Azeri lobbyists failed to convince DC audience in election fairness

Top Azeri government lobbyists on Friday failed to convince DC audience to back official election results in Azerbaijan, while disregarding the international monitors’ and State Department’s criticism, TURAN’s Washington correspondent reports.

The event “Looking Ahead in Azerbaijan” took place at Washington DC-based Carnegie Foundation, a think-tank that invited the participants “to focus on what the next five years hold for Azerbaijan under the third term of Ilham Aliyev,” even days before the election.

However the speakers’ opinions regarding the topic, especially US’ stand on the election, were completely divided.

The main speaker, Carnegie’s senior associate Thomas de Waal and moderator James Collins, former US Ambassador to Russia -- both are on their way to visit to Baku next month -- mentioned that the latest election “wasn’t significantly different from the previous ones”, although Azerbaijan’s next phase of development will be more of a challenge than those past.

“The country’s oil boom will come to an end, and it will make a bid to become a significant European gas supplier,” energy expert Edward Chow explained.

On domestic front, de-Wall mentioned that there is “certainly discontent in Azerbaijani society, chiefly over corruption and massive inequalities of wealth in society.”  Although the opposition couldn’t win the vote, it will hope to stage enough of a protest afterwards to make a noise. The question is, he added, can President Aliyev learn to live with an opposition?

Speaking about the State Department’s stand on the election, de-Waal mentioned, the strong statement is useful as the opposition space has been shirking and ”it's kind of dangerous.”

Another speaker Brenda Shaffer, an American-Israeli scholar, well-known Azeri government lobbyist, had an extremely different view.

“We have a lot of criticism about Azerbaijan, but there are other countries that cause real concerns,” she said adding those who draft the election statement at the State Department should “make sure where their steps are leading to”, while the people in Azerbaijan “credit the leadership of Aliyev for peace, stability and economic development.”

For Shaffer, if Azeri leadership were anti-government, it “would be easy to join the Customs Union, not to open transfer gate for US military to Afghanistan” and contribute to the European energy security.

Speaking about the election campaign, she pointed out the television debates, adding that the main oppositional leader Jamil Hasanli “was even able to attack the President’s family in a way that you can't see in any of the European countries...”

As for the country’s democracy path, the speaker added, even Azerbaijan’s oppositional leaders “wouldn't like their country to turn into Arab uprising ones.”

Shaffer’s comments were supported by the Azerbaijani Embassy representatives and their supporters in the audience who raised multiple questions, such as why the west “wasn’t objective” on its election criticism in Azerbaijan while dismissing the bigger issues that the country is dealing with, as well as ignoring the Armenian election, which has more violations, etc. Another question raised was why the debate on Azerbaijan “is so emotional in DC.”

The most unexpected comments among the participants came from Richard Kauzlarich, former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan.

“I'm deeply concerned where the things are going toward in Azerbaijan... This election was a bogus process!” he emphasized backing the State Department’s post-election statement.

“I would like to see at least one small step -- any kind -- towards democracy…” he said adding that due to gaining the western attention, the Aliyev government should immediately release the political prisoners; allow the open media along with other first steps.

“Unfortunately, we see only a negative direction in Azerbaijan,” added Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy, in her comment.

The country 10 years ago wanted to be in NATO, with focus on EU, and had same rankings like Georgia in the international reports, while now, it “is close to Uzbekistan,” she added.

“There is an alternative… There is a secular opposition and brilliant youth in the country which are trying to voice their rights thought Internet,” she added.

Closing the debate, Ambassador Collins mentioned that Azeri government has many challenges ahead because “they will have more expectation from people with less money and resources,” as it's not very likely that Azerbaijani economic future will be better than previous years.

While evaluating the debate to TURAN’s correspondent, one of the event participants, a former diplomat, said that the discussion, especially some speakers’ speeches were another example of how the foreign governments with poor records on human rights, democracy, and freedom of press “still manage to find friends in places with high democracy priorities like Washington.”

“These lobbyists use their relationship with the US government to advance the interests of their client,” she added.

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