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Azerbaijan’s Snap Election: Aliyev’s “New Era”

On December 7, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev unexpectedly issued a decree to hold a snap presidential election on February 7, 2024. This sudden decision came after Aliyev’s meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien on December 6 in Baku. During their conversation, O’Brien conveyed Washington’s readiness to continue peace negotiations with U.S. mediation. 

Following the ethnic cleansing and forced deportation of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has been refusing to engage in negotiations on Western platforms. Aliyev declined a meeting in Granada, Spain, in October and subsequently rejected meetings in Brussels and Washington. However, he agreed to attend a meeting with Pashinyan in Saint Petersburg on December 26 as part of the CIS summit. 

It’s noteworthy that on January 23, Aliyev received the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Commission, Alexei Overchuk. Overchuk is an active mediator from the Russian side, particularly on border delimitation matters. About ten days before Overchuk’s visit, as reported by Azerbaijani “Minval”, official Baku declined a meeting with Louis Bono, the senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State for negotiations in the Caucasus, who had previously visited Armenia. After Bono, EU representative Toivo Klaar visited Armenia but did not attempt to go to Baku. He stated that “a visit to Baku is not planned because it is the election campaign period in Azerbaijan.” Seemingly, the election campaign does not affect the visits of Russian officials.

A pertinent question might be why Aliyev, who had been engaging in peace discussions on Western platforms like Washington and Brussels for the past three years, abruptly altered his stance after the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh. Notably, it’s essential to analyze and understand how this change in approach is connected to Aliyev’s decision to hold presidential elections a year earlier than the original date of 2025. 

In an interview with local TV channels on January 10, Aliyev explained his decision to call snap elections: “The elections mark the end of an era. In September, we concluded such an era, which was an epochal event. I think that there has been no similar victory in the centuries-old history of Azerbaijan…the presidential election should mark the beginning of a new era…”

Additionally, he stated that the elections would take place in Nagorno-Karabakh, where no Armenian population remains, and in the territories presently under Azerbaijan’s control. Aliyev defended this decision, citing that his presidential term had exceeded 20 years. However, he returned to the theme of a new era, concluding, “the first reason, of course, is the beginning of a new era, and the presidential election will provide a blessing for this new era as well.”

Understanding the main parameters and goals of this “new era”is crucial, particularly how it will impact Azerbaijan, negotiations with Armenia, and the broader region. 

Aliyev faces no real opposition in Azerbaijan. The two major opposition parties, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party (PFAP) and Musavat, have opted to abstain from the upcoming snap presidential election. Of the six remaining candidates — Zahid Oruj, Fuad Aliyev, Razi Nurullayev, Fazil Mustafa, Gudryat Hasanguliyev, and Elshad Musayev — it appears the competition focuses on who can best advance Aliyev’s agenda. A caricature by Azerbaijani blogger Gunduz Aghayev vividly portrays these candidates as clinging to Aliyev’s “Iron Fist”, indicating they are essentially playing by Aliyev’s rules.

It’s important to note that before the elections, Azerbaijan’s dictatorial regime launched a new wave of attacks against journalists, and opposition and civil society members. In July, Azerbaijani authorities arrested opposition leader and scholar Gubad Ibadoghlu on baseless criminal charges. During the 2020 war, Ibadoghlu initially supported Ilham Alijev, but later criticized his handling of Nagorno-Karabakh.

After Ibadoghlu’s arrest, a state sponsored campaign began, targeting Azerbaijan’s anti-war activists. Members of parliament, including ruling party MP Elman Mammadov, joined the campaign. He expressed strong views, stating for example that “the anti-war campaign is an action against Azerbaijani statehood and security. This should be investigated at the state level; their identities should be determined, and very serious measures should be taken within the framework of Azerbaijani laws.” Another legislator, Aydin Mirzazadeh, also from Aliyev’s ruling party, noted that in any society, there are groups opposing national interests and financed from abroad, including Azerbaijan. He identified the “no war” advocates as one such group, accusing them of both openly and secretly supporting Armenian interests during the occupation.

This campaign serves as another indicator that Aliyev has no intention of pursuing peace with Armenians. Moreover, the few voices advocating for potential reconciliation are swiftly silenced by the Azerbaijani state. Aliyev himself recently confirmed his longstanding ban on discourse around peace or reconciliation in Azerbaijan. “Under various pretexts — cooperation with Armenia, creating contacts through various NGOs to prepare people and societies for peace — the aim was to cultivate a different spirit in the younger generation growing up in Azerbaijan. However, our goal was for this generation to be patriotic, never come to terms with this injustice, and if we are not lucky enough to restore this historical justice, future generations should do it,” he said

This highlights the strong interconnection between war or the perpetual threat of war, animosity toward the Armenian people, and Aliyev’s dictatorial regime. Even following the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev finds it challenging to maintain his composure and continues his pursuit of enemies both internally and externally.

