Will Turkish Yes Vote Mean More Authoritarian Azerbaijan? No, It Won’t

This past Sunday, Turkey went to the polls to make one of the most fateful decisions of the Republic’s history: whether to maintain the parliamentary structure of the state or shift it to a system with an overwhelmingly strong presidency. What does this mean for Azerbaijan?

This past Sunday, Turkey went to the polls to make one of the most fateful decisions of the Republic’s history: whether to maintain the parliamentary structure of the state or shift it to a system with an overwhelmingly strong presidency.

Turkey voted for the former by a slim 51 percent majority. This is widely interpreted by most international observers as a drastic move towards more authoritarianism and an interruption of

the Ataturk principles


The fact that numerous authoritative international organizations criticized the  referendum for a number of reasons, in particular for its

lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and limitations on fundamental freedoms

. This further complicates the situation and mars the image of Turkey: a country that until recently was

widely considered as a role model of democracy for the Muslim and Turkish world


However, the implications of this structural change are not confined to the Turkish Republic alone: it affects the region as a whole and the state of relations between them.

Azerbaijan, a country that is inherently connected to Turkey through culturo-linguistic, economic and political bonds, is likely to be one of the countries that are most affected by Turkey’s transformation into a presidential republic. The outcome of the referendum was curiously expected by both the governing elite and the general public of Azerbaijan.

It is, therefore, no surprise that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was the first world leader to congratulate Erdogan in a telephone call, saying that the result demonstrated ‘the Turkish people’s great support’ for Erdogan’s policies and management of the country.

Now the pressing questions to most Azerbaijanis and the experts dealing with Azerbaijani politics are:

How will the Turkish shift affect Azerbaijani politics against the background of growing authoritarianism and an intensifying economic crisis in the country? Will it serve as a tool for the Azerbaijani leaders to further consolidate power?

Important to note is the fact that Azerbaijan has already submitted to the rule of a strong man in the executive, legislative and judicial institutions of the country long before President Erdogan consolidated power in his own hands.

Azerbaijan had already said its long goodbye to democracy in 1993, when Heydar Aliyev, the former president of the Azerbaijan republic and the father of the current President Ilham Aliyev, came to power.

Although Aliyev Sr. succeeded in rescuing the country from the misery of the early 1990s thanks to oil contracts he coordinated through the country’s leading oil companies,

he did not initiate

fundamental political reforms.

Instead of this, he prepared his son as his successor to the presidential post. Aliyev Jr. had started his political career in 1994, just nine years before becoming president, by being appointed the vice-president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), which was possible only thanks to the presidency of his father.

In 2003, following the death of Haydar Aliyev, he was elected as the next president of the country. Over the years under his leadership the undemocratic path of the country has been strictly reinforced and become unchallengeable. Any attempt to challenge the power of the regime was relentlessly oppressed and the opposition was largely silenced. By appointing his wife to the newly-established post of the Vice-President in February this year, Aliyev consummated his authoritarian build-up.

These political conditions in the country do not leave any external need for the Azerbaijani leaders to promote their parochial interests. Nor did they have any such expectations from the Turkish referendum.

However, Turkey’s plunge into authoritarianism under a strong man’s rule is hugely advantageous for the family to sustain their rule over Azerbaijan.

First, the fact that Turkey possess a huge influence on the public opinion in Azerbaijan, not least because Turkish media channels are widely watched by Azerbaijanis thanks to the linguistic proximity, is the Number One reason why for Baku, a Turkey governed by a similarly authoritarian regime is a more desirable partner. A Turkey that is a Western-style democracy and seeks to promote democracy in the region could be a serious headache for the Aliyev regime. The existence of a similarly-minded Turkish regime helps Azerbaijani elites to isolate themselves from the criticism of the Western institutions.

Azerbaijani democratic forces are hence worried about the negative implications of the referendum in Turkey for Azerbaijan. Gultakin Hajibeyli, a member of the National Council of Democratic Forces,


that the results of the referendum “will further embolden the Azerbaijani authorities to act towards strengthening authoritarianism and suppressing human rights”.

Similar concerns

have been expressed

by Natig Jafarli, a member of the governing board of the Republican Alternative Movement:

“Turkey is a friend and brother country for Azerbaijanis. At the same time, Turkey has great opportunities to influence the information space of Azerbaijan. The anti-Western rhetoric coming from Turkey is to be spread in Azerbaijan even at larger scale. And this will further impede the promotion of universal and Western values in Azerbaijan.”

Third, the latest developments in Turkey are a blow to the hope of Azerbaijani people for a democratic future. The spread of authoritarian dictatorships in the regional countries, but more especially in Turkey which has long been admired by Azerbaijanis as a European democracy,

generates a sense of helplessness

amongst Azerbaijanis vis-à-vis the incumbent regime.

Therefore, it is not expected that the Azerbaijani governing elite will initiate any further authoritarian reforms – they already have what they want. But the Turkish referendum has helped them to delay, if not completely prevent, a possibility of a public upheaval against the regime.

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