October is a big election month in the Caucasus with Azerbaijan holding its presidential elections today, on 9 October, and neighbouring Georgia scheduled to take place on the 27th. However, the atmosphere in the lead up to both elections are strikingly different. While Georgia’s elections are being heralded as the first “normal” national elections, marked by a calm and peaceful atmosphere, without protest, Azerbaijan has already received a warning from UN human rights experts amid rumours that a pre-election crackdown on the opposition has already begun…
— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) October 9, 2013
Before the polls were opened…
Reports are circulating that Azerbaijan has arrested dozens of President Ilham Aliyev’s opponents in a pre-election crackdown. The report comes together with the release this week of the list of political prisoners currently being held in the nation–showing the total number as 142. According to this latest estimate, provided by Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Club, Azerbaijan has more than doubled its number of political prisoners since January 2013.
Rasul Jafarov, chariman of the Human Rights Club, explains:
“The authorities seem intent on silencing all voices of criticism and dissent in the run-up to the election.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Adnan Hajizade, an Azeri blogger who has had confrontations with authorities for voicing his views:
“I don’t believe change will come to this country through the election as there is no real election in Azerbaijan. This government is at the peak of its strength right now but if a big social catastrophe happens, whether it’s a war or the country runs out of natural resources, it will be a serious problem for them.”
— Maina Kiai (@MainaKiai_UNSR) October 9, 2013
Addressing the observation of human rights during the elections, the UN has released a letter urging Azerbaijan to recognize and facilitate the work of human rights defenders and civil society organizations in the run up to the Presidential elections:
“We have observed since 2011 a worrying trend of legislation which has narrowed considerably the space in which civil society and defenders operate in Azerbaijan,” the three international human rights experts who compiled the report said. “We are very concerned about the challenging and restrictive environment which defenders and civil society currently face in the country.”
Maina Kiai,the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, continued:
“All demonstrations complying with international human rights standards should be allowed and facilitated, and peaceful gatherings should not face the use of excessive force and administrative detention against demonstrators, even if such assemblies are not authorized. In times of elections, States should make greater efforts to facilitate and protect the exercise of the core rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
“Amendments to the law on Freedom of Assembly adopted in 2012 have tightened the existing restrictions to the right to assemble peacefully, including by increasing penalties for those organizing rallies.”
Index on Censorship:
Expert Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, also explained concerns about press freedom in Azerbaijan:
“The mere threat of arrest or of excessive damages claims in civil defamation cases has a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression in a society. I am also concerned about a recent amendment to relevant legislation extending defamation provisions to online expression.”
Azerbaijan: UN experts concerned by human rights restrictions, harassment of journalists (UN – United Nations)… http://t.co/ODMg5MXaAq
— Azerbaijan.com (@Azerbaijan_com) October 4, 2013
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Georgia…
The election season has a decidedly different flavour. As Alexey Malashenko of Carnegie Moscow Center illustrates:
“What is special about the upcoming Georgian presidential elections scheduled to take place on October 27? First, these are probably the first “normal” elections—that is the elections that are taking place in the atmosphere of calm and are not accompanied by protests. After revolutions, unrest, and even a war, Georgian society looks peaceful. Second, these are democratic elections. The so-called “administrative resource,” which still remains one of the main instruments of the electoral process in most of the post-Soviet space, has been exhausted in Georgia…Third, presently, none of the 23 candidates has great charisma, thus their personal popularity and appeal will have no considerable effect on the outcome of the elections.”
— Max Fras (@fullofeels) October 4, 2013
Waiting for the results…
The elections in the two Caucasus countries have been drawing debate for months–as well as sparking controversy. Particularly after the European Parliament (EP) initially announced that it would not be sending observers to monitor the Azerbaijani elections, while an observation mission was scheduled for the Georgian elections.
— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) October 9, 2013
Following the European Parliament’s announcement that it would likely not be sending an observation mission to Azerbaijan, there was a strong backlash from activists. Azeri rights activists have since 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.
As 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 as the nation is suitably democratic and transparent.
The European Parliament has since decided to send a mission to Azerbaijan.
— Elman Abdullayev (@elmanabdullayev) October 9, 2013
— Andrej Matisak (@matisaksk) October 9, 2013
Polls open in Azerbaijan! And some American clown observer reportedly says “Everything is like in the U.S.” http://t.co/dQKKctJAKi
— Joshua Kucera (@joshuakucera) October 9, 2013