Azerbaijan braces for early elections, banks on ‘modernisation’

Farid Shafiyev [L] and Tural Ganjaliyev in Brussels. [Georgi Gotev]

Azerbaijan will hold early elections on 9 February, eight months ahead of schedule, after President Ilham Aliyev agreed to the ruling party’s request to dissolve parliament. The move is in line with a recent major government shakeup and the country’s drive to modernise and rebuild EU ties.

EURACTIV spoke on 5 December to two visiting officials from Azerbaijan.

Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the Center of Analysis of International Relations, a think-tank established this year, said his goal was to discuss Azerbaijan-EU relations, to establish partnerships with Brussels-based think-tanks, but also to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Shafiyev is a former ambassador of Azerbaijan to the Czech Republic and Canada.

Shafiyev said his country was in a “modernisation drive”, with a reshuffling of the cabinet of ministers, the Parliament dismissed and early elections due to take place on 9 February.

“New generations of politicians are taking charge of the economic reforms, of bureaucratic reforms. These are young people educated in the West,” he said.

Western think-tanks, such as Carnegie, have been flagging changes in Azerbaijan. In particular, the president finally shunted his chief of staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, who had held that job since 1995.

Mehdiyev, according to Carnegie, had been the second-most powerful man in the country and the chief ideologist of authoritarian and anti-Western politics. Instead, the president promoted a series of younger technocratic figures to his cabinet.

For the first time in twenty-five years, the country now has a prime minister, Ali Asadov, who looks professionally fit for the job. The most dynamic technocrat, 43-years-old Mikayil Jabbarov, who won plaudits for his performance as education minister and tax minister, has been given a bigger brief as economy minister.

“What we call post-oil era in Azerbaijan requires competitive market economy, competitive bureaucracy, creating meritocracy. That’s in a nutshell what is going on in Azerbaijan,” Shafiyev said about the changes in his country.

The official said that in its EU agenda, the priority was to complete the bilateral agreement, which in his words was in its final stage. He described the agreement’s main areas as follows: energy, interconnectivity, education, political dialogue, and an economic package which includes trade and foreign direct investment.

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Azerbaijan is interested in a “tailor-made approach” to its EU relations, Shafiyev said. Unlike some other countries covered by the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative (Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine), Azerbaijan is not seeking to join the EU, even in the longer term.

“Discussing change of strategy from integration to partnership, we first asked ourselves the question: did the EU invite us to be members? Did NATO invite us? No,” said Shafiyev.

He said Azerbaijan believed it could serve as the EU’s gateway to Central Asia and neighbouring countries, adding that his country invested billions of dollars in projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, and had the ambition of becoming a hub between China and Europe.

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The former diplomat added that the geopolitical situation around Azerbaijan remains quite complex. He argued that in the same way as individual EU countries were fighting for their interest, Azerbaijan was doing the same in its area.

“We see a process in the EU of rethinking their strategy, starting from Macron’s expression about the brain-death of NATO, the blockage of the roadmap of North Macedonia and Albania. At the same time individual members such as Germany are pursuing their national interest with a project like Nord Stream 2. We are also pursuing our national interest, developing good-neighbourly relations with Russia and Iran,” he said.

Regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Shafiyev said there were no new developments, except for the reduction of casualties on the frontline. He reminded that last year, “when the so-called Velvet Revolution begun”, Azerbaijan had much more hopes for a new direction of Armenia’s foreign policy.

“But after the meeting of the president of Azerbaijan and the prime minister of Armenia in Vienna, the Armenian rhetoric became more nationalistic, the pinnacle being in last August, when the prime minister of Armenia stated that “Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia”. This was not accepted, not only by Azerbaijan, but by the three co-chairs of the Minsk group: the US, Russia and France,” Shafiyev said.

Tural Ganjaliyev, head of the Azerbaijani community of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, who accompanied Shafiyev, offered his perspective.

“We are ready for the peaceful coexistence: this is our main message, despite the attempts of the Armenian side to ignore the existence of the Azerbaijani community of the Nagorno-Karabakh region,” he said.

Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions are internationally recognised territories of Azerbaijan but have been occupied by Armenia following a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The Azeri population of Nagorno-Karabakh live as internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the territory of Azerbaijan.

Ganjaliev continued:

“We live as IDPs for more than 25 years and our basic human rights are violated: the property rights, the rights to return to our native lands. We want to restore the destroyed heritage of Azerbaijani people in the Nagorno-Karabakh region”, he said.

In his words, first, “the occupying forces” should be withdrawn and the next stage would be the return of Azerbaijani IDPs in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“Only then can we discuss, together with the Armenian community of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the future, how we are going to restore our destroyed life, and the self-rule within the territory of Azerbaijan can also be a subject of the discussions. But the main obstacle is the presence of Armenian troops” he said.

The visiting officials said they had held meetings with MEPs.

Asked what Brussels could do to help, Shafiyev made it clear the EU was not the place to resolve the conflict.

The international body dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the OSCE’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States.

“The EU has no role in direct negotiations. The OSCE format remains valid so far,” Shafiyev said.

Asked if the EU could provide financial assistance to help solve the conflict, he said:

“Azerbaijan has enough financial resources to restore the properties of all people, to improve the lives of both Azerbaijanis and Armenians in today’s occupied territories. We mostly see the role of the EU in upholding the principle of international law”.

[Edited by Sam Morgan / Zoran Radosavljevic]

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