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. More than anything else, I was struck by the extraordinary level of poverty. Although the World Bank estimates Azerbaijan’s poverty at 60 percent, I am inclined to agree with the IRI’s estimate that 98 percent of all Azeri citizens live below the poverty line, defined as $89 per month. Unemployment is high, families are generally large, and close to one million are refugees or displaced persons. The refugee problem is largely the result of an unresolved ten-year-old conflict with Armenian separatists over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. According to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, about 230,000 of the refugees are from Armenia and 650,000 are internally displaced persons from the region around Karabakh. Many live in tents or dilapidated dwellings. At least 20 percent of the workforce has had to leave their homes to find work in Russia and Iran, but exact numbers are hard to determine. The key question for President Heydar Aliyev is, Can he do something for the impoverished 98 percent of the population, or will a corrupt elite succeed in draining off all the oil money, as it seems determined to do?


Lenkoran, a major settlement about three and a half hours south of Baku, is considered a more traditional region of Azerbaijan. There is a large group of Talysh, an ethnic group that is mostly Sunni rather than Shiite Muslim. As we drove into the Lenkoran area, the surroundings became greener, with a large number of fruit trees. The area is strikingly beautiful. Its fast-moving, large rivers pour into the Caspian, fishermen haul in huge fish, and snow-capped mountains lie in the distance. Although there is significant poverty, the area has all the makings of a tourist center. About 25 percent of Lenkoran male voters are employed in Russia or Iran, which is higher than the national average. Although it is a completely male-dominated society, the governor is a woman, an Aliyev appointee. In Azerbaijan, all governors are appointed by the president.

Our team was able to observe elections in two territorial election commissions, each with 50,000 registered voters. At each precinct we visited in Lenkoran, we asked about how the precinct election commission was formed. Invariably the answer was vague, something like, “The Council of Elders would call a meeting and they would tell the people to select a few good men to run the elections. The few good men would emerge by consensus.” Concerning the central election commission (CEC), the National Democratic Institute stated in July 1998, “The legal framework for the elections remains flawed in a fundamental respect—the CEC is under the control of the president and of the parliament, which is dominated by the president’s party. There is a need to allow parties with registered candidates to add a voting representative to the CEC.” Yet although the opposition National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (NIP) was eventually permitted to have a voting member on the CEC, he was later barred from participating in the final vote tabulation and, in fact, was kicked out of the room.

Voters chose from six presidential candidates. The incumbent, Heydar Aliyev, was elected to a five-year term in 1993 and has now been reelected to a four-year term. Before serving as president, he spent thirteen years as party boss (1969–82) and five years in the Politburo (1982–87) before being shoved out by Gorbachev. Although at that time his career seemed to be over, Aliyev took control as acting president of Azerbaijan in 1993, following the social unrest that forced then President Abulfaz Elchibey out of office. Aliyev has created a cult of personality in Azerbaijan; you see his portrait everywhere, beginning at the airport. He is the leader of the New Azerbaijan Party (NEP), which has 140,000 members and is in every sense the dominant political force. In 1995, in a dubious election, the NEP took 73 out of 104 seats in parliament. Nevertheless, I agree with an Aliyev spokesman that Aliyev can be credited with several accomplishments: preventing civil war, establishing a cease-fire with Armenia, creating an army, reducing dependence on Russia, and reviving the silk road trade. Yet Aliyev’s spokesman went on to mention several specious achievements, including halting the decline of the country and stopping inflation, adopting agricultural reforms, restoring democratic values, and abolishing censorship.

The ruling party’s representatives proved brazen about committing massive election fraud—even in front of international observers.

Etibar Mamedov, who appears to have finished in second place, is the head of the National Independence Party. Mamedov helped to form the Popular Front in 1989, an outspoken political movement critical of the Soviet government. His controversial views eventually led to his arrest by the KGB, and he spent nine months in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison before being released and elected to parliament in 1995. His party holds 3 of the 124 seats in parliament. Mamedov’s followers believe he would have won the presidential election had it been free and fair. They argue that Aliyev did not get a two-thirds majority in the first ballot, so he should have had to confront a single opponent in a runoff election. Once people realized that there was a real chance for change, people would have chosen Mamedov.

