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Democracy in Azerbaijan Some Way Off, Speakers Say

(Washington, DC -- May 20, 2004) Hope for free, democratic elections in Azerbaijan seems increasingly dim in the wake of the widely disputed presidential election of October 15, 2003. This was the sentiment expressed by both Irena Lasota, president of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE) and Nariman Gasimoglu, a Fulbright visiting scholar from Azerbaijan at Georgetown University, who spoke at a briefing on May 18 at RFE/RL's Washington office.

Lasota said that public expectations were very high that a free and fair election could occur in October 2003, allowing Azerbaijan to move past the legacy of former President Heidar Aliev, whose leadership, she said, was considered an "aberration" by many observers. These expectations dissipated, Lasota said, after President Aliev's son Ilham emerged victorious in a hotly contested election against opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar. Massive street demonstrations protesting the younger Aliev's victory were violently put down and, according to Lasota, "repressions were targeted at election commission members who wouldn't sign [election] protocols."

Lasota asserted that popular sentiment in Azerbaijan is heavily anti-Western, founded on a belief that western embassies have "given up" on the possibility of free elections. These anti-Western sentiments, according to Lasota, were fueled by French and US statements congratulating the new president on his victory.

Gasimoglu agreed with a number of Lasota's statements and observed that the general attitude in Azerbaijan is that the West is more concerned with the strategic location of oil pipelines than the increasing democratization that he said was spreading through Central Asia. Gasimoglu noted that Azerbaijan faces an enormous challenge in dealing with "a lack of democratic awareness and much potential for democratic change, but many obstacles." He suggested that barriers to the establishment of democracy will remain, as tensions rise because of economic disparities and dissatisfaction with the government.

Gasimoglu, who chairs the Azerbaijan Center for Religion and Democracy in Baku, said that his country may now be facing the threat of politicized Islam -- a phenomenon that lost momentum as expectations for democracy grew in the 1990's, but that is gaining new strength as "disillusionment" with the current leadership sets in. Although the government has often condemned the politicization of religion, Gasimoglu said, many "corrupt" clerics vocally supported Aliev during the election cycle.

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