- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The elections in Azerbaijan are surely making the administration’s foreign-policy architects cringe. According to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Sunday’s parliamentary elections did not meet international standards. The report puts pressure on the administration to admonish the government of Azerbaijan and potentially threaten further action, particularly given President Bush’s frequent and impassioned support for spreading democracy around the world. There are a host of reasons, though, why a lighter response would be more appropriate, and so far, that is how the administration has calibrated its reaction. The world’s expectations for a more vigorous policy, though, could force the administration’s hand.

According to official results, the Azadliq, (freedom), coalition won six seats in the parliament, while the ruling New Azerbaijan Party took 63 and independents mostly aligned with the government won the rest of the seats in the 125-seat parliament. In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli noted some of the democratic progress in the recent election. “There have been a large number of candidates allowed to register, there has been increased access to the media and there has been access to the elections by foreign observers and that’s important and worth noting,” he said, adding, that there were also “major irregularities and fraud that are of serious concern.”

But it remains unclear whether the opposition, which is highly fractured, would have mustered a commanding majority in a free and fair election. It also remains unclear if there is a broad and strong popular will in Azerbaijan to demand a new vote in some or all districts. In addition, the election was notably freer and fairer than past votes. The opposition lacks a unifying figure and some of the more prominent members have botched past attempts to lead the country. Also, the United States has maintained good relations with the current government of President Ilham Aliyev. Russia, which would be perfectly happy to see a pall over America’s relationship with Azerbaijan, has said the elections were legitimate.

Given the circumstances, Azerbaijan might not benefit from the kind of popular uprising that brought democratically elected governments to power in Ukraine and Georgia, with vigorous U.S. support. Such a scenario in Azerbaijan could bring chaos and would not necessarily lead to greater freedoms. To make matters more complicated, since Azerbaijan has oil resources, a nuanced U.S. response will undoubtedly be interpreted by many as a political bow to oil interests.

The government of Azerbaijan has so far reacted intelligently to the OSCE report. Mr. Aliyev conceded that there had been violations in eight electoral districts. The president’s adviser, Elin Suleymanov, said that electoral complaints will be considered swiftly and violators would be punished.

It remains to be seen if the opposition and European nations would accept such remedies. If not, the State Department will have to make some difficult decisions. Its moves will be closely watched by other authoritarian governments in the region.

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