According to members of the NIP: “We oppose Aliyev and we oppose the opposition. We are in the middle—we are the conservative opposition.” The NIP favors a judicious privatization process, desires stability, warns against the risk of revolutionary explosion, and calls for an end to the current corrupt regime. Mamedov ran an excellent campaign, taking the middle ground on many issues. He disavowed the radicalism of the nationalist Popular Front, declared himself anticommunist, and seemed eager to create a middle class in Azerbaijan.

The other candidates included Nizami Sulimanov, Firudin Hassanov, Khanhusein Kazimili, and Ashraf Mehtiyev. Sulimanov, who also ran against Aliyev in 1993, took an extreme position on the border dispute with Armenia, saying that, if he were elected, he would give six months to one year for Armenia to return Karabakh; otherwise he would declare total war on Armenia. Many people described Sulimanov as Azerbaijan’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Witnessing fake elections did not leave us feeling inspired about the prospects for democracy.

Hassanov, first secretary of the Communist Party, was regarded as a traitor by another faction of the party, which boycotted the election. His platform called for a progressive socialist society, but he was continually criticized for not boycotting the election. Kazimili was the most lackluster of the candidates, and, according to most Azeris, Ashraf Mehtiyev simply had no money to run a campaign. Mehtiyev sought state control over the oil sector, favored an Azeri autonomous republic within Armenia, and supposedly wanted to liberate Karabakh even faster than Sulimanov.

Numerous groups boycotted the elections, including the Popular Front and Musavat, the “Equality” party. The various groups boycotting the election formed one movement to push for democratic reforms, but they were forbidden to register their organization. Most people now think that boycotting the election was a mistake.

Although newspapers are largely unread outside the capital, more than 90 percent of Azeri households have a television. All six candidates got free air time, but the bias in favor of Aliyev was evident. At the two state-run television stations, Aliyev typically received eighteen hours of air time for every six minutes received by competing candidates. Clearly, Aliyev’s campaign benefited from disproportionate media coverage.

Our team witnessed several glaring election violations, ranging from stuffed ballots to intimidation. IRI monitors arrived unannounced at a precinct in Baku and later discovered that the commissioners were attempting to keep them sixty feet away from the ballot box as the box was being shaken vigorously in an attempt to unstuff stuffed ballots. Another observer said that the lights went off right when a ballot box was being opened, and people were observed trying to unstuff the stuffed ballots when the IRI observers pointed their flashlights at the ballot box.

Furthermore, the TEC and so-called independent pollwatchers were all Aliyev men. The PEC determined which officially approved posters to put up and where, but only posters of Aliyev were put up in all twenty precincts we visited. Problems occurred with the ballot itself, for many precincts signed and sealed ballots before the election. Officials collected passport numbers, particularly of women, in order to mark ballots, sometimes offering $5 for each passport number. Other officials totaled up the votes, but then did not bring the actual ballots to the TEC. Twenty percent of all the ballots were spoiled; in Aliyev-friendly precincts, officials simply ruined many ballots so that they could not be counted. It was amazing that they were so open about massive violations, even in front of international observers.

Despite some improvements from the 1993 presidential and 1995 parliamentary elections, the October 1998 presidential election in Azerbaijan left much to be desired. Everyone who observed the election came to the same conclusion—that it did not meet international standards. In my opinion, Aliyev definitely did not get two-thirds of the votes, though we can only hypothesize about what the results might have been had the vote counting been fair. Witnessing fake elections in an authoritarian system did not leave us feeling inspired about the prospects for democracy in Azerbaijan. Instead, as the IRI also concluded, Azerbaijan’s recent elections were a missed opportunity.