Caspian Watch # 12: Great Game-Playing By the National Democratic Institute in Upcoming Azerbaijani Elections?

(Washington, D.C.): In recent days, the Washington Post href=”#N_1_”>(1) and New York Times href=”#N_2_”>(2) have devoted
large quantities of newsprint to the unfolding drama in the oil-rich Caspian Basin. The Center for
Security Policy, which has long been urging a greater appreciation of the enormous strategic
implications for the United States and for Western interests of developments in this region href=”#N_3_”>(3)
welcomes this major — albeit belated — recognition on the part of these flagship media
organizations of the high stakes associated with political and economic developments
there.

As it happens, this press attention comes in the run-up to what may be a singularly important
political development: The future course of Muslim Azerbaijan — at present, being
directed
by a pro-Western, secular government led by Heydar Aliyev — will be determined for the
first time by presidential elections held under a new constitution and pursuant to election
law developed in consultation with and endorsed by Azerbaijani opposition parties.

Enter the NDI

This law calls for a free and democratic electoral process consistent with international
standards.
As U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Stanley Escudero, has stated, “Azerbaijan has taken a number
of steps to improve the pre-election situation and democratization of the electoral process.”

Interestingly, a similar finding was issued just a few months ago by the National
Democratic
Institute
(NDI). The Institute is a congressionally chartered organization affiliated with
the
Democratic Party to promote democracy around the world. (Its Republican counterpart is the
International Republican Institute.) In a statement issued on 22 June 1998, the NDI declared:
“…The current draft of the law on presidential elections provides in many respects a legal
framework that conforms with international standards for elections. It reflects extensive
deliberation and consultation on the part of the government, and incorporates proposals
made by the opposition.”

At the same time, the NDI cautioned that the make-up of the Central Election Committee
(CEC)
created to oversee the Azerbaijani electoral process should be changed to provide expanded
opposition participation.(4) The opposition parties took up
this demand. President Aliyev agreed
to include an additional seat on the Committee by one member for each of the opposition parties
which field a Presidential candidate. This could have the effect of raising the total number of
temporary seats on the Committee to thirty during the election period.

The NDI decided that this change was insufficient, however, and called publicly for elections
to be
postponed until the matter was resolved. Seemingly guided by the American organization or
members of its staff — like Joanna Levison, its senior program officer for the Caucasus and
Turkey, who has been harshly critical of the Azerbaijani government href=”#N_5_”>(5) — party leaders decided to
boycott the elections.

The Primakov-Armenian Axis

The role of the NDI has not escaped the attention of others keenly interested in the outcome.
On
30 September 1998, the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta harshly described
the part being
played by the Democratic Party’s institute. As noted in a 2 October RFE/RL Newsline report:

    Nezavisimaya gazeta…lays the blame for the ongoing
    confrontation between the
    Azerbaijani opposition and authorities over the upcoming presidential poll on the
    National Democratic Institute.
    The daily claims that the institute openly backs the
    opposition, which embarked on ‘mass acts directed against the President’ only in
    August after the NDI proposed postponing the Presidential poll until a later date.
    Nezavisimaya gazeta, which is financed by Boris Berezovskii’s LogoVaz group,
    termed the NDI’s activities a violation of all laws of international ethics and
    interference in the internal affairs of a foreign state.” (Emphasis added.)

According to this report, the Russian line is that “the U.S. wants the polls to
be flawed
by procedural violations on the assumption that a compromised and weak Aliyev would be
more susceptible to U.S. pressure.” Even if untrue, this explanation clearly serves Prime
Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s ambition to sow discord and distrust between the United
States and the Azerbaijani governments, and to return Azerbaijan to the Russian sphere of
influence.

Another factor that might be at work here could be the Democratic Party’s
traditional
connection to the politically active and deep-pocketed Armenian-American
community.

Under less difficult circumstances than those currently confronting a cash-strapped DNC facing
potentially significant losses in the 1998 off-year elections, the Democrats would still be inclined
to placate valued political allies. Such parochial considerations have prompted legislators of
both
parties
who have been susceptible to pressure to resist the gradual extrication of Azerbaijan
from
Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992, which was designed to prohibit direct U.S.
assistance to Baku.

