October 9, 2010 § 2 Comments

AzerbaijanWho lives there?: About 9 million people. Of these roughly 150,000 live in Nagorno-Karabakh – a de facto independent part of Azerbaijan in alliance with Armenia (or under Armenian occupation – depending on your point of view). This area includes much of the former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous province but also areas that used to be part of Azerbaijan proper. In addition there are a small number of Azeri border villages under direct Armenian occupation.

Nearly 400,000 live in the semi-autonomous southern exclave of Nakhchivian.

Azerbaijan is one of only four countries in the world that have a majority Shia muslim population. However Azerbaijan’s religious leaders strongly contest that Iranian Shia religious leaders have authority on matters of religion. Azeri-Iranian relations are further complicated by the fact that up to a quarter of the population of Iran speak Azeri (a Turkic, as opposed to Persian, language) and consider themselves ethnically Azeri.

How does the system work? (the theory): The  President is elected every five years by a universal suffrage first past the post election. A Prime Minister and cabinet are appointed by the President but it is the President that has executive power. The president can also veto the legislative – although the legislative can overturn this with a 95% majority.

The legislative branch consists of the National Assembly in the main part of Azerbaijan whilst Nakhchivan has its own parliament. Both are elected by first past the post for five year terms. The National Assembly has 125 members, the Nakhchivan Parliament 45.

Azerbaijan has one of the most comprehensive local government systems of any former soviet states. Local councils are elected by first-past-the-post and are given a great degree of autonomy and control by the constitution. That said there is a parallel system of local administration by the national government and it is a matter for debate which is these institutions has the greater power.

How does the system work? (the practice): Elections in Azerbaijan are somewhere in between party flawed and a complete sham. The ruling Aliyev family are in complete control of the country, with many of their relatives in key positions. Observers have had very significant questions about the electoral processes in the country and the news organisations in the country are notorious for spouting pro-government propaganda. 10 constituencies where electoral conditions were thought to be too chaotic had their election delayed for a year.

The impassable border with Armenia means that Nakhchivan is pretty much entirely isolated from the rest of Azerbaijan. The result is that the chair of the Nakhchivan Parlaiment, Talibov (another member of the Aliyev family) is in complete control of the area, and by all accounts is an absolute despot – with democracy in this part of Azerbaijan being an absolute sham.

How did we get here?: There have been tribes known as the Azeris living in the southern Caucus for many thousands of years. Over time the term came to be used to describe the Turckic language speaking Shia population of the area – as opposed to the Sunni Turks and Kurds, the Christian Armenians and the Persian speaking Iranians. As such the definitions of where Azerbaijan was became fuzzier – much as all sides would like to claim differently the truth is that there were Christians and Muslims living side by side across much of the southern Caucus and north eastern Turkey. Azeris became self-ruling following the collapse of Persian power in the early 19th century and were then embroiled in a number of wars as they attempted to resist Russian power.

In 1918-1922 Azeris took advantage of the chaos of the Russian revolution to declare independence – banding together with Armenia and Georgia (who had done likewise) to form a  federal state. The Soviet Union quickly crushed it.

The early Soviets had a policy of “Korenizatsiya” or nationalist autonomy based upon lingo-ethnic groups within the framework of a Soviet superstate. In line with this policy they rather arbitrarily divided the southern Caucuses into two countries: “Armenia” for the Christians and “Azerbaijan” for the Muslims. They then went a step further and created the semi-autonomous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan for “ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan”  and placed it under Azeri control.

When the Soviet Union collapsed both countries declared independence; Azerbaijan being amongst the first and most enthusiastic to do so. Neither they nor Armenia were happy with their borders and when Nagorno-Karabakh announced it wanted to split from Azerbaijan and join Armenia (a state of affairs which had been on the cards since the Soviet grip on the area started to weaken in 1987 – if not before) war was inevitable. A ceasefire was finally declared in 1994 and the two countries have remained in a state of frozen conflict ever since. Nagorno-Karabakh has declared itself independent, and although its sovereignty is not recognised by any country (not even Armenia) Armenia does protect and support it to a certain (and hotly debated) extent.


Who’s in charge?: For almost all of its independent life Azerbaijan has been ruled by the Aliyev family. Father Haydar handed over the presidency to son Ilham in 2003, and a large number of high ranking officials have links to the family. At the last election he received a somewhat unrealistic 87% of the vote, the second placed candidate getting 2.5%. That said opinion polls conducted by NGOs suggested he probably deserved to win.

Their party is the New Azerbaijan Party and they totally dominate Azeri politics. It is described as centre-right but to be honest it exists largely as a vehicle for Aliyev family power. Following the 2005 elections they didn’t actually have a majority in the National Assembly (56 out of the 115 seats decided in 2005) but since there were 43 independents elected – many of whom support the Government – establishing a working majority has not been difficult. When the remaining ten seats were contested, elections were felt to be fairer; the NAP picked up another 5, independents another 3 and minor opposition parties 2 (included in the totals below).

