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“The most boring elections in the history of Azerbaijan”

An interview with journalist Cavid Ağa. Interviewer: Aleksej Tilman.

March 4, 2024 - Aleksej Tilman Cavid Ağa - Interviews

Presidents Ilham and Heydar Aliyev. Photo: Aleksej Tilman

The incumbent President Ilham Aliyev predictably won the snap presidential elections that were held in Azerbaijan on February 7th. The vote took place in an environment where “fundamental freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly are constrained,” according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Ahead of election day, we spoke with Azerbaijani researcher and journalist Cavid Ağa about the current political situation in the country.

ALEKSEJ TILMAN: In your opinion, why has President Ilham Aliyev decided to move the elections that were scheduled for the end of 2025?

CAVID AĞA: Everyone expected snap elections in 2024, but we expected parliamentary, not presidential elections. Both parliamentary and presidential elections were supposed to take place in 2025. Everyone expected snap parliamentary elections in 2024, followed by a constitutional referendum and, only after that, presidential elections, but this did not happen.

So many people are still asking why this happened. In my opinion, and Ilham Aliyev explained it himself, it is a way to get legitimization not only inside, but also outside the country. He wants to say “OK, we gave an opportunity to the Armenian people to participate in the elections and they chose not to. So it is their problem.” These are the first elections that will take place across the whole country, including Nagorno-Karabakh.

The second very basic reason is linked to the fact that he likes anniversaries and round numbers. He came into power in 2003, so exactly 20 years ago (when I was ten, now I am 30). He likes this anniversary. He wants to outshine his father Heydar Aliyev and be in the history books just like him. He is the president that won the war, while his father was the president that stopped the war. He signed the ceasefire with Armenia in 1994 and he is still blamed for it.

So, the elections are a form of legitimation even if Aliyev knows that, whenever there is a vote, he will be re-elected.

Is anticipating the elections also a way of trying to exploit the euphoria following the victory in the war last September?

Yes, because Azerbaijan will invest a lot in Karabakh. They will use the taxpayers’ money and oil and gas revenues in the reconstruction. Since European companies are largely not interested in investing in Karabakh and the Turkish economy is not growing, a lot of focus is given to the countries of the Middle East. In any case, the costs of reconstruction will lead Azerbaijan to economic stagnation.

So, Aliyev wants to use the euphoria of victory now, before people start complaining about the economic situation. For thirty years the government has justified economic problems with the need to give priority to Karabakh. Now the situation has changed and this justification cannot be used anymore

What is the narrative promoted on state-controlled media concerning the elections? Are they paying attention to them and promoting participation in voting?

 While we are talking (the interview took place on January 30th – editor’s note) I count five messages from the Central Election Commission on my phone inviting the population to vote. This had never happened before. I think they are aware that voter turnout could be very low.

These are the most boring elections in the history of Azerbaijan.

Nobody talks about the candidates because they are not for the internal audience. I am sure that Ilham Aliyev sees that his opponents’ speeches get translated into English and other foreign languages and sent to western partners. This is because the other candidates’ campaign promises are ridiculous.

For example, one of them said that we should send the army to fight in support of Turkey in Syria. Another declared that we should strip citizenship from Karabakh Armenians and resettle Azerbaijanis who fled Armenia in the 1990s in the Karabakh towns abandoned by the Armenians last September. Finally, another said that we should rename the country Northern Azerbaijan and make territorial claims in Iran [a sizeable Azerbaijani minority lives in northern Iran, a source of recurring tension between the two countries – ed.].

I think that Aliyev wants to show to western partners that his opponents are crazier, more violent and more imperialist than him and that he is the best alternative.

But ordinary people in Azerbaijan are not interested. Elections are a laughing stock for them. This is why the government wants a certain level of participation.

Everyone knows who will be elected. There is not even a need for an electoral campaign period, which in this election lasted only 22 days, while in the past it would last around 150 days. What type of electoral campaign can be done in 22 days?