Irrespective of whether or not domestic political calculations have been guiding the NDI’s
intervention in the Azerbaijani election, it is a safe bet that the Armenian-American lobby on
Capitol Hill will seize upon the results of that intervention. After all, in the wake of Armenia’s
own polling last March — which was widely perceived to be neither “free” nor “fair” — challenges
over the adequacy of competition for votes of the Azerbaijani electorate voting are an irresistible
temptation for those determined to keep Baku isolated politically.

Regrettably, the principal beneficiary of such isolation will not be those seeking
further political
and economic reform in Azerbaijan. Instead, it will probably be Russians indifferent to such
ambitions — but determined at all costs to reestablish effective control over what may prove to be
as much as $4 trillion worth of hydrocarbon resources estimated to reside in the Caspian Basin.

The Bottom Line

There is a real danger that the results of the National Democratic Institute’s activities —
whether
intended or unintended — will be to set back the efforts made in recent years to put
U.S.-Azerbaijani relations on a sound footing. Such relations are both necessary to long-term
American strategic interests and indispensable to the further transformation of Azerbaijan along
genuinely secular and democratic political, as well as free market, lines.

There is no doubt that Azerbaijan has some ways to go on both the political and economic
fronts.
These objectives are unlikely to be advanced, however, by the recriminations virtually certain to
arise from an election unnecessarily boycotted by some of the opposition parties and, therefore,
susceptible to characterization — particularly by the Armenian-American lobby and its friends — as
“fundamentally flawed.”

On 7 August 1998, the Washington Post editorialized about the sorts of steps
that should be
taken by President Aliyev to create conditions under which “the burden would fall on the
opposition to cease its boycott and take its chances with the voters.”
These were to
“end all
censorship” and “find a formula to make all sides feel confident in the commission that will
oversee the election.” At minimum, President Aliyev appears to have made good faith efforts in
both areas. The fact that some opposition parties will apparently not “take their
chances with the
voters” this weekend should be seen as a tragically missed opportunity — rather than as an
indictment of the prospects for further improvements in democratic institution-building and the
safeguarding of human rights in Azerbaijan.

– 30 –

1. See the three-part series by Dan Morgan and David B. Ottaway
which appeared in the
Washington Post on October 4-6, 1998, and is entitled, respectively, Fortune
Hunters Lured U.S.
Into Volatile Region
(10/4/98); In Drawing a Route, Bad Blood Flows; Varying
Agendas Bear

(10/5/98); and Vast Kazakh Field Stirs U.S.-Russian Rivalry; Pipelines Are Key to
American
Exports on Routes
(10/6/98).

2. See the cover story in this Sunday’s New York Times
Magazine
entitled The Crude Face of
Global Capitalism
and authored by Jeffrey Goldberg.

3. See the Center’s Decision Brief entitled
Caspian Watch: Russian Power-plays on ‘Early Oil’
Hallmark of Kremlin Expansionism Past — and Future
( href=”index.jsp?section=papers&code=95-D_71″>No. 95-D 71, 2 October 1995) and for
further information the Summary Of A Symposium On The National Security
Dimensions Of
The Emerging Crisis In The Caspian Basin
(No.
96-C 94
, 1 October 1996).

4. Specifically, NDI felt that opposition representatives should fill
twelve — as opposed to the
agreed upon six — of the twenty-five total seats on the Central Election Committee: “Given the
circumstances in Azerbaijan, the best practice would appear to be constituting the CEC with one
half of its members from the ruling party and one half from the opposition, with the chairperson
agreed upon by both sides and voting only to break ties on the Commission [Committee].”

5. For example, in an article published in Caspian Crossroads
(Vol 3, Issue Number 4, August
1998), Ms. Levison wrote: “In a country where citizens routinely lack the freedoms and
mechanisms necessary to influence the political process, it would seem that the upcoming polls
would signify little. According to this logic, willy-nilly the regime will reproduce itself.” She
went on to declare: “Are the [Aliyev] concessions real? Do the negotiations that began under
duress have any lasting meaning? The opposition’s renewed pledge to boycott the polls would
appear to signify a resounding ‘No.’ The boycott conveys the judgment that, legal reforms
notwithstanding, the government has failed to engender confidence among its citizens that in
practice the election will be fair.” [The views expressed in the article are said to be Ms. Levison’s
and not necessarily to reflect the position of NDI.]

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