Azerbaijan Should Seek Real Democracy by Election

The following article originally appeared in the Financial Times. George Soros is founder and chair of the Open Society Institute.

In country after country in the former Soviet Union, people angered by rigged elections have toppled a string of entrenched, corrupt leaders. While their actions boosted prospects for democracy, Azerbaijan should not see this as a model to emulate when it goes to the polls in November.

Instead, Azerbaijan, that oil-rich country tucked in the southern Caucasus, should seize the opportunity to prove it can become a real democracy without revolution.

Revolutions are destructive. They may open the way for democratic reform but provide no guarantee. The popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan marked one step towards democratization in those countries. But after the revolutionary euphoria dissipated, the politicians faced the arduous task of building democracy from scratch. While Georgia has made considerable progress, Ukraine has run into trouble and Kyrgyzstan remains a cause for concern.

Azerbaijan can choose to avoid this fate. In a poor country blessed by natural wealth, the government already has moved to establish an oil fund to help ensure that citizens benefit from these resources. By doing so, the government signalled its apparent willingness to be accountable, breaking ranks with most leaders of oil states who enrich ­themselves at the people's expense. Azerbaijan was one of the first ­countries to endorse a growing effort called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a program sponsored by Britain and the World Bank that urges governments and oil companies to open their books.

So far such steps have failed to allay popular discontent fuelled by persistent poverty and limits on basic liberties. And as the election campaign gets under way, some believe that Azerbaijan will be the next country in the Caucasus and central Asia to don the mantle of revolution. Segments of the opposition and ruling elite seem to be spoiling for a fight. But it is time to set in motion a process that renders revolution unnecessary. The groundwork for fair elections in the November 6 parliamentary poll must be laid now. This is primarily a task for government. Indeed, President Ilham Aliev recently said he does not want to repeat the public clashes that marred his 2003 electoral victory.

The government must lift a ban on foreign funding of local election observers. It must also give citizens their right to protest. There remain key legal provisions and unofficial levers that enable the ruling New Azerbaijan Party to sway the elections. The party and its satellites dominate the central and local election committees; and some evidence suggests the government is using state resources to back favorites.

Another pillar of power for Mr Aliev's regime is the media. Most of Azerbaijan's 8m citizens get their information from state-controlled television. Not surprisingly, coverage brazenly favours pro-government candidates. Further, the much vaunted creation of public broadcasting—a requirement of the Council of Europe, which Azerbaijan joined in 2001—has proved a disappointment. The state exerts a heavy hand in selecting the channel's governing body and key executives.

The playing field cannot be levelled overnight. But the government should take steps now—and after the elections—to make sure this happens. Azerbaijan's civil society clearly faces many obstacles. To progress, it must heal bitter internal divisions. With parliament potentially the keystone of democratic reform, civil society should work on voter education and encourage turn-out. The current controversy over exit polls in Azerbaijan underscores how crucial they are in delivering an ­accurate result.

Civil society must not be crippled by its own rancor. In tiny Azerbaijan, more than a dozen civil society coalitions vie for funds to work on the elections. My foundation has worked to bring together nongovernmental groups to coordinate election activities through a special website.

Outside actors—the U.S. and the European Union—must deliver a tough message that Azerbaijan cannot get away with stealing the vote. Many believe the country was given a pass on the dirty 2003 poll because of its abundant oil reserves. The Council of Europe, which admitted Azerbaijan despite the blatant fraud of the 2000 elections, has failed to press for democratic reform. Azerbaijan has won kudos for pledging to uphold government transparency with its oil funds, but it means nothing if the elections are a sham.

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