President Ilham Aliyev's principal opponent in the Azerbaijani presidential election, who was trounced by the incumbent, is claiming fraud and vote-rigging and wants the results annulled. Jamil Hasanli said the vote was not free and fair and cited, among other things, that all television channels are under government control, making it impossible for other candidates to spread their message.
The official tally indicated that Aliyev won 85 percent of the vote (giving him a third straight term in office) to Hasanli’s paltry 5 percent. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitored the election, also blasted the results, citing that it was "undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates.”
But it is doubtful that Hasanli’s pleas will go anywhere. Aliyev, the pro-Western president, rules an oil-rich Caucasus state that has become an important supplier of oil and gas to Western Europe as well as a key strategic regional opponent of Iran.
Aliyev was so confident of victory that he did not even bother to campaign, the BBC reported, while opposition figures and activists have long criticized him for immense corruption, fraud, human rights violations and brutally stifling dissent in the nation of 9.3 million along the western shores of the Caspian Sea. Indeed, in 2009, Aliyev pushed through a constitutional referendum that lifted the two-term presidency limit, thereby allowing him to remain in power indefinitely.
Aliyev, who “inherited” power from his father, KGB-trained Heydar Aliyev, who died 10 years ago, has nonetheless engineered an economic boom – as the country’s oil and gas wealth, has helped GDP to more than treble in only the past decade, creating unprecedented improvements in the people’s living standards.
Indeed, Western nations and oil companies – including BP plc (NYSE: BP) and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) -- have largely overlooked the corruption and brutality of Aliyev’s state machinery because of the country’s vast oil and natural gas reserves. For the past eight years, Azerbaijani crude oil has been pumped through Georgia and Turkey for eager markets in Western Europe (completely bypassing Russia and Iran), with the support and financial aid of the U.S.
In addition, Aliyev provides a strong pro-Western geostrategic bulwark against Iran, Azerbaijan’s troublesome neighbor to the south. In connection with Baku’s strained relations with Iran, Aliyev has fostered very close relations with Israel. Over the past few years, intelligence agencies from both Israel and Azerbaijan have reportedly prevented terror attacks on Jewish targets in Baku by Iranian entities and their affiliates, including the Lebanese Hezbollah. In 2012, for example, Iran allegedly plotted to blow up both the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Baku. In response, the Iranians have accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israel in the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientists. Further, Iran became alarmed by reports (since denied by both Baku and Israel) that the Jewish state was planning to use an Azerbaijan military base to launch pre-emptive strikes on Iran to destroy its budding nuclear weapons program.
Azerbaijan, which was part of Iran before Russian expansion, shares much with its former sovereign – both are overwhelmingly Shia Muslim and Iran has a significant Azeri community (indeed, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is himself of Azeri descent). But that hasn’t prevented Baku from entering into binding military, energy and security agreements with Iran’s bitterest enemy, Israel (which opened an embassy in Baku as long ago as 1992, shortly after Azerbaijan became independent from the Soviet Union).
In May of this year, Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov made a state visit to Israel (the first such journey by such a high-level Azeri minister), triggering more vitriol from Teheran.
Last year, Azeri officials signed a $1.6 billion deal with state-controlled Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. under which Baku will receive unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e. drones), anti-aircraft and missile defense systems. UPI reported that this one transaction accounted for 43 percent of the Azeris’ defense expenditures for the whole year. In 2011, an Israeli defense contractor named Aeronautics opened a factory in Azerbaijan to manufacture military UAVs.
Anar Valiyev, an independent scholar in Baku, told International Business Times that Azerbaijan needs Israel for various reasons, including its superior technologies and military hardware. “Azerbaijan cannot buy weapons from the U.S. or Europe,” he said. “Russian technologies are not adequate, plus Russia is an ally of the Armenians” -- Azerbaijan's bitter enenmies.
Valiyev also suggested that Azerbaijan needs the Jewish lobby in the U.S. due to their perceived heavy influence in government.
In exchange for their close ties with Azerbaijan, Israel gains not only a much-needed Muslim friend in a very dangerous neighborhood, but also a huge portion (40 percent) of its annual oil requirements come from the small Caucasus state. Bilateral trade between Azerbaijan and Israel now totals some $4 billion annually. Since 1997, a number of senior Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, have visited Azerbaijan, solidifying their military and economic relationship. Israel’s links to Baku intensified a few years ago when Jerusalem’s once-strong diplomatic ties to Turkey collapsed after Israel commandos killed Turkish civilians on the Gaza flotilla that sought to send supplies to Palestinians in May 2010.
But the Azeris can only go so far without antagonizing Iran too much – for one thing, Azerbaijan has not yet opened up an embassy in Israel; moreover, Baku even signed a “non-aggression” pact with Teheran in 2005. Quipping about the often-secretive nature of the Azeris’ relations with Israel, Ilham Aliyev himself once famously likened it to an iceberg by stating: "Nine-tenths of it is below the surface."
Intriguingly, Raphael Harpaz, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, who has praised the Azeris for their “courageous stand against efforts to destabilize the region” (a direct snipe at Iran), also claimed that anti-Semitism is nonexistent in Azerbaijan. Indeed, some 42,000 Jews call Azerbaijan home.
Moreover, Baku’s relations with Teheran cannot be regarded as stable – a recent crackdown on Iran’s Azeri minority sparked outrage in Azerbaijan, which, in turn, prompted the Iranians to verbally invoke old territorial claims on Azerbaijan. On a cultural front, Azerbaijan is a secular, Western-leaning society with some freedoms for its people, compared to a very repressive and rigid Iran.
“Azerbaijan’s economic success and relatively liberal attitudes form a contrast with Iran’s restrictive policies and a viable alternative, which is probably making the mullah regime [of Iran] uncomfortable,” Avinoam Idan, a senior research fellow at John Hopkins University’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
However, Idan added that Azerbaijan’s cozy ties with Israel are designed to rankle not so much Iran, but rather another regional (and less prominent) enemy, Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia have waged at least two wars over the much-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region – causing thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Aliyev’s continued aggressive designs on the disputed territory have made his Western allies unwilling to sell him weapons (this is where Israel came in handy, as a very eager arms-seller).
“There are 20 to 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran,” Valiyev told IB Times. “The Iranian ayatollahs are scared that if Azerbaijan becomes a strong nation, with its secular nature it could lead to separatism among Iranian Azerbaijanis. Thus, Iranians will support anyone who seek to weaken Azerbaijan -- even Christian Armenia rather than Shia Muslim Azerbaijan."
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.