- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Supporting the spread of democracy is once again a key U.S. foreign policy interest. And well it should be.

In her recent trip to Central Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed and prodded leaders there to permit their people to have a genuine say in who governs them.

None of us wishes to dictate what kind of democracy each country should choose, but it is impossible to recall the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine without being impressed by the insistence of Georgians and Ukrainians that they have a right to choose their own leaders. That is the essence of democracy: the people get to choose.

Azerbaijan, a nation with a Turkic and majority-Muslim population that regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has parliamentary elections scheduled Nov. 6.

President Ilham Aliyev has worked hard to avoid the missteps of the election in 2003 and correct the problems that election observers catalogued then. His stated goal is assuring an environment during the election campaign, culminating on the day of the vote, which can be fairly judged to have promoted a free and fair election. Steps taken by his government to date are encouraging and include:

• Permitting opposition rallies.

• Establishing a public television station that provides free airtime for all candidates.

• Increasing NGO and political party registration.

• Posting continual updates to the Web site of the Central Election Commission, including complete voter’s lists.

• Increasing registration opportunities for all candidates — there are over 2,000 candidates contesting 125 seats, as opposed to only 400 candidates during the last parliamentary elections.

These efforts have been praised by many world leaders, along with elected officials here in the United States. However, in the face of several recent incidents of police violence against protestors involved in illegal demonstrations, Azerbaijan has been under intense domestic and international pressure to do more.

Why all the scrutiny of Azerbaijan? Azerbaijan, a country of 8 million people, has significant strategic importance to both the United States and to Europe.

It lies on the border of the newly enlarged European Union, with Russia to the North and Iran to the South. The new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline will ship up to 1.6 million barrels of oil a day from offshore Caspian wells to tankers in the Mediterranean Sea.

President Aliyev leads a Muslim-majority country fully dedicated to fighting the global war on terror. Azerbaijan has worked with the U.S. Air Force since September 11, 2001 to ferry troops and supplies to and from Afghanistan. It deployed peacekeepers to the Balkans and to Afghanistan. It closed terrorist bank accounts and cooperates with the U.S. and EU to stop the transit of terrorists and traffickers across its territory. It signed all 12 international counter-terrorist agreements sponsored by the U.N.

I am convinced that President Aliyev understands the importance to Azerbaijan’s reputation of his overseeing an election that meets international standards. However, police beating of demonstrators at recent rallies in downtown Baku have seriously clouded what had been a sunny path to Nov. 6.

The opposition parties, who are not nave when it comes to using the media, have set a trap for the president. They know that by staging illegal rallies in downtown Baku, rather than authorized demonstrations in other locations, they can guarantee a police response. It doesn’t matter who throws the first stone, the rest of the world will see pictures of police forces fighting with demonstrators and think that nothing has changed.

President Aliyev should guard against falling into the trap being set by those whose greater interest is to discredit him.

The president, I believe, fully understands the importance of taking the steps necessary to assuring a free and fair election. He should have the courage of his convictions: he must insist that his government abide by his instructions not to allow bloodied demonstrators to become the symbol of the Nov. 6 election.

The government of Azerbaijan must have the courage to allow peaceful rallies and demonstrations, even in downtown Baku. Breaking up even an illegal rally is not worth the cost to President Aliyev’s reputation.

No amount of oil wealth can trump Azerbaijan’s most valuable resource — its well educated, highly skilled people. They deserve the respect and support of their president in assuring that their votes count in an election campaign unmarred by police beatings.

Elizabeth Jones was assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs 2001-2005 and U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Kazakhstan from 1995-1998.

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