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Ilham and Haydar Aliyev. Photo: ilgazetesi.com.tr
Ilham and Haydar Aliyev. Photo: ilgazetesi.com.tr

In 2003 the octogenarian president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, was approaching the end of his second term. His country was preparing for presidential elections. This was the first ballot since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe two years before. Aliyev promised to be once again a candidate for reelection. However, having flown for emergency treatment to Turkey and the US in the summer of 2003 he was aware of his frail health. Instead of running again he paved the way for his son Ilham to succeed him.[1]

On 24 August 2002 Heydar Aliyev organized a referendum on 39 amendments to the 1995 constitution, Some of the key changes included the scrapping of the proportional electoral system – the move that was seen as disadvantaging the opposition parties.[2] The number of votes needed to elect the President was reduced from two-thirds to a simple majority. Finally, the prime minister, rather than the speaker of the parliament, was designated as next in the presidential line of succession. As analysts and observers concurred, the changes were clearly designed to prepare the ground for a future power transfer to Ilham Aliyev.[3] According to the official figures, the turnout was 88 percent and 97 percent of participants approved of the amendments.[4] On 4 August 2003 Ilham Aliyev was elected new Prime Minister in parliament and thus became the first in line to succeed his father. Opposition deputies boycotted the vote. Then, two weeks before the scheduled presidential elections in October, Heydar Aliyev withdrew his candidacy in favour of his son. (Heydar Aliyev later died on 12 December 2003).

Ilham Aliyev, born in 1961, had spent almost all of his early life in Moscow. He studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), an elite Soviet institution attended by children of high-ranking officials. When his father Heydar became president of independent Azerbaijan in 1993 Ilham became Vice President of SOCAR, the state oil company. He also served as head of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 2001 to 2003.

In 2003 some doubted whether Ilham Aliyev would be able to fill the shoes of his powerful father.[5] As analyst Audrey Altstadt put it on the eve of his election, "The younger Aliyev is not regarded as someone who is up to the challenges of the presidency or any other high office."[6] Some anticipated that Ilham Aliyev would be weak, controlled by the old elites that rose to prominence during his father's presidency.[7] Others anticipated a real electoral contest, the first since 1992. There was a sense of hope in the air about having meaningful elections.[8]

Ilham Aliyev. Photo: NATO
Ilham Aliyev. Photo: NATO

As the elections neared it quickly became clear, however, that candidates did not compete on a level playing ground. The Central Election Commission was dominated by government appointees. As Human Rights Watch noted, "government officials openly sided with the campaign of İlham Aliyev, constantly obstructing opposition rallies and attempting to limit public participation in opposition events."[9] State-owned media, contrary to their legal obligation, failed to provide adequate media time to oppositional candidates.[10] The police beat and intimidated opposition supporters. As Human Rights Watch reported in a briefing paper two days prior to the elections,

"The direct result of the government-sponsored campaign against the opposition is that the October 15 presidential elections in Azerbaijan will be of questionable legitimacy, regardless of the fairness and transparency of the election-day procedures. Too much manipulation, too many arrests, and too many beatings have taken place already for the presidential elections to be considered free and fair."[11]

As Freizer put it, "in the months leading up to 15 October, violence was legitimised as an acceptable response to peaceful political gatherings, as government authorities warned that the opposition was committed to instability and overthrowing the state."[12]

Aliyev's main rival in the election was Isa Gambar, Chairman of the Musavat (Equality) party and leader of an electoral bloc called "Bizim Azerbaijan" (Our Azerbaijan).

The elections took place on 15 October 2003. Ilham Aliyev emerged victorious with 77 percent of the vote. The runner-up Isa Gambar received less than 14 percent. The elections were marred by numerous violations and violence, especially in the post-election period. Election night and the following day witnessed serious abuses on the part of internal security forces. As opposition rallies took place throughout the capital, the police launched a brutal crackdown, killing several people, injuring many more and detaining over 600, including elections commission officials. Isa Gambar not only lost the elections but was kept under effective house arrest for twenty-five days as the media launched a campaign against him accusing him of conspiring to overthrow the government.[13]

Isa Gambar. Photo: isagambar.az
Isa Gambar. Photo: isagambar.az

The elections were universally criticized by international monitors. In its final report, the OSCE election observation mission stated:

"The 15 October 2003 presidential election in the Republic of Azerbaijan failed to meet OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections. The overall process reflected a lack of sufficient political commitment to implement a genuine election process. There was widespread intimidation in the pre-election period, and unequal conditions for the candidates. The election dispute resolution mechanism generally did not provide an effective or timely remedy to complainants. The counting and tabulation of election results were seriously flawed. Post-election violence resulting in the widespread detentions of election officials and opposition activists further marred the election process." (p. 1).

