- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005

In a recent visit to Azerbaijan as National Democratic Institute chairman, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “Election day is important, but the months leading up to the elections are also crucial.”

She referred to the parliamentary elections to be held Nov. 6, when the citizens of Azerbaijan go to the polls to elect their representatives to Parliament, or Milli Mejlis.

The Bush administration views these elections as a litmus test of the Azerbaijan government’s commitment to democracy. The U.S. Congress has weighed in by passing a resolution calling on Azerbaijan “to hold orderly, peaceful, and free and fair elections in November 2005 in order to ensure the long-term growth and stability of the country.”

We are the first to recognize that independence, stability and prosperity depend on successful democratic reform. President Ilham Aliyev wants an orderly transition, as our last few years of unprecedented economic growth would be jeopardized by political instability. Toward this end and to conduct elections according to international standards, the president issued an Executive Order outlining steps to be taken:

(1) Allowing all political parties to organize rallies free from violence and intimidation.

(2) Welcoming domestic and international election observers. (3) Providing access to media, thus ensuring fair coverage.

(4) And ensuring central and regional authorities create the necessary conditions for exit polls.

Among many provisions of the Order already carried out are those that concern participation in the political arena by opposition parties. There has been dialogue between ruling and opposition parties, all opposition parties may freely conduct rallies and demonstrations and, thus far, all opposition activists — including those who called for overthrow of the government in October 2003 — have been allowed to become candidates if they wish. During his visit to Azerbaijan at the end of August, Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, said: “The opposition leaders underlined that the registration process of the MP candidates went well, which is a step forward compared to the previous elections.” President Aliyev went further by warning all regional election officials not to interfere in the old Soviet fashion, when ballot-stuffing was common.

President Aliyev’s insistence on free and fair elections in November is based on the idea Azerbaijan’s secular government can co-exist with its Muslim traditions.

Our vision is premised on the belief democratic pluralism will ensure a peaceful outlet for dissent, eliminating the need for violent alternatives. Citizens of all ethnicities and political persuasions are free to advocate their positions peacefully.

Today, Azerbaijan is a vibrant, independent state. We have faced many challenges in our young country’s life: preserving our independence in a tough neighborhood; making the transition from a shattered to a market economy; building government institutions and an independent judiciary; finding a peaceful solution to our conflict with Armenia; and developing and delivering our natural resources to world markets.

Throughout these difficult years, the United States has been a friend and ally of Azerbaijan. Our strategic partnership has blossomed since the attacks on America on September 11, 2001. Immediately after, the late President Heydar Aliyev visited the U.S. Embassy in Baku not only to express his condolences but to offer his full support. Today, we stand side-by-side in the global war on terrorism. Our troops proudly serve in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Azerbaijan’s location between Russia, Iran and Turkey, coupled with our desire to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic community, requires that we conduct a balanced foreign policy fostering development of democratic institutions and a strong economy. Azerbaijan has come this far without tangible foreign aid and expects to continue democratic and economic development, primarily through its own resources.

According to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute sponsored by USAID, an overwhelming majority of Azerbaijanis want economic and social development to be their government’s priority concerns.

This November, the people of Azerbaijan will elect a Parliament I believe will accelerate our transition toward democratic pluralism to match the country’s unprecedented economic growth. Mr. Lugar told the press in Baku: “I sense in Azerbaijan a yearning for building strong democratic institutions.”

Hafiz Pashayev is Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States.

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