Azerbaijan’s ongoing crackdown on democracy
Interview with Arif Hacılı, the leader of the Musavat opposition party in Azerbaijan. Interviewer: Malgosia Krakowska.
MALGOSIA KRAKOWSKA: At the beginning of February, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev published a decree which moved the presidential election from October to April. Why?
ARIF HACILI: Aliyev is afraid of the election. The socio-economic crisis caused by corruption scandals and human rights violations was the main reason why he decided to organise it earlier.
It is an absolute grip on power. We will not have enough time to prepare for the election campaign nor will international organisations have time to set the monitoring missions. The pre-election campaign coincides with presidential elections in Russia. By speeding up the elections, Aliyev attempts to cover up fraud, opposition crackdown, corruption, and fool the international community and our nation.
In 2016, the government changed Azerbaijan’s Constitution. The amendments constrained civil liberties, and extended Aliyev’s term in office from five to seven years. What other restrictions have been introduced?
The constitutional amendments gave Aliyev unprecedented control over the state. The referendum turned out to be a de facto crackdown on fundamental rights. The right to freedom of assembly or freedom of expression have been impaired. In 2014, our deputy chairman Tofig Yagublu was sentenced to five years for criticising the authorities. Today, 150 political prisoners are in jail. Broadcast and print media are under the absolute control of the authorities.
Together with other opposition groups (such as the Popular Front Party), Musavat organized the 2011 protests against president Aliyev. They ended up with a violent crackdown on the opposition by the authorities and the arrests of 469 people – including yourself. Why do you choose electoral boycott over participation in the elections?
Because there are no conditions to hold fair elections. There is evidence of electoral fraud. Election committees consist of government nominated members, and there was a massive vote manipulation in favour of the ruling party in previous elections and referendums (the New Azerbaijan Party, Yeni Azərbaycan Partiyası; in the 2000 parliamentary elections, the party won 62 per cent of the vote – interviewer’s note). Azerbaijan is a veneer of statehood.
What changes would you like to implement?
We want to reform the electoral law. We want to strengthen our external security by joining the EU and NATO. Other opposition groups also support us. We have submitted these proposals to international organisations.
You are one of the oldest existing opposition parties in Azerbaijan. According to your founding principles, your stand for liberalism and democracy. Your opponents, however, remind that the ideological roots of your party are rooted in Turkism which is also linked to ethnic chauvinism. Could you respond to the criticism?
Musavat was founded in 1911. At that time, religion was associated with a particular ethnic group and considered as a nationality. Azerbaijan is the name of the state, but the people are Turks. Pan-Turkism was necessary for national self- determination. It is not driven by our desire to integrate with Turkey or Turkmenistan.
Above all, this year is marked by the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. It was the third democratic republic in the Muslim world, created under the leadership of Musavat chairman Mammad Amin Rasulzadeh (Rasulsadeh was the first and only president of the DRA 1918-1920 – interviewer’s note). DRA was a de facto parliamentary democracy with full respect towards pluralism and equality of all the citizens, regardless of gender, religion and social status. The parliament had an equal representation of all the ethnic groups, including the Armenians.
The name of your party means equality. Yet, your ideological stance has been criticised as too nationalistic, and incompatible with Western values. Do these allegations have any grounds?
No. As I said, we want Azerbaijan to fully integrate with the EU. It means that we adhere to the democratic values of the EU.
We remain committed to sparing no effort in restoring parliamentary democracy in Azerbaijan. Deep democratic changes are necessary to ensure security and prosperity of our nation.
Arif Hacılı is the leader of the opposition Musavat party in Azerbaijan.
Malgosia Krakowska is a Polish journalist focusing on international security issues.