Azerbaijan’s ‘AppGate’

Azerbaijan’s election has been tainted by a host of bizarre events, crowned off by a mystical smart phone application.

"Failing to hold Azerbaijan accountable for behaving democratically, in accordance with its international obligations, bodies like the European Parliament are legitimising an undemocratic regime", writes Rebecca Vincent [EPA]

Few people honestly thought that Azerbaijan stood a serious chance of conducting a fair and free presidential election on October 9. As I have written extensively, since the beginning of the year, Azerbaijani authorities have been engaged in an unprecedented crackdown to silence all forms of criticism and dissent. The underlying climate simply did not allow for a fair competition – not to mention that Azerbaijan has not held a single authentically democratic election since Aliyev came to power in 2003.

Still, the brazen nature of the electoral violations that took place surprised even close observers of Azerbaijan. A day before the election, Meydan TV, a satellite/Internet television station, broke the story that set the tone for the whole election, which became known as the “AppGate” scandal.

Meydan TV exposed an apparent fault of the Central Election Commission’s mobile phone application to allow users to track election results. On October 8, Meydan TV discovered that the results section of the application was showing, giving incumbent President Ilham Aliyev 72.76 percent of the vote before a single vote had been cast.

The mistake was quickly discovered and that section of the application closed, and both the application developer and the Central Election Commission stated that the displayed results had merely been part of a test. But the damage was done; whether or not the dubious claim that the developer had been testing the system was true, the scandal gave greater cause for concern over the credibility of the election, the results of which many already feared would be pre-fabricated.

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Election day itself was rife with violations, including ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting, which involves people casting votes at multiple polling stations. Videos, photos, and testimonies of electoral fraud flooded the Internet, and are still trickling in as the official results are analysed For example, activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev discovered several precincts where 100 percent of the vote had been awarded to Aliyev, a near-impossible feat in a fair contest.

Results posted by the Central Election Commission as of October 10 claimed Aliyev had won 84.55 percent of the vote. The only candidate widely agreed to be in opposition to Aliyev, the National Council coalition’s candidate, Jamil Hasanli, was given a paltry 5.53 percent. The remainder was scattered among the other eight candidates.

The Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, Azerbaijan’s largest and most experienced domestic monitoring organisation, noted in its preliminary statement that the election “was marred with violation[s] of national legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan and international standards, [and] therefore cannot be considered free and democratic.”

Indeed, anyone who spent even a few minutes examining independent information about the conduct of the campaign and the election would be hard-pressed to make any claim to believe that this election was free and fair by any standards.  But shamefully, some European politicians did exactly that.

Controversy over international monitoring findings

Perhaps more surprising than the AppGate scandal and the conduct of the electoral process was the discrepancy between the statements of preliminary findings of different international observers.

On October 10, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly election observation mission issued a Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions. The statement was critical, reporting on extensive violations during the campaign period and the election, concluding that the election fell far short of international democratic standards.

In particular, the OSCE/ODIHR noted: “The October 9 election was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates. Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign. Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of election day processes and underscored the serious nature of the shortcomings that need to be addressed in order for Azerbaijan to fully meet its OSCE commitments for genuine and democratic elections.”

But the same day, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament election observation delegations released a joint statement with their initial findings. They appeared to have been monitoring an entirely different election, or perhaps even visiting some other country.

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“Overall around election day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process. From what we have seen, electoral procedures on the eve and on election day have been carried out in a professional and peaceful way. We were pleased to see the sound technical preparations and the investment made by the Azeri authorities for this election,” the statement read.

Why the discrepancy? OSCE/ODIHR observers are professional and independent. They were there to get a job done, with no ulterior motives. The PACE and European Parliament delegations, in contrast, were made up of politicians, Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), such as head of the PACE delegation, UK MP Robert Walter, and PACE monitoring co-rapporteurs for Azerbaijan, Maltese MP Joseph Debono Grech and Spanish MP Pedro Agramunt. All three were featured in a report by the European Stability Initiative, Caviar Diplomacy: How Azerbaijan silenced the Council of Europe.

The statement by the PACE and European Parliament delegations also highlighted a growing weakness by the broader Council of Europe and European Union in holding Azerbaijan accountable for its human rights commitments. Since the defeat in January of a key PACE resolution on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, and Aliyev’s visit to Brussels in June for meetings with top EU officials who failed to make human rights a priority, Azerbaijan has been feeling smug about its position with both bodies, confident that on-going human rights violations in the country would not have serious consequences for other areas of these relationships.

