Azerbaijan to hold a snap presidential election

President Ilham Aliyev. Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

On December 7, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree announcing that the country would hold a snap presidential election in February next year instead of the original schedule in 2025. Aliyev has been in power for the past 20 years. The last time the country held a presidential election was in 2018 in which Aliyev was re-elected for a seven-year term (courtesy of a controversial referendum held in 2016 which extended the presidential term from five to seven years). All major opposition parties boycotted the election in 2018 while local and international election monitors found that the elections were neither free nor fair. In 2009, as a result of a constitutional referendum, Azerbaijan removed the term limits on the number of times an incumbent official may serve. With much of civil society under Aliyev's thumb, he is almost certain to win a new term next year. After the decision had been announced, many observers asked about the reason for holding a snap election. After all, Aliyev has been riding high on a wave of support after securing victory in the second Karabakh war and Azerbaijan's latest offensive into Nagorno Karabakh in September 2023, which led to Karabakh's total surrender and mass exodus of its ethnic Armenian population.

Diplomatic time out

Arif Yunus, an Azerbaijani academic, and former political prisoner, explains that it was the visit of United States Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O'Brien that triggered the decision. In an interview with now former diplomat Arif Shahmarli for Azad Soz YouTube channel, Yunus said that hours after the meeting between O'Brien and Aliyev, the two sides agreed to send their foreign ministers to Washington DC in December.

Also on the agenda was a meeting between Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan's Aliyev hosted in Washington. But, rather than agreeing to the latter, “Azerbaijan took a time out, and announced its decision for snap presidential election scheduled for February. This implies that the upcoming meeting between the foreign ministers later in December is just protocol and won't produce any significant results,” noted Yunus. This means that officially Baku is avoiding or deterring signing the final peace deal by calling for an early election, added Yunus.

Because Aliyev may suffer reputational damage once the details of the peace deal are public. That and the possibility of Azerbaijan (being) handed US sanctions following O'Brian's earlier statement in November in which he said relations between the two countries could no longer continue as is. So Aliyev, realizing that given the developments next year, it would be harder to manipulate an election victory.

During the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing titled “The Future of Nagorno-Karabakh,” on November 15, O'Brien said:

We’ve made clear that nothing will be normal with Azerbaijan after the events of September 19 until we see progress on the peace track. So we’ve canceled a number of high-level visits, condemned the actions… We don’t anticipate submitting a waiver on Section 907 until such time that we see a real improvement.

Section 907 and possible sanctions

On September 19, the day when Azerbaijan launched a military offensive into the formerly disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, two U.S. Senators penned a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Biden Administration to “immediately condemn the actions of the Government of Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh and announce that United States will not extend of its waiver of Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act.” Section 907 of 1992 is a long-standing program which bars the United States from offering assistance to Azerbaijan. But every year since 2002, the White House has issued a waiver to provide aid to Azerbaijan after the latter allowed the U.S. at that time “to use the country’s territory as a land bridge to get troops into Afghanistan.” That opened the door for wide-ranging military and security partnerships between the two countries. This year, the nine-month long blockade of Lachin Corridor and Azerbaijan's military offensive delayed the process of issuing a waiver on the grounds that officially Baku must first take “steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.”

During the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in November, O'Brien also revealed that the U.S. “commissioned independent investigators” to “develop the record of what happened” before and after September 19 military intervention. He added that his country also canceled high-level bilateral meetings and engagements with Azerbaijan as it continued to call on Baku to “facilitate the return of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians who may wish to go back to their homes or visit cultural sites in the region.” He also said, “we don’t anticipate submitting a waiver on Section 907 until such time that we see a real improvement.”

O'Brien's statement did not sit well and Azerbaijan announced it was pulling its foreign ministers out of the U.S.-spearheaded meeting with Armenia, which had been scheduled for November 20.

In an interview with Politico in August 2023, Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and Bush administration official, said, “Going ahead with the 907 waiver at this particular moment would create a political firestorm for Biden. But killing the 907 waiver at this delicate diplomatic juncture would seriously risk derailing a peace treaty that is closer than it has ever been.”

According to a report by Armenian service for Radio Liberty and Eurasianet on November 15, “U.S. Senate adopted a bill titled “Armenian Protection Act of 2023″. If it becomes a law, it will suspend all military aid to Azerbaijan by repealing the Freedom Support Act Section 907 waiver authority for the Administration with respect to assistance to Azerbaijan for the years 2024 and 2025.”

There is also the possibility of targeted sanctions against Azerbaijan. In October 2023, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in which its members in an overwhelming majority called on the Parliament to adopt targeted sanctions against the government officials in Baku. The members of the parliament also called for economic and trade sanctions as well as the suspension of all bilateral relations with Baku.

In September 2023, some 100 House and Senate lawmakers also called on the State Department to sanction government officials of Azerbaijan.

At the time of writing this article, none were adopted.

Good intentions?

On December 7, Baku and Yerevan agreed to swap prisoners in a rare goodwill gesture. 32 Armenian servicemen were exchanged for two Azerbaijani servicemen. Armenia's Prime Minister also agreed to withdraw from the bid to host next year's Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP29) expressing its support instead for Azerbaijan acting as the host.

Azerbaijan's good intentions come at a time of renewed crackdown at home. The November arrests of independent journalists Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinc Vagifgizi, and disability rights activist Mahammad Kekaklov sent shockwaves through the journalism and civil society communities in Azerbaijan. Several other independent journalists were called into questioning as witnesses as part of the ongoing investigation into the alleged crime of smuggling by an organized group — the charge Hasanli, Vagifgizi and Kekalov are accused of. On December 1, one of these journalists, Nargiz Absalamova, was arrested under the same charge and sent into a three-month pre-trial detention. In a separate investigation, Azerbaijani authorities detained and charged Kanal 13’s founder, Aziz Orujov, on charges of illegal construction, an accusation Orujev has since refuted. This brings the total number of arrested journalists to five in just ten days.

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