Azeri referenda

March 21, 2009
A constitutional referendum proposal was officially approved this week in Azerbaijan lifting presidential term limits. According to official tabulations, over 71 percent of the country's 4.9 legal voters turned out to vote in the referendum, which was held on March 18. According to Azeri law, there must be at least a 25 percent turn out for referendum results to be considered valid. The Central Election Commission, a state-based organization, claims that 91.7 percent of voters supported ending term limits, which will allow Azeri president Ilham Aliyev to extend his term beyond 2013.

The referendum relating to term limits was one of many amendments voted upon during the day, with none of the proposed measures receiving less than 87 percent support. One measure that was passed and which has received particular criticism allows for the president's term to be extended in case the country is in a 'state of war.' Opposition figures have argued that the term is too imprecise, particularly given the fact that Azerbaijan is still involved in a frozen state of conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.  
The opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper is reporting (in Azeri) that opposition figures, who had called for a boycott of the referenda, have claimed that the results are fraudulent.  
Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, meanwhile, have recently run several articles criticizing the referenda. RFE's site also reports that its correspondents in Azerbaijan have witnessed "various violations, including the bussing of voters from one polling station to another, open stuffing of ballot boxes, and illegal election-day campaigning." The site also shows footage of what RFE claims is a woman voting three times.  
It's been a while since I've been in Azerbaijan, but over the course of the five months I spent in Baku in 2004 and 2005, it was without question one of the angriest places I'd ever been with respect to the ways in which ordinary citizens felt about the political elite. Time and again, the people I met there (taxi drivers, academics, and neighbors, mainly) would, upon learning that I speak Azeri, launch into bitter denunciations of their government. Not that mine was a very scientific sampling, and perhaps things have become more relaxed since I was there, but I did really find the level of anger there quite striking. In this respect, it was very different from the places where I'd been spending time in Russia (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kazan, Ufa), where most people I knew seemed a lot more resigned to political corruption and, more importantly, really were feeling that their lives were better than they had been five or ten years earlier.  
Nearly fifteen percent of the population of Azerbaijan is made up of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, approximately 900,000 people. Many of them--including almost the entire library staff of one of the archives where I researched--continued to live in miserable conditions as of 2005, some sixteen years after they had first fled their homes. I number of people I knew inhabited single dormitory rooms with numerous family members. Meanwhile, the money that Azerbaijan's oil and gas reserves have brought into the country in recent years has created, in some very small quarters, extraordinary wealth.  
All in all, it's a potentially explosive situation. During the Bush years, administration officials went out of their way to flatter and curry favor with the Aliyev government in Baku, meeting with them often and downplaying issues relating to democratization and human rights.  Nevertheless, it is a policy which still hasn't appeared to succeed in winning influence in the region vis-a-vis Russia.  
Ultimately, the United States under Bush was distrusted by leaders like Aliyev because the US was perceived as having provided material and logistical support for the "Color Revolution" revolts against (pro-Russian) governments in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Bashkortostan, and Uzbekistan in 2003-2005, and because of actions like Condoleeza Rice's 2005 suggestion that the Belorussian government--another Russian ally--be overthrown 
At the same time, however, American tolerance for anti-democratic behavior and human rights abuses in countries with large oil reserves strengthened the hand of some of the most repressive regimes in the region, in addition to making us look like absolute hypocrites with respect to our support for democratic movements elsewhere. 

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