Early elections, new opposition arrests, drop in oil prices and threats to use the pandemic for a crackdown on opposition are scenes for the start of the year in Azerbaijan.
Elections in a hurry
On February 9, 2020 early parliamentary elections, which had been originally set for the autumn, took place in Azerbaijan. The country’s authoritarian regime decided to spring a surprise on the opposition and not grant it with the luxury of time thus minimizing its participation in the campaign for opposition and independent candidates.
As a result, some opposition parties including Azerbaijan Popular Front Party and National Council refused to take part in the elections at all, while those opposition powers that decided to go for it, namely the Republican Alternative, Musavat Party and Nida civic movement, were not able to unite into a single bloc.
As a result, 76 out of 121 MPs in the National Mejlis are former MPs from previous parliamentary convocations. The opposition forces did manage to get at least one seat, won by a well-known lawyer Erkin Gadirli from ReAl (Republican Alternative).
In general, the election results were mostly falsified. Independent international observers as well as local observers documented hundreds of “carousel” voting cases, mass ballot box stuffing, and false protocols. Thousands of such videos were published on social networks. OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and its International Election Observation Mission harshly criticized the organization of the elections.
Following the elections, protests were organized by opposition forces and independent candidates in front of the country’s central election commission. However, they were dispersed by the police.
On March 18, 2020 an opposition journalist Afghan Mukhtarly was released early by the Azerbaijani government. In May 2017 he was abducted in Tbilisi and taken to Azerbaijan, where he was sentenced to 6 years in prison on charges of allegedly violating the state border, resisting border guards and attempting to smuggle ten thousand euros out of the country. When Afghan Mukhtarly was released, he went to Germany where his family had been residing since his abduction. It is worth noting that Mukhtarly became the winner of 2017 Pavel Sheremet Journalism Award.
Another opposition leader behind the bars
On March 22, 2020 one of well-known opposition leaders Tofiq Yagublu was detained following a controversial car accident; according to the order of the Nizami District Court of Baku he will be held for three months in pretrial custody on charges of hooliganism. When the incident took place, Yagublu published a post on his Facebook account saying he was dealing with a manufactured incident, a provocation. “I was sitting in my car parked near the 8 kilometer market when another vehicle approached from behind and side-swiped my car on purpose, and now the driver is attacking and accusing me”, Yagublu wrote. He also recorded everything that was happening on camera. However, the police took away his phone and his dash camera, and used neither as evidence during the trial. Later on, it was revealed that many of the recent posts written by the opposition leader were deleted from his social network account.
Yagublu has been an ardent critic of the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. More recent Yagublu’s criticism was aimed at the address made by president Aliyev on occasion of a national holiday. In his speech, Aliyev called the opposition traitors and a fifth column, he strongly implied that he would use the fight against the virus to crack down on the country’s political opposition and many opposition leaders may be locked down as well.
6 out of 121 MPs in the National Mejlis are former MPs from previous parliamentary convocations, while only one member of opposition did manage a seat
Lower oil price poses threats
Crude oil prices started to decrease already last December, and the ongoing process creates significant risks for economic growth and Azerbaijan’s state budget performance. Azerbaijani government provided for crude oil price to make up $55/barrel in its economic indicators and state budget. It is worth noting that approximately 60% of the state budget is financed from the oil sector. It is also important that the export of crude oil, gas and oil products made up around 90% of the total export of the country in 2019.
In March 2020 banks clearly experienced foreign currency deficit. First the banks stopped selling American dollars and euros, then they set up a limit and as a result, there appeared long lines in banks. In March State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan sold over $1.9 billion at the Interbank Currency Exchange. This is 2.2 times more than in January and February combined, correspondingly.
“Mini-revolutions” in Nagorno Karabakh
On February 15, 2020 Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan held an official meeting as a part of Munich security conference. It was for the first time that they had a public discussion on the issue of Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
Ilham Aliyev stated that Nagorno Karabakh is historically a part of Azerbaijan and added that international law and UN Security Council resolutions support Azerbaijan in resolving this issue.
Nikol Pashinyan attempted to use historical arguments as well, however, he also said that “it is not possible to solve a 30-year conflict with one or two steps” but suggested applying “mini-revolutions” approach. The solution to the issue should be acceptable to all three parties: Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
President Aliyev replied that he is not against a step by step solution, however, in his opinion, concessions are possible in case Armenia stops financing Nagorno Karabakh and withdraws its troops. Prime minister made an attempt to persuade his opponent that there are no Armenian troops in Nagorno Karabakh, only local self-defense forces and “volunteers” from Armenia, with his own son being one of them.
Photo: President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev during a vote in an snap parliamentary election.
Photo credits: Deutsche Welle (DW).