Freedom House, in its 2004 Freedom in the World report, downgraded its ranking of Azerbaijan from "partly free" to "not free" "due to the holding of seriously flawed presidential elections in October and a subsequent government crackdown on opposition supporters". Azerbaijan has since been ranked "not free" in all Freedom House reports. The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE), a think tank which had contributed 188 observers to the OSCE/ODIHR 500-strong monitoring mission, stated that the elections were a "sham":

"Since none of the criteria for evaluating an electoral process were met," the observers' statement declares, "the presidential elections of October 15, 2003 in the Republic of Azerbaijan cannot be qualified as what in the practice of civilized nations is called "elections." (press release)

A resolution issued by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe pointed to numerous abuses including "intimidation of voters," "arbitrary arrests" of opposition supporters, "clear bias" in the media, and "excessive use of force" by security forces. According to this resolution "In a member state of the Council of Europe, which has been independent for more than ten years, such practice is unacceptable."[14]

However, opposition protests had no impact: it proved unable to mobilize large numbers of people. As analyst Alex Rasizade noted,

"Opposition parties lack a comprehensive political platform that could stir Azeris out of their conditioned torpor and attract large numbers of supporters. Unlike in the perestroika period, apathy and aversion to politics are alarmingly widespread in the benighted masses. For an overwhelming majority, stability and survival are now more urgent concerns than the abstract concepts of democracy and the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh, which are generally seen as having brought nothing but war, ethnic cleansing, lawlessness and poverty. This is the real political climate in which the Alievs have smoothly passed power from father to son despite the opposition's vitriol" (p. 138).

For Azerbaijani analyst Fariz Ismailzade the elections were a turning point:

"the extreme polarization of the Azerbaijani political scene has reached dangerous level and any further alienation of the opposition will lead to further instability and violence in the country. The opposition forces believe that they have no avenues for political participation, as all elections are rigged."[15]

Sabine Freizer summarized,

"… [The] 2003 elections showed the effectiveness of violence and fraud as tools to maintain political power." [16]

Ilham Aliyev. Photo: Unknown
Ilham Aliyev. Photo: Unknown

The rest of the world did not worry much about this dynastic accession, however. The New York Times observed in September 2003 that Russia's President Vladimir Putin had 'implicitly endorsed' the candidacy of Ilham Aliyev by meeting and congratulating him on being appointed prime minister in August.[17] Another NYT article noted that the US too was seeking "allies in combating terrorism, or energy reserves that lie off the coast of Azerbaijan, in the Caspian Sea. That has left the human rights groups of these post-Communist countries feeling increasingly vulnerable as their chief champion backs away from confrontation."[18] As The New York Times wrote, "Ilham Aliyev's rise to power in Azerbaijan sits well with Turkey, Russia and the United States."[19]


[1] Alec Rasizade "Azerbaijan after Heydar Aliev," Nationalities Papers, Vol. 32, No. 1, March 2004, p. 137.

[3] Anar Valiyev, "Referendum in Azerbaijan: Next Victory of Azeri President", CACI Analyst, 11 September 2002

[4] IFES Election Guide, "Azerbaijan Announces Results of Referendum", 26 August 2002

[5] Audrey Altstadt, "Azerbaijan and Aliev – A Long History and an Uncertain Future" (Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 50, no. 5, Sept. – Oct. 2003), p. 10.

[6] Audrey Altstadt, "Azerbaijan and Aliev – A Long History and an Uncertain Future" (Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 50, no. 5, Sept. – Oct. 2003), p. 10.

[7] "Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan as Post-Soviet Rentier States: Resource Incomes and Autocracy as a Double 'Curse' in Post-Soviet Regimes" by Anja Franke et al, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 61, No. 1, January 2009, p. 118).

[8] Sabine Freizer, "Dynasty and Democracy in Azerbaijan", Open Democracy, 5 December 2003.

[9] Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, "Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections 2003", 13 October 2003

[11] Human Rights Watch, "Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections 2003", Summary, HRW Briefing Paper, 13 October 2003

[12] Sabine Freizer, "Dynasty and Democracy in Azerbaijan", Open Democracy, 5 December 2003.

[13] Sabine Freizer, "Dynasty and Democracy in Azerbaijan", Open Democracy, 5 December 2003.

[15] Fariz Ismailzade, "Azeri Politics: A New Reality after Elections?" (Central Asia Caucasus Analyst, 22 October 2003, Issue 5)

[16] Sabine Freizer, "Dynasty and Democracy in Azerbaijan", Open Democracy, 5 December 2003.

[17] "Europe: Azerbaijan: Putin Backs Young Leader", New York Times, 19 September 2003

[18] Seth Mydans, 'LETTER FROM ASIA; Free of Marx, but Now in the Grip of a Dynasty' New York Times, 15 October 2003

[19] 'Dynastic Regimes', New York Times, 25 August 2003

March 2011

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