Reflections from a Liberal in Azerbaijan

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Around eight months ago, I, along with a dozen or so colleagues from young liberal organisations from across Europe, were selected to be observers in the snap general election in Azerbaijan. I was honoured to be the UK/Liberal Democrat representative with the European Liberal Youth Network (LYMEC) Mission. I have felt for some time that I ought to tell the party what I found on its behalf. So now, with some trepidation, I will.

For those who don’t know (as I didn’t), a brief explainer on the situation in Azerbaijan: Ilham Əliev, the son of the first president of independent Azerbaijan Heydar, leads a deeply illiberal regime tainted with corruption and an entrenched hatred of their neighbour Armenia. The make-up of the government, to all intents and purposes, has not changed since they were relinquished from Soviet control in 1991. This is the situation into which we were dropped; a group of young, relatively inexperienced young liberals from wealthy, by-and-large politically stable, European nations, preparing to tell an Azeri quasi-despot his psephological fortune. Goodness me.

On the day of the election I was assigned the observation of the electoral regions (rayons) of Quba in the far north of the country. I was accompanied by a colleague from the Young European Federalists/Young Liberals of Austria, equally new to the trade of election observation, but no less motivated to promote sound electoral practice. We waded through snow to reach dozens of polling places, as our counterparts did in all corners of the country. What we found was deeply disappointing, and should give cause for concern for any liberal anywhere in the world. Ballot-box stuffing, obscuring of official webcams, harassment of candidates and election officials were all not just commonplace, but apparently institutionalised, almost accepted as part of the process. I remember clearly visiting one polling station close to the centre of the town which was obviously a major hub for candidates and party apparatchiks to show their faces to the electorate. This manifested itself, however, as intimidation of any and all opposition-affiliated individuals—candidates or otherwise.

Having made our observations, the Mission returned to Baku. I was honoured to be made spokesperson for the Mission, and so led a focussed group of half a dozen to collate the findings into a final report. It was damning. Our findings in Quba were replicated in rayons across the country; rich, poor, rural, urban, all stained with wanton malpractice. We did not seek at any point to belittle the country or its people—Azerbaijan is a fascinating country; whose people are more hospitable and welcoming than almost any other I have ever visited. But facts were facts, and we refused to be silent.

The importance of our work was crystallised as we entered our final polling station in Quba. A young woman whose father was standing as an independent opposition candidate approached us, almost running, when we first arrived, explaining to us in broken English and Azeri through our translator the way in which she and her father had been denied entrance to the polling place— the latest, she claimed, in a series of instances of harassment of dissenting candidates. On the verge of tears, she handed us a copy of a letter she had sent to various international organisations stressing the subjugation of opposition voices in her country. She was desperate. “No-one in Europe cares about us,” she said. I still have her letter, written in Azeri. I don’t know what it says or, to be frank, if it is entirely true, but I cannot bear to throw it away.

We, as liberals, must care. It is all too easy for us to bury our heads in the sand, saying “we have our own issues to deal with”. But ultimately, the woman at the polling station in Quba is right. They, the democrats, are voiceless in their country. They need a champion, someone to call out the rampant illiberalism of their regime from the outside. Especially now, as the Caucasus descends ever closer to the jaws of war, we liberals must be resolute and unapologetic in our defence of human rights, the rule of law, and democracy—in Azerbaijan, and around the world.

* Peter Douglas Banks Peter sits on the International Committee of Young Liberals, and is currently running for International Officer. He currently lives and studies in The Hague, The Netherlands.

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  • Thank you Peter and to your colleagues in the European Liberal Youth Network in doing this important observation work bearing witness to what is happening on the ground.

    While it’s at least a step forward that you were all/mostly allowed to quietly monitor the proceedings, it seems like the regime there has little to hold it back from intimidating opposition and falsifying results, from you and your colleagues’ reports.

    And while you can’t be sure of the veracity of what the woman’s letter says, sadly her plea that “No-one in Europe cares about us” amongst Europe’s leaders is largely true, when it comes down to relations with Erdogan’s govt in Turkey, and NATO’s interests in not upsetting Erdogan or the Azeri govt, given their locations and oil pipelines.

    At least you were able to show by being there that some people in Europe do care about them, and there is a witness to the actions of the Azeri govt.

  • Giri Sathasivam 22nd Oct '20 - 10:56pm

    Hi Peter,
    A good insight to what is happening in poorer nations where corruption has been the norm for so long.
    I am glad that you and other young Lib Democrats were able to witness and experience elections in these countries.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Well done.

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