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Baku Angered by US Criticism

Americans accused of interfering in forthcoming Azerbaijani presidential election.
By Leila Amirova
A war of words over Azerbaijan’s democratic record has damaged relations between Baku and Washington, less than six months before Azerbaijan’s presidential elections.

Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George Bush have made critical remarks about Azerbaijan in the last month, eliciting a furious response from Azerbaijani officials.

Speaking to the US Peace Corps 2008 Worldwide Country Director Conference on April 29, Rice said, “[In] the Caucasus … not so much Georgia, but Azerbaijan [and] to a certain extent Armenia… there is important work to be done…to bring that part of the Caucasus closer to [democratic] standards that we thought they were once meeting. And it has been a disappointment.”

Rice said that the failure to resolve the Nagorny Karabakh conflict was holding back both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

President Bush, in a speech to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 1, underlined the country’s poor record on detention of journalists. "In 2007, for the ninth consecutive year, China remained the world's top jailer of journalists, followed by Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, and Azerbaijan," he said.

Azerbaijan has been criticised in the past. What seemed to rankle this time with Azerbaijani officials this time was that their country had been set below its traditional enemy, Armenia, despite Armenia’s recent disputed elections, bloody street clashes and state of emergency. The Georgian government also brutally suppressed opposition demonstrators last November.

Azerbaijani foreign ministry spokesman Khazar Ibrahim said that US officials had been misinformed.

“The assessment of the situation in our region displays double standards. We do not shoot at demonstrators, do not kill them, do not impose a state of emergency or shut down independent media,” he said, in a reference to Armenia.

“There is an impression that in Washington they do not have a real picture of the region, which is very disappointing when you take into account the relationship of strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and the USA.”

Ramiz Mekhtiev, the veteran head of the presidential office, was even more scathing.

“Condoleezza Rice’s statements about Azerbaijan cannot be taken seriously,” he said. “You can only conclude from her words that Azerbaijan ought to copy the March events in Armenia so as to earn a good report on us.”

Political analyst Mubariz Ahmedoglu argued that Azerbaijan was in a better situation than either of its two neighbours and that Rice “wants to see Azerbaijan as a client state of the USA”.

The Azerbaijani opposition, however, which is currently considering whether to announce a boycott of October’s presidential elections, took heart from the criticism.

“The Azerbaijani authorities need to take criticism against them more seriously,” said Isa Gambar, head of the opposition Musavat party.

“Declarations that President Bush and Secretary of State Rice are not properly informed about the situation in Azerbaijan are astonishing. Instead of doing that they need to properly assess the situation in the country and take steps to improve it.”

Head of the Liberal Party Lala Shovket said she hoped the statements would force the authorities to hold more democratic elections later this year.

“We also hold the opinion that there is an undeclared state of emergency in the country, we cannot hold rallies or speak on television,” she told Trend news agency.

The row became even more heated when the US embassy in Baku announced it was allocating the sum of three million dollars in technical help and media assistance to help make the elections more free and fair. US ambassador Anne Derse also called on the opposition not to boycott the polls.

Presidential official Ramiz Mehtiev was scornful of the initiative.

“Personally, as a citizen of Azerbaijan, I regard the allocation of three million dollars by the USA for our presidential elections as interference in the internal affairs of the country,” he said. “I don’t consider it normal. The US would not permit the interference of another country into its internal processes, so why should that happen in Azerbaijan?”

Opposition member of parliament Fazil Gazanfaroglu also criticised the American plans saying, “I think that non-governmental organisations ought to control and monitor this initiative by the embassy of the USA so that government officials and members of the opposition who are close to them don’t share out the money amongst themselves. That’s what happened to the money allocated for the last elections.”

Recently, most of the criticism against Azerbaijan has focussed on the issue of the harassment and imprisonment of journalists. In April alone, 72 incidents against journalists were recorded by the League of Democratic Journalists, four media employees received death threats and the city authorities in Baku banned the sale of newspapers on the street or at bus stops. Twenty one journalists went on hunger strike.

Another US State Department report which praised Azerbaijan for its positive contribution to the “war on terror” went virtually unnoticed in Baku.

Analysts say that this kind of criticism of Azerbaijan’s democratic credentials has been heard before. What is different this time is the response.

“The USA always spent money on observing elections and in principle nothing new has happened,” said commentator Ilgar Mamedov. “The only thing that’s changed is the attitude of Azerbaijan. And that is connected to the fact that the authorities feel more confident because of the inflow of petro-dollars, greater geopolitical opportunism and the importance of our country when it comes to the energy security of Europe.”

Leila Amirova is a freelance journalist in Baku.

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