Everyone knows that the elections are a scam and they do not want to participate.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has recently not ratified the credentials of the delegation of Azerbaijan, resulting in the suspension of the country from the organization. In recent months, we have also heard very harsh rhetoric from members of Azerbaijani institutions towards western countries such as France and the United States. Are we witnessing a transition that will lead Azerbaijan to be a fully authoritarian regime that does not even pretend to respect western democratic values?

 Regarding the reactions to the West, they are in line with the dominant narrative from far-right populistic parties in the West. Like the ones in Italy, Hungary, Slovakia and Serbia.

They want to use this and they are especially betting on Trump’s win in the United States. It would be a gift to the Azerbaijani political establishment because they do not have any problems with the West. They have problems with the democratic views of certain western politicians who want democratic neighbours and are campaigning for that. They do not want people like that. Otherwise, they have good relations with Italy, Hungary or the United Kingdom, for what matters. The Aliyev family has huge investments in the UK (properties in London and not only).

So, the West is not an enemy for them. It is a tool for demonization. They have to have an enemy, but it cannot be Russia or other countries that are more democratic or far away. So the West as a whole is perfect. They see the West as an economic partner, not as a political partner. They want European money and that is all. They are not interested, for example, in visa liberalization for the citizens of Azerbaijan.

As for democracy and authoritarianism, I do not think that it could get worse than it is now. They want to look like a secular country so that they can sell this to western conservatives. Because western conservatives also value things like freedom of faith for Christians in countries like Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan likes to sell itself as a multicultural country, but not LGBT-friendly, for example. So they want to sell the image of a Jewish and Christian-friendly Muslim country. They are not going “full Iran” or “full Turkey”. They want to keep some sort of secular establishment alive and a secular establishment needs some sort of democracy at some point. Therefore they are forced to keep up this façade.

Also, they were betting on Russia losing the Ukraine war and now they are seeing that there is war weariness in Ukraine and Europe. The Azerbaijani establishment now is afraid that once Russia is done with Ukraine then they are coming for us. So that is why they want to keep the West at bay, they do not want it to be in the region so there can be no justification for Russia to intervene.

Moving on to international politics. How does the country view the war between the Palestinian Gaza Strip and Israel, a historical ally of Azerbaijan?

Back when everything started in October, almost everyone in Azerbaijan was supporting Israel. For instance, they posted stories in support of Israel on social media and called Hamas terrorists, etc. But this view has shifted in the public perception. Now they are against Israel. For example, they do not want to participate in events if they are sponsored by the Israeli embassy.

To understand the government’s position, it is interesting to follow how the Azerbaijani media report the events to understand what they are authorized to say by the authorities. For example, for now, the media talks about a conflict between Israel and Hamas, without any mention of Palestine. Or, if I read online from foreign sources that there were more than 25,000 Palestinian victims, the Azerbaijani media speak of over 25,000 Hamas militants killed.

At the same time, Azerbaijan promised to build a school in Palestine. This is because they also do not want to lose the support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation when it comes to issues with Armenia.

In summary, Azerbaijan tries to maintain silence on the issue. It acts like the monkeys who do not see, hear or speak any evil.

Getting back to the internal situation, do you fear repercussions from the authorities for what you write?

No, I am not scared at the moment, even though I have friends in prison. I think the Azerbaijani government, as authoritarian as it is, prefers not to go against lone wolves like me.

They attack people who organize themselves into parties and other kinds of movements. For example, they recently arrested Bolt couriers for trying to create a union. Or they arrest people who directly insult the Aliyev family.

Going against a person who is not part of an organization is against their interests. They would risk making them a martyr and giving them fame.

Independent media platforms in Azerbaijan are under unprecedented attack following a campaign of

This article was originally published in Italian on the Meridiano 13 website and social media channels.

Cavid Ağa is an independent researcher, journalist, writer, and Azerbaijani translator of Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Eristic Dialectics”. He is member of Baku Research Institute and has appeared in Eurasianet, BNE Intellinews, OC Media, France24, VOA Azerbaijani and other outlets.

Aleksej Tilman is an Italian Communications Specialist with a strong interest in the Caucasus. He covers the region for Meridiano 13 and other outlets, including Q Code Magazine and Valigia Blu.

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