Indeed, Azerbaijani officials have increasingly projected the attitude that the international community needs Azerbaijan more than Azerbaijan needs the international community. This attitude was evidenced earlier this year, when the Azerbaijani government successfully pushed for a downgrade in mandate of the OSCE Office in Baku, which will become a ” Project Co-ordinator” as of January 1, 2014. At the same time, the government delayed the OSCE/ODIHR’s invitation to observe this election for longer than usual, leading to speculation that the organisation would not be invited.

Perhaps it was out of fear of an honest assessment that the Azerbaijani government delayed the OSCE/ODIHR’s invitation. Azerbaijani officials and their supporters reacted swiftly and angrily to the OSCE/ODIHR’s statement. Pro-government journalists aggressively disrupted the press conference where the findings were being presented. Head of the Presidential Administration’s Social and Political Department Ali Hasanov called the report “biased” and said the government “will have to reconsider” whether it would continue to cooperate with the OSCE/ODIHR in the future. Hasanov used the PACE and European Parliament statement, along with statements from other dubious international observers, to justify his position.

Therein lies the danger – that in failing to hold Azerbaijan accountable for behaving democratically, in accordance with its international obligations, at key moments like this election, bodies like PACE and the European Parliament are legitimising an undemocratic regime. The Council of Europe and the European Union must take immediate action to right this wrong, and increase pressure on Azerbaijan to fulfil its international obligations. Failure to do so will have an impact on the credibility of these organisations far beyond their relationships with Azerbaijan.

Discrepancies in international media coverage

But beyond the unaccountable behaviour of the PACE and European Parliament delegations, the role of the international media may also be contributing to the lack of serious international pressure on Azerbaijan to fulfill its obligations when it comes to democracy and human rights.

As Director of Meydan TV and formerly imprisoned blogger Emin Milli sees it, the international media fails to report on rights violations in Azerbaijan the same way it would in many other countries. Despite the fact that the AppGate story was widely – although slowly – picked up by the international media, it did not get the attention that Milli thought it merited.

“I don’t understand why outlets like CNN, or the BBC, did not make AppGate the top story. If election results were released one day early in Iran or Russia, it would be the major headline in reporting on the election. But they don’t care when it happens in Azerbaijan,” Milli told me, explaining that to him, the AppGate scandal epitomised the whole election.

Milli also took issue with coverage of outlets such as the New York Times , which presented the nine candidates besides Aliyev as being “opposition” – a point that was also taken up by prominent journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who posted publicly on Facebook , ” For dummies. Again. There were no 9 opposition candidates in Azerbaijani elections. Seven of them were candidates supporting [the] incumbent. They were there to hijack airtime for attacking [the] opposition candidate and praise the incumbent president. Is it clear, or should I give an explanation for extra-dummies like the one writing for NYT?”

Beyond the election period, it is generally difficult to get the international media’s attention to issues other than energy in Azerbaijan, even on stories that would be of immense interest elsewhere. Milli pointed to a scandal last year, when a video was leaked appearing to show MP Gular Ahmadova negotiating the sale of a parliamentary seat, implicating presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev in the deal. Ahmadova’s assistant, who was also shown in the video, later died under suspicious circumstances, and Ahmadova is now in detention, facing charges of abuse of public office in order to commit embezzlement. But the scandal has hardly received any media coverage outside of the country.

The international media similarly ignored reports from earlier this year of jamming of alternative news broadcasts from three outlets based outside of the country, a practice that violates both international telecommunications regulations and human rights law. Virtually the only international coverage of the story was from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which was itself one of the broadcasters affected, and from Al Jazeera, in an opinion piece I wrote. In contrast, similar reports of jamming originating in Iran and Syria in 2012 drew widespread international condemnation.

But this week there has been an unusual flurry of international media coverage of Azerbaijan, of an intensity that we have not seen since Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012. The challenge for local activists will now be to attempt to hold some of this attention in the aftermath of the election, to not let human rights violations in the country be overlooked until the next event of significant international interest – the European Olympic games in Baku in 2015.

The role of the international media will prove key in moving forward; it could make or break efforts to increase international pressure on the Azerbaijani government to take concrete steps to improve its human rights behaviour and start to behave more accountably – despite the fact that it was not elected democratically. In particular, European politicians might be compelled to change their behaviour if they knew that their constituents would be made aware of what they were up to in Azerbaijan.

But if international media attention to Azerbaijan wanes once again as has so often been the case, there may not be many stories left to report when the country is of interest again, as the few remaining critical voices are likely to have been silenced by then. These courageous individuals need support and protection now to pre-empt a post-election crackdown even harsher than what has already taken place. Giving them the platform their stories deserve would be an excellent start.

Rebecca Vincent is an American-British human rights activist currently based in London. She is a former US diplomat and has worked with a wide range of international and Azerbaijani human rights and freedom of expression organisations.

You can follow Rebecca on Twitter @rebecca_vincent.