You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

SULEYMANOV: Azerbaijan piles up the building blocks of democracy

- - Monday, October 21, 2013

Azerbaijan and the United States are partners in addressing the world's most difficult challenges from fighting terrorism internationally to serving shoulder-to-shoulder in Afghanistan and working together to ensure peaceful future for the Afghan people. In fact, one of only a few nations that have made an early commitment to post-2014 Afghanistan, Azerbaijan accounts for some 40 percent of transit via the vital Northern Distribution Network supporting the International Security Assistance Force.

Our nations also work to together promote Europe's energy security by bringing Caspian natural gas to the European markets through the strategic Southern Gas Corridor, including the recently announced Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, a choice enthusiastically endorsed by the United States. Importantly, Azerbaijan, a nation proud of its Muslim heritage, stands as a strong supporter of intercultural dialogue and is a good friend of Israel. The U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership has been a key factor in transforming our region and remains an integral part of the international effort to bring about a lasting and international law-based settlement to the protracted Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, which resulted in displacement of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani civilians.

This partnership is part and parcel of the vision that the citizens of Azerbaijan voted for in the recent presidential election. The election produced no political surprises, as the incumbent, President Ilham Aliyev, won a landslide victory on Oct. 9. Mr. Aliyev's victory was universally predicted by an overwhelming majority of pundits as well as by numerous pre-election surveys and polls. The incumbent's undisputed advantage over the opposition comes, among other things, as a result of Azerbaijan's rapid social and economic growth — the nation's gross domestic product grew threefold over the past decade — and Mr. Aliyev's steady leadership chartering a pragmatic, independent course in a complicated region of the world. In addition, the confusion among the opposition, which resulted in nominating a self-described "backup candidate," Jamil Hasanli, a historian with rather limited political exposure, further diminished the chances of Mr. Aliyev's opponents. Therefore, unable to mount a credible political challenge, the Azerbaijani opposition predictably lost by a significant margin.

However, this simple and clear reality of Azerbaijan's political discourse seems to be frequently overlooked in the media coverage of the election. Any nationwide election with 5.1 million registered voters is never a perfect process. There were likely irregularities and problems, which need to be addressed in accordance with the law.

Still, the latest election was observed by more than 50,000 observers, including some 1,400 international observers representing 100 countries and 50 international and nongovernmental organizations. Some 1,000 webcams in various precincts allowed real-time monitoring of the process. The candidates campaigned and addressed rallies freely around the country, and each was allocated the equal time free of charge during televised debates, which were aired live on national TV every other day during the campaign. These debates provided political entertainment for viewers, easy quotes for Azerbaijan's critics and illustrated the noisy pluralism of Azerbaijan's system.

Following the election, most international observers, including the European Union, Council of Europe delegations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observation mission head, described the election as a step forward. They noted the well-organized electoral process and called for addressing existing problems they monitored. In a stark contrast, the OSCE mission from the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights issued a highly negative report, unfortunately echoed by the U.S. State Department. Interestingly, this controversial assessment of the election is not shared by the Azerbaijani citizens, who spoke loud and clear by voting for Mr. Aliyev.

Democracies consist of fundamental building blocks, which include pluralism, diversity, tolerance, gender equality and economic opportunities. Having established the first-ever democratic republic with a predominantly Muslim population in the world in 1918 and granted equal voting rights for women ahead of the United States, the Azerbaijani people have established these fundamentals. In so doing, they also shattered long-entrenched misperceptions. Likewise, today, we should strengthen the strategic U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership and continue making news by breaking existing convenient stereotypes, not by imposing new ones.

Elin Suleymanov is Azerbaijan's ambassador in Washington.