- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

Hafiz Pashayev, a physicist by training, has been Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Washington since 1993, the only ambassador to the United States since his country achieved independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He talked with staff writer David R. Sands this week about the significance of tomorrow’s parliamentary elections.

Question: Do you feel there is increased international scrutiny over how the government conducts this vote? Do you feel that is fair?

Answer: I think there is no question that Azerbaijan is under the microscope. We feel we have proven we are an important friend and ally of the United States, and with President Bush’s clear doctrine in support of democracy around the world, we know a lot of people will be watching what happens.

Is it fair? I think it’s both fair and unfair. In my view, Azerbaijan from the first day of our independence has intentionally chosen to be considered among the democratic states of the world. We had our problems and perhaps that is understandable, taking into account the political culture we inherited from the Soviet times.

But from that first day, all of our elections — four presidential and two parliamentary votes — have been held in a timely fashion, and each election has been an improvement, technically, on the one before.

Q: The Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine have sparked talk of a democratic transformation across your region. How has that affected the political debate in Azerbaijan?

A: Some of our opposition groups are trying to use those very different situations in Azerbaijan also, but we strongly believe that the peaceful, evolutionary path to reform would also be a very important example for others in our region.

All the opinion polls show that the party of [President Ilham Aliyev] can win a clear majority in any free and fair vote. The reason why Azerbaijanis want to conduct a good, clean election is not because we are trying to escape the experience of Ukraine and Georgia, but because our own citizens deserve it. The government understands that while we are well advanced in economic and social terms, we have to maintain a stable and progressive political situation to move forward.

Q: There was violence in the days after President Aliyev won election in 2003. Are there similar concerns about this vote?

A: I think in some ways our government is more concerned about the day after the vote than the day of the election. Yes, there was violence in 2003, even though the most hard-line opposition groups had to concede that the president was the clear winner.

The anti-government forces used violence to try to undermine the credibility of our vote internationally, and, I have to say, there were instances where our own security forces [overreacted]. We have been working very hard to ensure not just the fairness of this vote, but also that it can take place peacefully.

Q: Private groups such as Human Rights Watch have been particularly critical of the run-up to the vote. How do you respond?

A: The president and the government have taken a number of documented steps since May until just last week to ensure the vote is fair. We do not fear a clean election, because the government is genuinely popular.

I hear this talk that the press is not free or that the government is suppressing the opposition. But when I travel back to Baku and read the newspapers and watch the television, I don’t know how anyone can say that. It seems to me, sometimes, as if every achievement or improvement we make just means that the level demanded of us goes that much higher.

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