West blasts Azerbaijan's 'retreat from democracy'

The West heaped criticism on Tuesday on Azerbaijan’s conduct of parliamentary elections, but authorities in the oil-rich republic dug in their heels and denied major fraud.

“The elections were a step back for democracy in Azerbaijan,” Norwegian Ambassador Steinar Gil told journalists in the ex-Soviet state’s capital Baku.

The United States and a group of European monitors also issued indictments of the election, which left President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party by far the largest force in the 125-seat national assembly.

Their criticism gave ammunition to opposition parties, who won only a handful of seats, as they prepared a protest rally on Wednesday.

However, Aliyev, who two years ago succeeded his dying father Heydar Aliyev in a controversial presidential poll, insisted not only that the elections were free, but that the international community was satisfied.

“All the international reports of the international monitoring missions were fine,” Azer Gasimov, spokesperson for Aliyev, told journalists.

“It doesn’t say in them that the elections did not meet international standards,” he said.

This assertion flew in the face of clear condemnations from Western monitors who reported seeing widespread violations.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe—pan-European organisations of which Azerbaijan is a member—said specifically that the election “did not meet international standards”.

“Forty-three percent of the ballot counting was bad or very bad,” said Council of Europe representative Leo Platvoet. “It’s impossible to say that these elections are free and fair.”

In Washington, State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli described “major irregularities and fraud that are of serious concern”.

“We will urge the government of Azerbaijan to make immediate investigations into these irregularities and fraud, consistent with Azerbaijan’s laws, institutions and election legislation,” Ereli said.

Azerbaijan’s election authorities conceded there were serious doubts over the results in a handful of the 125 constituencies, but dismissed the more wide-ranging criticism.

The OSCE’s allegations “should not be blown out of proportion,” Central Election Commission chairperson Mazakhir Panakhov said, claiming that US spokesman Ereli “spoke very highly of our elections”.

The commission ruled on Tuesday that results would be annulled in two constituencies and that a recount was planned for a third constituency in which a leading opposition figure, Ali Kerimli, failed to win a seat.

Aliyev appeared on state television late on Monday to praise the conduct of the vote, which he said was “held in a free and democratic atmosphere”.

Azerbaijan enjoyed support from monitors sent by the Commonwealth of Independent States—a grouping of former Soviet republics that includes several countries often criticised by Western governments as undemocratic.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow also had “doubts about the objectivity of the evaluation” made by the OSCE and Council of Europe.

Norway’s ambassador, however, described the European monitoring report as “concrete and very detailed” and based on a “very profound investigation” involving more than 655 observers from 42 countries.

The United States stopped short of issuing any threats against this predominantly Muslim country, which is seen in Washington as an important ally in containing neighbouring Iran.

“There are a wide range of issues that we need to deal with Azerbaijan on—energy, security, counterterrorism, economic, political, regional, multilateral,” Ereli said. “So that’s going to move forward.

“And I wouldn’t at this point make any specific linkages to what happened in this parliamentary election to any of those issues.”

Norwegian Ambassador Gil also said Oslo “deeply regrets” the way Sunday’s poll was held but “there is of course no change in Norwegian policy with Azerbaijan.
This goes also for investments.”

Norway’s state oil company Statoil is the second largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan after Britain’s oil giant BP. - AFP

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