The opposition to the Akiyevs comes from a united opposition block called “Freedom”. The largest party in the group is the Azerbaijani Popular Front – an umbrella group in of itself which has separate conservative and liberal wings. It also contains the liberal party Mussavat and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan – which has its links in the movement for Azeri autonomy in Iran and has been banned in Azerbaijan on several occasions. In total the block only won 6 seats at the last election (Mussavat 5, APF (reform) 1).

The rest of the seats are made up of tiny parties who are officially regarded as opposition parties but are in reality more like crossbenchers – supporting the government when it suits them to do so. There’s the Civic Unity Party – a vehicle for Azerbaijan’s first ever President Mutallibov (1 seat), the Motherland Party – a party for Azeri refugees from Armenia (2 seats), the Civic Solidarity Party – a conservative party led by a former dissident Communist which makes disputed claims to be rapidly gaining support (3 seats), the Justice Party – a liberal party (1 seat) the Party of Hope – an offshoot from the CUP that makes heavily disputed claims to be the best supported opposition group (1 seat), the Azerbaijan Social Prosperity Party – an unashamedly pro-government party (1 seat), the Party for Democratic Reforms – a moderate reform party (1 seat), the Whole Azerbaijan Popular Front – a militantly anti-Armenian Party (1 seat), and the Great Order Party – a centre-right party (1 seat).

azeri parties

Elections to the Nakhchivan Parliament were described as a “triumph for democracy” by Talibov, with other organisations preferring the term “farce”. The New Azerbaijan Party won 39 of the seats, the Azerbaijani Popular Front 2 and independents 4. With the Azerbaijani Popular Front boycotting Parliament, Talibov was unanimously re-elected.

(Update, since this was written we have had parliamentary elections. They were not felt to be fair by the international community, the arbitrary disqualification of opposition candidates. However interestingly, unlike in previous elections, there were not many street protests or angry demonstrations after the results.

The New Azerbaijan Party increased its share to 72 seats, giving them an outright majority even without any independents. In addition the opposition Mussavat and APF parties were totally wiped out – the first time this had happened. The remaining 53 seats went 38 to pro Aliyev independents, 3 to Motherland, 2 to Civic Solidarity and 1 each to eight minor parties: the Democratic Reforms party, Great Creation (a new overtly anti Aliyev party), the Movement for National Rebirth (a new party), Umid (a new regional pro Karabakh party), Civic Unity, Civic Welfare (a new Civic unity offshoot), Adalet (Justice), and the Popular Front of United Azerbaijan.

These parties and independents have now formed into a number of blocks and there has been some party jumping already: the opposition Democracy Block is made from the Civic Solidarity Party and the Democratic Reforms party and is up to 4 seats. The moderate opposition Reform Block is made from the Great Creation and Justice Parties and has two seats. Motherland has chosen to support the government and is now down to two seats. Civic Unity, Civic Welfare and the Popular Front of United Azerbaijan have one seat each and are also supporting the government. The Umid MP is sitting as a lone opposition member and all the other parties have disappeared – their MPs sitting as independents.

Turnout in Nakhchivan was only 35% . The New Azerbaijan Party won 42 seats, independents 2, and the Popular Front 1.)

What does it look like?: The borders are mountain pasture land with fast flowing rivers and forests, there is an area of flat farmland in the middle and the Caspian sea has a sandy coastline. The influx of oil money into Baku has led to Dubai-like architectural excesses in some areas; whilst the rest still looks very soviet. There are many sites of cultural and archaeological interest, and concerns have been raised about the state of some of the Armenian ones.


What are the issues?: The main issues for the opposition are democracy and the suppression of freedoms. Relations with Azerbaijan and the state of Nagorno-Karabakh are a national obsession – ownership of a copy of the Lonely Planet is illegal in Azerbaijan as the book acknowledges Nagorno-Karabakh’s existence. Azerbaijan has done well out of trade out of the Caspian sea via Baku – particularly trade in oil. It would very much like build on this through pan-Caucasian trading and the location of lucrative oil pipelines. The frozen conflict and the militarized border with Armenia preclude that.

Receiving less attention from the politicians but of great importance to the public is the economy. Azerbaijan went through a process of radical liberalisation and it has been a  mixed blessing: the economy has boomed in some areas and stalled in others – and social security has lessened.

A good source of impartial information is: Reliable information is difficult to come across, you are often left to rely upon NGOs such as IWPR. Many Azeris rely on Turkish news sources rather than their own. Turan is English language and free from state control but has to work within Azerbaijan’s restrictive culture of self-censorship.

Central Asian Survey is a fantastic academic journal that covers the region. It is available online for a fee. Archived copies are available via Jstor (also behind a paywall).

A good book is: Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War is a very good and fair account of the Armenian and Azeri political situation and the ongoing saga of NK. Azerbaijan’s most famous son is Gary Kasparov -probably the greatest Chess player of all time. An astute (if unsuccessful) politician, whilst Kasparov has mostly written about the politics of his adopted country of Russia, in his autobiography Child of Change: An Autobiography he talks about the society he grew up in and the political ideas that shaped his own.

When are the next elections?: Presidential elections are not due until 2013.


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