Why Azeri government doesn’t want to see top US pre-election delegation?2013 September 11 ( Wednesday ) 11:26:24
“A friend would speak with no curtain or veil,” that’s how Thomas Melia, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, last time publicly described his country’s relations with Azerbaijan, while addressing a Congressional briefing on “troubled partner” in July, borrowing an Azerbaijani phrase.
It didn’t, however, take the Azeri government long to “lift the curtain” on the friend… by not letting the top US pre-election delegation, which was to have been led by Mr. Melia, in the country.
“A visit by a US delegation has been postponed at the request of the Azerbaijani government, until after the country's October 9 presidential election,” US Embassy in Baku announced on Sunday, September 8, without providing further details.
The delegation, which includes officials from the State Department, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of Justice, was able to travel to neighboring Georgia, on September 9 to observe preparations for October 27 presidential election.
While the US Embassy in Baku expressed regret to the cancellation, noting that it continues to monitor the pre-election environment in Azerbaijan, the officials in Washington seem wary of reacting the Azeri government’s move.
“I believe that I have an answer for you. I just don’t have it in front of me. So let me take the question and I can get you a response after the briefing,” Marie Harf, State Department’s Deputy Spokesperson pledged to the journalists a reaction during the daily press conference on Monday, September 9.
There was no press event at the State Department, on Tuesday, September 10.
In his July 16 speech at the Helsinki Commission hearing, Melia offered some “bold steps” for Azerbaijan to improve its worsening human-rights records: Let the Azerbaijani people make free political choices; allow the free flow of information through the media and allow freedom of assembly for political rallies and a free electoral process open to international observation.
What does Baku’s latest cancellation mean for the US-Azerbaijani relations and for the coming election in Azerbaijan? -- TURAN’s Washington correspondent asked this question to several US analysts and rights defenders.
“It suggests that the Azerbaijani government doesn't place a high value on the democracy-building concerns the US government has in the run-up to the election,” Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch's Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, who specializes in countries of the former Soviet Union, told TURAN.
“The suggestion is that the government would rather avoid having to engage in conversations about human rights issues that are relevant for the framing of the of the election,” she added.
Michael Tkacik, Professor of Government, and Director of the School of Honors at the Stephen F. Austin State University, who closely follow Azerbaijan policy, agrees that Baku’s cancellation demonstrates “displeasure on behalf of the Azerbaijani government and is possibly linked to some other issue in US/Azerbaijan relations.”
In the meantime, he told TURAN, “I think this is disappointing to the State Department and American officials… It demonstrates a continuing crackdown on those who would encourage more open elections in Azerbaijan.”
“It is one more step taken by Azerbaijan's government to ensure that their preferred individuals win these elections - of course that is a forgone conclusion at this point… These things said, as an "official delegation" Melia's group would not actually engage in monitoring - they would simply meet with officials and opposition groups to encourage openness,” he emphasized, adding, that the move by the Azerbaijani government is “more symbolic than effective.”
The US, he added, “gave up on these [October 9] particular elections a long time ago.”
“It seems to be playing a long game whereby it hopes to build civil society in hopes that at some point in the future democrats can come to the fore. All of this should be placed in the context of the anti-government movements across the Muslim world.”
“Obviously it is a mistake to lump all of these movements into one. But the US government has probably grown wary of the gains made by Islamists in these movements. It might not be putting the same pressure on the Azerbaijani government as in the past,” he argued.
For Gerald Robbins, Senior Fellow at the US Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), who years ago served as Program Director for Freedom House in Baku, the latest developments mean, “the Obama administration has opted for the status quo in Azerbaijan.”
“Stabilization is taking precedence over what had recently been a policy advocating greater democratization. The turmoil currently afflicting the nearby Arab world is the main reason for this changed outlook. The much-desired "Spring" that US foreign policy thought would bloom throughout the Middle East hasn't occurred, resulting in altered policies and rationale," he told TURAN.
However, he added, the fact that the pre-election delegation was able to travel to Georgia, but not Azerbaijan, “it is a prime example of diplomatic dissonance and must be disheartening for the Azeri opposition.”
“Georgia's democratic development is more advanced than Azerbaijan's and an easier situation to monitor... Azerbaijan's is a more challenging environment, especially when it comes to "democratic electoral processes,” he argued.
“The Obama administration is displaying contradictory policies as well as empty symbolism and rhetoric - a glaring contrast to its Arab Spring involvement," he concluded.
HRW’s Denber,in her part, ruled out the speculations that Washington has already given up on the presidential election in Azerbaijan. “I don't think so, there are probably other ways the US could express concerns.”