Is Azerbaijan Next?

As Azerbaijan gears up for parliamentary elections on November 6, the main question is whether the country is about to undergo its own “color” revolution, along the lines of those that have overthrown post-Soviet elites in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the last two years. Such an outcome cannot be ruled out, but the prospects are uncertain at best.

Azerbaijan’s ruling party, Eni Azerbaijan, faces challenges all around, despite the support of President Ilham Aliyev and privileged access to state resources. At least three opposition parties – Isa Gambar’s “Mussavat,” Ala Keremela’s “The National Front, and the Social Democratic Party – have maintained support and political influence since Ilham succeeded his late father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003.

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Moreover, like Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, dynastic politics in Azerbaijan reflects the dominance of clans whose members’ success is determined by proximity to the president. While such systems may appear stable, they are inherently fragile, for they are synonymous with lawlessness, injustice, and abject poverty for the majority of the population.

The opposition has already started preparing the ground for change. The leaders of the three-party opposition bloc Azadlyg (Freedom) have declared that they will regard any electoral outcome that gives opposition parties less than 70% of the vote as having been falsified, and that street protests would follow. This would conform to the pattern seen in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004.

But can such a scheme work in Azerbaijan? A “dress rehearsal” failed in October 2003, when the opposition, incapable of uniting around a single candidate to challenge Ilham in the presidential election, declared the results to have been falsified and called people into the streets. Only several hundred showed up, and the police quickly dispersed them, arresting dozens.

This time, the opposition is united, having found it far easier to agree on mutual support for 125 parliamentary candidates than to settle on a single presidential candidate. But the authorities may have the upper hand. In Tbilisi, Kiev, and Bishkek, the leaders of the “color revolutions” had already held lofty positions in regimes that they now attacked as thoroughly corrupt; yet they succeeded in gaining the population’s trust. That is far from a foregone conclusion in Azerbaijan, where the last stint in power by some of the opposition leaders in 1992-1993 still evokes bitter memories of a time of war and crisis that few can recall without horror.

Most importantly, however, the previous “color revolutions” underscore the crucial role of world public opinion and the global mass media that shape it. As in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the fate of the regime and the country may well hang on whether the current government is portrayed on the world’s television screens as a violator of human rights that is thwarting the will of the people and thus rejecting “generally accepted democratic values.”

Such an image may be less valid in Azerbaijan. After coming to power in 1993, Heydar Aliyev stopped the war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, secured Azerbaijan’s existence as a sovereign state, and, as the oil-and-gas sector flourished, oversaw the country’s growing international authority. The transfer of power from father to son took place peacefully, and Ilham’s administration has presided over completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline – to the annoyance of Russia and Armenia.

At the same time, high oil prices have enabled higher social spending and infrastructure investment. Today, the capital, Baku, resembles a huge construction site, with high-rise housing, stores, and roads being built at a breakneck pace – and apparently benefiting the broad strata of the population.

But none of this may ultimately matter if the West ­– and the United States, in particular – decides that Ilham’s regime is not ensuring its interests and seeks to manipulate the global media image accordingly. The West’s main interest is not Azerbaijan’s oil reserves, which accounted for just 0.06% of the world’s total in 2004, but its geopolitical position at the crossroads of global energy and transport corridors and as a frontline state vis-à-vis an increasingly assertive Iran.

So far, it appears as though the West will back Ilham over the opposition. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the president of the European Parliamentary Assembly, Rene Van der Linden, and US Deputy Secretary of State for global affairs Paula Dopryansky have all visited Baku recently. As US foreign-policy doyen Zbigniew Brzezinski put it in an interview with a German radio station, “The majority of Azeris actually support President Ilham Aliyev. Therefore, we have a situation that differs from those that took place in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.”

Nevertheless, the West appears to be hedging its bets by sustaining contacts with the opposition. As Brzezinski added, “Of course, it is important for the political regime in Azerbaijan to be as stable and legitimate as possible.” If the West decides that the government has become unreliable, television shots of demonstrators’ weekly clashes with the Baku police, Ilham’s refusal to hold televised debates, and the confiscation of all orange objects from stores will come in handy.

Of course, modern technology alone cannot bring about a revolution. But almost all post-Soviet states remain weak, and therefore vulnerable to domestic turmoil. Azerbaijan is no exception, and Russia, having been burned by its naked intervention on behalf of the governments in Georgia and Ukraine, has given every indication that it intends to sit this one out. The government appears confident that high oil prices, administrative resources, and dominance of the local media will ensure an election victory. That may not be enough.