Mushy Fruit Has a Meaning For Azerbaijani Democracy

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005

GUNAHIR, Azerbaijan -- The road to Gunahir village, an isolated enclave of 2,500 in the Talysh Mountains, is little more than a muddy, rutted tributary of the river it follows. Tractors and trucks fail along the way, and travel is so slow that villagers say the old and sick have sometimes died as they were bounced and jostled on their way to hospitals in nearby Lankaran, a city only 25 miles north of the Iranian border.

As Azerbaijan prepares for a Nov. 6 parliamentary election, a test of the country's progress toward democracy, a new road is at the top of the wish list for residents of Gunahir. Without one, the villagers' fruit and vegetables will continue to turn to mush on the way to market, and Gunahir, 140 miles from the capital, Baku, will get none of the projected billions of dollars of economic development funds from a new pipeline projected to begin pumping Caspian Sea oil into world markets this month.

On the morning of Sept. 17, as women did laundry in streams that roar out of mountain gullies and baked bread in tandoor ovens, about two dozen men gathered in the center of Gunahir to meet Elshad Ibrahimov, one of 16 candidates hoping to represent the village's district.

Big, balding and physically vigorous, Ibrahimov, 36, tried to shake the men out of the cynicism and passivity that are endemic among voters here. He insisted they vote, even though their votes had been stolen in the past. And he promised that despite being a member of the ruling party, he would work harder than Hadi Rajabli, the parliament member he seeks to replace.

Ibrahimov's meeting with the voters offered a glimpse of a pioneering effort to establish a democratic process in this rugged and rural land. He is fighting the local establishment in a country that is ruled by an authoritarian president. He is also urging villagers to take power into their own hands within the remains of the old Soviet party system, long grafted onto a clan hierarchy.

Although President Ilham Aliyev has promised electoral reforms and international election monitors are pouring into the country to assess that progress, the fate of candidates at the grass roots such as Ibrahimov will determine whether this country can make real progress toward representative democracy.

Ibrahimov's battle pits him against a powerful regional governor and his associates. "They probably gave you orders to vote for Hadi Rajabli," he told the villagers, referring to local leaders. This candor was surprising to the villagers because Ibrahimov is a member of the ruling party.

"Ilham Aliyev is good, he's trying to feed people," Fakhraddin Kishiyev, a Gunahir resident, said of the president, who inherited power from his father through a widely criticized election in 2003. "But his team is terrible. Until young people come to power, nothing will change."

"The struggle between the local power brokers and satraps and the president is the invisible real politics," said S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. But others, he said, "are preoccupied with elections, the relation between the president and the parliament."

In previous elections, the government used an arbitrary registration process to disqualify candidates it feared or disliked. The current parliamentary contest became a free-for-all after strong international criticism forced Aliyev to announce on May 11 what he called important electoral reforms. He eased the registration process and called for his regional representatives to remain neutral.

Many opposition politicians dismiss the changes as cosmetic. Despite its promise of free and fair elections, they note, the government has already used violence to break up political rallies, most recently on Sept. 25.

But a genuine spirit of competition in the campaign survives. More than 2,000 candidates have registered to compete for 125 seats in parliament, and in some districts, dozens of names are on the ballot. "This is an indication of the trust of the society with respect to free and fair elections," Aliyev said in an interview.

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