On the eve of the snap presidential elections, the crackdown on regime critics gained new momentum. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on November 22, stating, “Azerbaijani authorities have arrested Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinc Vagifgizi, top leaders of Abzas Media, an independent media outlet known for investigating and exposing corruption.” According to Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “Azerbaijani authorities pursue dubious, punitive criminal charges against their critics.”

Interestingly, many of Abzas Media’s investigations have covered alleged corruption in the reconstruction process in territories that Azerbaijan retook in the 2020 Karabakh War. The stories have documented how companies tied to high-ranking government officials, including members of Aliyev’s family, secured state contracts or acquired agricultural land without adhering to standard competitive procedures.

A week after cracking down on Abzas Media, Azerbaijan accused the U.S., France, and Germany of interfering in its internal affairs by funding this media outlet. On November 28, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the French, German and acting U.S. Ambassadors to discuss their countries’ financial support to Abzas Media. According to a press release, “the International Development Agency of the U.S., FreedomNow, New Democracy Fund, and other organizations illegally transferred financial resources to the territory of Azerbaijan, violating the rules of giving grants, and made illegal contributions to the activities of Abzas Media.”

Shortly after Samantha Power, the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),expressed her support for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians in a post on X, a campaign was initiated against USAID. Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan, accused Power of having connections with former state minister of Nagorno-Karabakh Ruben Vardanyan, currently detained unlawfully in Baku. In his post on X, Hajiyev concluded, “Mask Off! There is no place for USAID operation in Azerbaijan any longer!” 

This is yet another instance in a series of accusations against the West, particularly the U.S., for adopting a position that displeases Azerbaijan. Baku uses this as a pretext to cut ties and target the very few voices opposing the regime and its policies, which are either directly or indirectly related to prospective peace and reconciliation discussions with Armenia and its people. The facts on the ground suggest that Aliyev’s proclaimed “new era” lacks any signs of peace or stability, an issue that appears to be of interest to the West. 

The shift in Aliyev’s dictatorial regime’s rhetoric towards the U.S. and the EU can be explained by the assumption that, according to Washington’s and Brussels’ mediation topics, when Aliyev no longer has demands over Nagorno-Karabakh, there is no reason to delay a peace deal. Therefore, even after the ethnic cleansing, messages from our Western partners remained optimistic about a peace deal. 

However, that was in complete contradiction to what Aliyev had in mind. Was this a new occurrence? Not at all, it was quite evident, but there was a reluctance to admit it. A clear example was the meeting in Prague in October 2022, where Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. In response, on December 24, Aliyev declared, “Armenia was never present in this region before. Present-day Armenia is our land.” This statement exposed Aliyev’s intention to extend territorial claims beyond Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia itself. But both Armenian officials and Western mediators overlooked this. Aliyev pretended to engage in peace talks with the West while laying the foundation for a new conflict and escalating the threat of war. Using the potential return of Azerbaijanis to Armenia as a smokescreen the Azerbaijani state laid groundwork for this issue, sending official letters to the UN on February 17 and March 14, 2023

Currently, Azerbaijani officials and state-sponsored media channels, including the state-owned Az TV, regularly express territorial claims towards the Republic of Armenia. This rhetoric and policy directly contradict the negotiations between Aliyev and Pashinyan in Brussels, Washington and Moscow. The territorial claims that Aliyev articulated in his speech on January 10 bear no relation to the Alma Ata declaration or any other documents referenced during peace deal discussions. Therefore, Aliyev is changing the prior logic of the negotiations, proposing direct talks and sidelining the West and the prior negotiation framework. This shift comes after he has already achieved his objectives through both aggressive warfare and diplomatic discussions. 

Additionally, Aliyev is communicating to Moscow his refusal to continue talks mediated by the West, or to sign any documents. Azerbaijan is indebted to Russia for giving the “green light” to eliminate all Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, a population that the Russian peacekeepers were supposedly meant to protect. 

However, Moscow and Baku are eager to collaborate on more than one issue. They also share interests in a road, which should pass through Armenia’s southern Syunik region, referred to in the November 9 trilateral statement regarding the connection between the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic and Azerbaijan. Both Baku and Moscow have similar views on this matter. On January 10, Aliyev said, “I have repeatedly told the Armenian leadership that Armenia’s guarantees would not be sufficient for us. The statement of November 10 indicated that Russian border guards would provide security and control in the 42-43 km stretch, and this obligation must be fulfilled.”

