The European Parliament (EP) has it decided it will not be sending observers to the Azerbaijani Presidential elections in October. In a move that is sparking huge debate, the EP’s Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group (DEG) has decided that Azerbaijan will not be on its list of elections to be watched by the EP this autumn although a team of parliamentarians will be sent to Georgia’s presidential election in the same month. Chairman of the Azerbaijan delegation to EURONEST, Elkhan Suleymanov, controversially pronounced the decision “an historic moment”, which showed that the EP ‘ has decided to take Azerbaijan off the list of countries which require election observation. So is Azerbaijan ‘democratic enough’? Let’s see what people are saying…
In support of his claims, Elkhan Suleymanov referred to the EP’s three previous election observation missions to Azerbaijan, in 2005, 2008 and 2010, all with rather positive reports, which consistently noted progress:
“A young democracy, Azerbaijan cooperates in many fields with the EU, and is currently negotiating an Association Agreement with them, which would see trade and cultural relations increase, as well as more European support for education, transport and other areas. Many of the Members of the European Parliament also support Azerbaijan in its struggle with Armenian occupation, as could be seen by the report of the EP on Armenia, which conditioned any Association Agreement with the EU on the withdrawal of Armenian troops from occupied territories.”
Suleymanov highlighted that the EP’s decision not to monitor the coming elections signaled an improved democratic perception of Azerbaijan in Europe–and the achievement of a new level of trust, which surpasses many other States, saying:
“Notably, the Parliament has sent a mission in 2013 in Armenia and is planning to send one to Georgia – therefore making Azerbaijan the first country of the South Caucasus region to satisfy democratic standards to such a level. Interestingly, other countries in 2013 with elections without European monitoring are countries like Chile, Japan, Argentina, Australia, Norway or Iceland, all high ranking countries in world democracy indexes. It is to be hoped that this new perception will help Azerbaijan on its road towards development. I want therefore to express my belief that the future of Azerbaijan is one with close ties to Europe, where both partners can prosper from economic and cultural exchanges and can help build a safer and more stable society, both in their regions and in the world.”
Suleymanov’s comments incited a strong backlash, with Marjory van den Broeke, the head of the press service of the European Parliament roundly rejecting his statements. In an attempt at damage control, Broeke explained that the EP is set to take a decision on sending observers for the presidential elections in Azerbaijan in September:
“A week ago, members of parliament discussed which countries should be monitored. However, no decision was taken on any country. It can be adopted by the President of the Parliament and the leaders of the political groups in September,” Broeke clarified.
According to Broeke, the decision on election monitoring are made on a bi-annual basis. However, Broeke’s clarifications have not been as publicised as Suleymanov’s statements, which have spread like a furious wildfire on social media.
WHAT?! EP takes Azerbaijan off its list of countries which require election observation missions? IS THAT TRUE?… http://t.co/FPgR9GLGS8
— Khadija Ismayilova (@Khadija0576) July 11, 2013
What the hell? APA – EP takes Azerbaijan off its list of countries which require election observation missions http://t.co/rL29x5DqZO
— Aysha Naghdaliyeva (@aysha_nagh) July 11, 2013
Analysts and Azeri rights activists have implored the EP to further explain its position and decision not to send observers to the elections, in order to counter the Azerbaijani governments claims that the country is so democratic that its elections do not require monitoring. In addition, there are efforts being made to call on European MPs to aid in reversing the decision, and to insist on a monitoring mission in October.
— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) July 19, 2013
Meanwhile, speculation abounds about the EP’s reasons for refusing to send a mission. With some analysts arguing that the EU is currently walking on eggshells with the Azerbaijani government, and does not want to risk irritating Baku as it takes key pipeline decisions which are important to the EU. As on observer elucidates:
“It is evident that the election is not going to be free and not going to be fair. Sending a mission and telling the truth would anger the government, not saying anything would raise the question why did they go in the first place.”
But, raising questions is precisely what Azerbaijan has been doing lately. With the release of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Barometer, many were surprised to see the staggeringly low levels of perceived corruption in Azerbaijan. Ranking among countries like Estonia, which is ranked globally as one of the freest countries in the world.
Similarly, the ENPI Neighbourhood Barometer, which asked citizens of EaP countries their perceptions of the EU, found that 92% of Azeri’s trust their government. The results have prompted much debate, considering indices, like the Democracy Index, which has categorised the Caucasus state as a ‘Consolidated Authoritarian Regime”.
In an interesting paradox, both Armenia and Georgia this week concluded agreements with the EU on the Deep and Comprehensive Fair Trade deal. An integral step in further integrating with the EU, and a corner stone in signing the Association Agreement at the EaP summit in November. Yet, Georgia’s election will be monitored by the EU, as Armenia’s was in February. In terms of alignment with the EU’s standards and norms for economic freedom, democracy, and human rights, Azerbaijan is the least integrated. Logically it would perhaps follow that this would warrant more observation, rather than less. Such logic is sparking further questions about what is underpinning the EP’s decision.