Observers are questioning the integrity of the constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan, in which the government reported 91 percent approval of sweeping constitutional changes, including extending the presidential term and increasing the president’s powers.
“It is clear that the package of constitutional changes put to a vote yesterday is designed to degrade checks on the power of the president. Regardless of the final tally, this referendum is the culmination of a process that lacks legitimacy,” said Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).
On September 8, Smith and other Members of Congress wrote an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev about the government’s proposed amendments. In December 2015, Smith introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until the regime makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.
“Azerbaijan’s crackdown against dissenting voices and ongoing repression of independent media – particularly during the electoral period – secured the successful adoption of the amendments long before Azerbaijani citizens went to vote,” said Ane Tusvik Bonde, Regional Manager for Eastern Europe and Caucasus at the Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF). “In this climate, no vote is free and fair.”
Azerbaijan is currently more authoritarian than at any time since it achieved independence in 1991, argues Thomas de Waal, a Senior Associate at Carnegie Europe. The turn to more authoritarian rule can in part be attributed to the ruling regime’s fears about a contagion effect from the Maidan uprising in Ukraine and the revolutions in the Middle East, he contends:
In 2013, the younger Aliyev launched a political crackdown on dissent that was harsher than anything carried out by his KGB-schooled father. It began with the jailing of Ilgar Mammadov (right), the leader of the pro-Western opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) party who had been planning to run in the presidential elections. (As of this writing, Mammadov is still in jail, despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ordering his release.) Later, many more pro-democracy activists and government critics were jailed, and Western organizations operating in Azerbaijan were closed. In parallel, Azerbaijan restricted its engagement with Western countries to a narrower agenda of energy and security issues and strengthened its relationship with Russia. The drastic economic downturn in 2015–2016 was also the occasion for rethinking relations with the West, but the new model has remained essentially unchanged.
A shifting international environment and growing concerns over domestic stability have prompted the Aliyev regime to sidle up to Russia and open up its cooperation with Iran, according to Aleksandra Jarosiewicz, an analyst at the Centre for Eastern Studies.
Western governments’ reactions to recent changes have been less than robust, Eurasianet reports:
The European Union merely advised Azerbaijan to take into consideration an assessment of the amendments from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which found that the changes would give the president an “unbelievable” amount of power.
Meanwhile, Washington attempted to straddle the fence – not wanting to alienate a strategic partner, but also not wanting to endorse the changes wholeheartedly. The day after the referendum, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner was grilled by reporters about Washington’s willingness to go along with the outcome of the poll in Azerbaijan, despite concerns over “voting irregularities.” When asked if it is “good that one family ruled that country for so long and that the son of the previous ruler can now rule it for even longer,” Toner responded that the US cannot dictate term limits to Azerbaijan.