Azerbaijan Opposition Seeks Western Assistance

Azerbaijan Opposition Seeks Western Assistance

Last week, the European Parliament condemned Azerbaijan’s continued detention of opposition member Ilgar Mammadov, while current opposition leader Rustam Ibragimbekov traveled to Washington DC to seek support from the US Department of State.

Ibragimbekov requested that the State Department support initiatives, largely created by the Azerbaijani opposition, to ensure free and fair elections in Azerbaijan this October. These increased overtures between the Azerbaijani opposition and western governments are largely the outcome of the creation of a new, optimistic opposition coalition.

Ilham Aliyev, who has been president of Azerbaijan since succeeding his father in 2003, maintains a strong regime, and despite popular protests against the military this year, shows few signs of weakening. However, the West’s increased interest in Azerbaijani opposition politics, and the opposition’s increased overtures towards the EU and the US, illustrate a level of optimism following the creation of the new coalition, the National Council of Democratic Forces.

The diverse groups active in Azerbaijani opposition politics have united behind Ibragimbekov in an attempt to present a clear alternative to Aliyev-family rule, which has dominated Azerbaijan since 1993. This unprecedented unity is likely the reason behind increased interest in Azerbaijani opposition politics in both Europe and the US.

A number of western governments have developed strong economic and strategic relationships with Azerbaijan because of the country’s key geographic position. Even while criticizing Aliyev’s repression of political discourse and challenging the Azerbaijani narrative about Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions, the US and Europe have attempted to take advantage of Azerbaijan’s massive energy reserves. Both the US and Israel tend to view the secular Aliyev regime as a bulwark against neighboring Iran.

Although this tacit support shows few signs of wavering, the EU and the US seem hopeful about the possibility of a growing Azerbaijani opposition. The willingness to imagine an Azerbaijan without the Aliyevs is partially due to Ibragimbekov himself. He is popular and well-known due to his past as a major Soviet filmmaker, and he has been active in politics since the late Soviet era and a prominent critic of the Aliyev regime since 2009. The unification of the various opposition parties behind him means that Western governments can now rely on a central figure to act as a popular speaker for the Azerbaijani opposition.

At present, it seems that the US will support efforts to monitor the October elections, something it has done in the past and likely would have done again even without the visit from Ibragimbekov. Likewise, neither the US nor the EU has been shy about criticising the Aliyev regime’s democracy and human rights failings in the past. The Obama administration has even been accused of neglecting the US-Azerbaijan relationship. Regardless of these troubles, Aliyev’s Azerbaijan remains, at least in name, a partner of the United States and European Union.

What has changed, then, is the ability of western governments to conduct a direct relationship with a broad spectrum of Azerbaijani opposition groups through a single organization. The creation of the National Council of Democratic Forces may not change the outcome of the Azerbaijani election in October. It will, however, determine the future of western government interactions with the Azerbaijani opposition.

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