On January 18, during his press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced, “The November 9, 2020 statement, which ended the war, stated that all economic and transport ties in the region would be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia will guarantee the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic in order to facilitate unhindered movement of people, vehicles and cargo in both directions. The Border Service of the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) will oversee these transport links.” 

Both parties often overlook that the November 9 statement primarily addressed a ceasefire in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite multiple violations of this ceasefire, the aggression on September 19 ultimately led to the end of the Armenian population’s centuries-long existence  in Nagorno-Karabakh. Consequently, Russia and Azerbaijan failed to fulfill their agreement and are now attempting to corner Armenia. 

Another point worth noting is that according to Lavrov, “Azerbaijan is ready to sign it on Russian territory.” Although Azerbaijan has not officially expressed a wish to sign a document in Russia, the official stance of Baku mostly focuses on direct talks, without a mediator, guarantor, or even coherent logic, excluding Azerbaijan’s wishlist. 

In summarizing Aliyev’s snap elections, referred to by the Azerbaijani media as “Victory elections” marking the dawn of a “new era”, several conclusions can be drawn:

  • Aliyev is normalizing the use of force and the threat of force as a means to address issues. His admission that war is his life mission, along with a recent statement reinforcing Azerbaijan’s disinterest in a peaceful settlement for decades, indicates a consistent pattern. He said: “Of course, we all wanted to restore our territorial integrity as soon as possible. However, from a historical viewpoint, 30 years is not such a long period of time. During this time, many proposals were made during the negotiations. Some might wonder why Azerbaijan did not accept them. After all, based on these proposals, several districts would have been returned to Azerbaijan without war, displaced persons would have returned to their homes, and the situation would have normalized. Why didn’t Azerbaijan agree to these proposals? Of course, the negotiations had their strategy and tactics. We conducted the negotiations in a manner that minimized external pressure while achieving our goals. But the main thing for me was that this is a historical issue, a national issue, and it would be wrong to seek some seemingly favorable gains. We must solve the issue in a fundamental way, we must solve it once and for all, we must fully restore our territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

  • Since Azerbaijan’s declaration of independence, no elections have taken place in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani law. For the first time, Azerbaijan will conduct elections in these territories following the forced displacement of the Armenians. 

  • Aliyev seeks to portray his dictatorship as “elected”, implying that the people endorse his dictatorial regime willingly. After decades of promoting aggression, hatred and revenge against Armenians, Aliyev demonstrates how he “punishes” Armenians, illustrating his intention to continue in aggressive actions.

  • The fact that Aliyev’s regime is actively silencing all voices advocating for reconciliation and peace, it’s clear that the regime will continue to foster hatred and aggression. In this “new era,” the main target will be the territory of the Republic of Armenia. 

  • After the elections, Aliyev will make further moves to exclude the West from the process. This strategy can be sold to Moscow, and could help Aliyev alter the entire framework of the previous negotiations. The exclusion of the West could result in Azerbaijan becoming more aggressive and assertive, not only toward Armenia but the entire region. 

  • The fact that both the U.S. and the EU have limited their responses to statements without taking substantial action signals to Baku’s dictatorship that there is no significant threat to the regime. Consequently, Aliyev feels empowered to act, disregarding these calls and statements. The recent developments have significantly impacted the West’s reputation. The delay of almost two months for the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to receive his credentials is a clear demonstration of Aliyev’s emboldened stance. 

Until now, the sole action taken by the West against Azerbaijan to convey its position was the decision of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to suspend the credentials of the Azerbaijani delegation for a year. In response, the head of the Azerbaijani delegation declared: “Nobody in the world, including those sitting in this hall can speak with Azerbaijan in the language of threat and blackmailing… In the face of the current unbearable atmosphere of racism, Azerbaijanophobia and Islamophobia in PACE, the delegation of Azerbaijan decides to cease its engagement with and presence at PACE until further notice."

This reaction indicates that dictators are often weaker and more vulnerable than they appear. Their boldness and aggression stem from a lack of concrete actions and punitive measures. Unfortunately, after the elections, we may see a more aggressive and dangerous Azerbaijan, particularly if the West chooses to withdraw. They show little eagerness to engage in the region, or as the saying goes, “They don’t have a dog in this fight.”


(c) 2024, EVN Report

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