Azerbaijan's President Aliyev, who has been in power for 20 years, is running for re-election. With Nagorno-Karabakh's historic re-conquest behind him, victory should be assured. However, he relies on aggression.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev faces six challengers. But they don't seem like challengers in the election campaign. Instead of criticizing him or debating alternative views, they praised the 20-year-old ruler in television programs in which Aliyev did not appear. Most of them belong to pro-government parties in parliament.
The real opposition parties refused to nominate candidates for the presidential election. They do not want to participate in staging democracy. In recent years, Aliyev's leadership has brought all areas of society under its control, for example, starting civil society organizations and staffing them with their own people. In addition, from 2022, the government has tightened the conditions for parties and media, which are only allowed to operate with state registration.
In the summer of 2023, internationally known economist and government critic Gubat Ibatoglu was imprisoned during a visit to Azerbaijan. A visiting professor at the London School of Economics has announced that he wants to work with companies in the US, Great Britain and the EU to protect the wealth generated from corruption.
A wave of arrests in the media sector began in November. At least 13 journalists have since been jailed. The Absas media platform was hit hard by its repeated coverage of corruption, including the presidential family.
When Aliyev announced on December 7 that he would bring the presidential election to February 7 by more than a year, many media experts and government critics expected a police presence. In fact, there were more arrests. Lawyers and relatives of prisoners complain of ill-treatment and even torture in prisons.
Aliyev celebrates himself as the winner
Aliyev could serve a fifth term without retaliation. In September he achieved a goal that has shaped the country's identity for the past 30 years: recapturing the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding regions, which were controlled by Armenians after a war in the early 1990s.
Aliyev, with the support of Turkey, Israel and Russia, modernized Azerbaijan's armed forces, helping them seize Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountain range was considered impregnable for a long time. After a final military operation, around 100,000 Armenians left Nagorno-Karabakh by the end of September. Aliyev raised the Azerbaijani flag there and his armed forces marched there.
Internally and externally aggressive
Now Aliyev still needs a peace treaty with Armenia in which his military victories are recorded in writing. To underline this, December 7th did not only announce the presidential election. On that day, Azerbaijan and Armenia also issued a joint statement for the first time. They promised to normalize their relations and a prisoner exchange was announced and carried out. Armenia announced in favor of Azerbaijan that it would withdraw from the bid to host the UN climate conference COP29. It will now be held in November in Baku.
But with the new year and the start of the official election campaign, Aliyev changed course. Once again he sharpened his rhetoric towards Armenia. In a televised interview with pro-government channels, he spoke of its capital, Yerevan, as historically Azerbaijani territory. He again called for the opening of the “Sangesur Corridor” to the Nakhichevan exclave, which would pass through Armenian territory without Armenia exerting control over it. A few weeks ago, Aliyev announced an alternative link to the south through Iran. In Armenia, this raised fears of a new invasion by Azerbaijani troops as early as September 2022.
It's about power
Regarding Aliyev's intentions, historian Alte Koyusov of the Baku Research Institute wrote “to keep power in the hands of the ruling family.”
In recent years, government critics have argued that democracy would return to Azerbaijan if Nagorno-Karabakh was returned to Azerbaijan's control and full sovereignty was regained.
Administrative machinery was reformed and corruption was reduced at lower levels. But elite corruption remains problematic and revenue flows into valuable assets, while the general public must cope with high prices and low incomes. In addition, despite all the reform announcements, the country on the Caspian Sea continues to be a state dependent on oil and gas prices.
Which path Aliyev will take after the election will largely depend on international pressure. His actions in the last few months show this. The international debate about possible sanctions and lack of cooperation and investment caused aggressive reactions from his government. The need for international investment in the energy sector and the development of “liberated areas” is high. That's why Aliyev may turn moderate again after the election – purely for tactical reasons.
Björn Blaschke, ARD Moscow, tagesschau, February 7, 2024 6:19 am
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