“The aim is to turn Azerbaijan into another Turkmenistan”

‘’Never mind the silence of the people – they understand the essence of the proposed amendments.”

On July 25th, the Constitutional Court of Azerbaijan approved a bill proposing to put to referendum several amendments to the Constitution. The specifics of this bill have quickly become a topic of discussion for political experts and opposition members alike. Meydan TV invited historian Altay Goyushov for an interview to discuss the possible impact of this referendum on the socio – political life and future of Azerbaijan.

Altay Bey, members of the opposition said that the approval of President Ilham Aliyev’s Referendum Act by the Constitutional Court was to be expected. Does this stem from a sense of hopelessness? What were you personal expectations?

This is the third time Azerbaijan will change its constitution. The first amendments to the constitution took place in 2002, the second – in 2009. This year will be the third. The goal of the amendments introduced in 2002 was to pave the way for Ilham Aliyev’s presidency. The changes introduced the office of Prime Minister to Azerbaijan’s government, and allowed the President (then Heydar Aliyev) to appoint his son as Prime Minister. After his father stepped down in 2003 due to failing health, Ilham Aliyev was able to personally oversee his victory to the presidency. The second aim of the amendments introduced in 2002 was to destroy the proportional electoral system, because the ‘New Azerbaijan Party’, Azerbaijan’s current rulling party, practically lost elections back in 2000.

Representatives of several international organizations even congratulated Musavat leader Isa Qambar on his victory…

That’s correct. Qambar was able to win the popular vote because there was little rigging of the system at that time. Carousel voting – a practice which allows individuals to vote numerous times – was employed first in the elections of 2003.  The goal of the referendum in 2002 was to eliminate the proportional electoral system, which in turn slowed down the democratic development of the country and introduced dynastic rule. The aims of the referendum of 2009 were similar in essence, and ensured Ilham Aliyev’s ability to run for president an indefinite number of times. During the referendum, Radio Liberty, BBC and Voice of America broadcasting on FM radio were shut off. The government wanted complete control over the media.

Despite these attempts, the fact of the matter is that Azerbaijan started to change drastically in 2009. Two factors were responsible for this change: one, the Arab Spring, and two, the government lost control over its monopoly on information with the development of social networks. Everyone had expected the democratic wave to wither away and for the opposition to lose hope once Ilham Aliyev became president for the third time. But the availability of social networks and the ‘Arab Spring’ strengthened political activity and awareness in Azerbaijan. The government’s response was: repression. Media, civil society and political parties fell under serious attack. Heydar Aliyev had one goal when he came to power in 1993: to create a regime that would remove any remnants of democracy. And the current planned changes to the constitution echo this spirit. The approval of the bill by the Constitutional Court was to be expected; judicial and legislative bodies in the country have completely lost independence. No opposition members have been in parliament since 2010. And thus, the executive power oversees everything, and the proposals that it submits are purely formalities.

Our judges have only their robes in the country, they have no sense of justice or independence. Parliament has only a name, but it is totally dependent on executive power…and this is how laws are made here.

Where will the president’s proposed amendments to the constitution lead Azerbaijan?

They will take us further towards a reactionary regime – that is, these are simply the next steps to strengthen and ensure the longevity of the current status quo. If there are no changes to the current situation, our perspectives will be the same as they were in 2009, post referendum. The secular opposition has been totally marginalized and driven out of the system, though the religious opposition may be slowly taking its place. The fight between the regime and the people may continue in the form of the authoritarian government vs. political Islam. This will further reduce the participation of the secular opposition in the process of the push towards democracy. That is to say the opposition is dead: never mind the silence of the people, they understand the essence of the proposed amendments. We saw that there was resistance in 2003 after the 2002 referendum. And political life became even more active after 2009, despite that it was repressed by the government. But the government has weakness too, mostly economic. Our country’s economy is totally dependent on oil, and oil production has plummeted due to low world oil prices. Banks are closing, the national currency is in a terrible state and there is no competitive market for enterprises to thrive. In any case, it is hard to answer the question “what is going to happen tomorrow”, but the general picture is very clear: if there is no resistance, the current situation will lead to the elimination of the democratic opposition and to the development of political Islam…

So far, Azerbaijan’s constitution has changed every 7 years. Today, a representative of the President’s Office, Shahin Aliyev, mentioned that the last changes took place 7 years ago. Can we expect more changes in another 7 years?

I can’t say what will happen in 7 years. I don’t think 7 years is a long period of time, anything is possible in the coming years. Azerbaijan is a small country and highly vulnerable to the socio – political events of the outside world. It is hard to make predictions in the face of events such as Russia’s occupation of the Crimea, or Great Britain’s exit from the EU…or the latest events in Turkey. However, I think a general analysis of the situation shows that the government wants to deepen its authoritarian regime and follow the path of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

You have already said that the opposition and independent media is week, and that the judicial and legislative powers are totally dependent on executive power. If this is the case, why is the government in a rush, what is the purpose of “tightening the screws”?

Because whatever we say, Azerbaijan is not yet Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or North Korea. Although the government has been working since 1993 to prevent democratic freedoms from taking hold in the country, it will not be so easy to turn Azerbaijan into an absolute monarchy as have the leaders of Central Asia. The reason for this is that Azerbaijan has a history of democratic traditions that have always resisted reactionary regimes. Remember the events of 1993: yes, the resistance was weak, and it was unable to change the general direction of the tide, but there are people and there are forces out there ready to speak their minds in Azerbaijan, even after the latest wave of repressions. That is why the government needs to “tighten the screws”: all traces of freedom of speech need to be erased, and those who express themselves to be silenced.

The goal is to turn Azerbaijan into another Turkmenistan.

Do you think it is possible for Azerbaijan, a member state of the Council of Europe, to really turn into another Turkmenistan or North Korea in a world of globalization, technology and social networks?

You raise a good point. But I see a few issues here. One, our government does not act logically. When it has tried to act logically, it inevitably has created problems for itself. Concerning social networks, the government has decided to closely monitor and control the internet. But let’s look at what happened in the referendum of 2009 when they shut off FM programming: social networks leaped out of the dark, and people became politically active over night. The response of the government was, of course, repressions. And in doing so, they tainted their global image, and disclosed their real nature. Excuses that would have worked earlier such as “Russia and Iran won’t allow us to move towards democracy” don’t fly anymore. Ultimately, I think democracy is inevitable in Azerbaijan. But exactly how and when – this is a big question. Until then, the religious opposition will become stronger and stronger.

You talked about the world of democracy and international organizations. But the democratic world has kept suspiciously silent in the face of this proposed referendum. What can you say about this?

I am unsure of the concrete reasons behind the world’s silence on this issue. Maybe the Azerbaijani government has convincingly lied to them as they did in 2003 and 2009; that is, maybe they promised to start reforms once their position had been strengthened. Or perhaps the geo – political situation in the world makes it problematic for world governments to criticize Azerbaijan  at this moment. Or perhaps, the Azerbaijani government is needed in the region, and this prevents the world from criticizing. We can see this trend echoed in the outside world’s position on Azerbaijan’s political prisoners, too.

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