Azeris Elect Parliament Amid Aliyev Crackdown in Oil Slump

  • Ruling party seen retaining majority as opposition shuns poll
  • Government makes observer mission `impossible,' OSCE says

Azerbaijan votes for a new parliament on Sunday in elections shunned by European observers for the first time since independence in 1991, as tumbling crude prices raise economic pressures on the former Soviet Union’s third-largest oil exporter.

President Ilham Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, known as YAP, is set to retain its majority in the Milli Maclis as the main opposition parties boycott the vote amid a state crackdown on activists. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe canceled its observer mission in September, saying government restrictions made it “impossible” to conduct an “effective and credible election observation.”

Low oil prices mean Azerbaijan faces “an uncertain economic outlook, which could have unpredictable political and social consequences,” Alex Nice, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said Tuesday by e-mail. The slowing economy prompted the government to cut public spending by an “unprecedented” 10 percent for 2016, he said.

The vote takes place after Aliyev purged security officials for alleged corruption last week. The central bank devalued the manat by almost 35 percent against the dollar in February after oil prices fell by more than half. Relations with the U.S. and the European Union are deteriorating over human rights, while tensions are running high in the unresolved conflict with neighboring Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“Aliyev faces considerable challenges,” Laurence Broers, associate fellow for Russia and Eurasia at London’s Chatham House, said by e-mail Wednesday. “Competitive party politics and independent civil society have been so de-institutionalised, the basis for effective negotiation between state and society has been significantly narrowed.”

Jailed Critics

Oil and gas account for 95 percent of Azeri exports and more than 70 percent of government revenue, according to the World Bank. Azerbaijan, which offers the only westward route for Central Asian energy bypassing Russia, has drawn in more than $50 billion of investments from companies led by BP Plc. It signed contracts worth $45 billion with a BP-led group in 2013 to pipe Caspian gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey.

YAP won 66 of 125 seats in 2010 elections deemed flawed by the OSCE. While “non-partisan” MPs, who are usually loyal to the government, won more than 40 seats, no major opposition parties made it into parliament.

Many of Aliyev’s most outspoken critics, including investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, are behind bars as the government has “harassed, intimidated and arrested” dozens of human rights campaigners, journalists and political figures in the past three years, Human Rights Watch said on Oct. 9.

Devaluation Pressure

The list of “political prisoners in Azerbaijan goes on and on,” Isabel Santos, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s democracy and human rights chairwoman, said in an Oct. 27 website statement. Without independent voices for “an informed debate about the country’s direction, Azerbaijani citizens will especially suffer from the silence their government has imposed.”

Azerbaijan denies having any political prisoners. It suspended talks on a strategic partnership with the EU after the European Parliament passed a resolution in September condemning an “unprecedented” government crackdown on civil society.

If oil prices stay low, there’s a high risk the central bank will have to devalue the manat again in early 2016, which will push up inflation, eat into incomes and increase pressure on a banking industry already under strain, the EIU’s Nice said.

As resources become scarcer, competition within the elite may intensify. Aliyev fired his long-time National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov in a surprise move on Oct. 17, then accused seven security officers arrested for alleged extortion and illegal inspections of engaging in treason by hampering private businesses. The number of arrests has risen to 15, the APA news service reported Wednesday.

Karabakh Tensions

Casualties in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute are at their highest since a 1994 cease-fire as Azeri and Armenian troops use ever more powerful weapons. OSCE officials monitoring the truce said Thursday that they had to take cover when gunfire erupted after international mediators crossed the contact line between the adversaries.

Turkey’s military will “do whatever we can” to help Azeris regain control of territories taken by Armenians, Hulusi Akar, chief of the Turkish general staff, said Friday, according to Azerbaijan’s APA news service.

“Political uncertainty has risen significantly and is likely to persist unless oil prices recover,” Nice said.

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