Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

Azerbaijani politician aiming to challenge ruling regime

Azerbaijani opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov. (From Mammadov's Facebook)

Can Ilgar Mammadov change the old political structure in Azerbaijan?

Ilgar Mammadov’s arrest in February 2013 was clearly an attempt by the Aliyev regime to neutralise him ahead of the October presidential elections that year.  The charges against him were not only politically motivated, but for an alleged offence contrary to his political principles. He was convicted of inciting violence and sentenced to seven years.

It has been a year since Mr Mammadov’s release after sustained international pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to set him free. Perhaps the Aliyev regime calculated that his imprisonment would stop his rising popularity in society, which turned out to be wrong. While he was in jail, Ilgar Mammadov’s party REAL (Republican Alternative Movement) not only continued its existence, but emerged as the main alternative political organisation in Azerbaijan, which certainly differs from the old-fashioned traditional opposition groups.

Mr Mammadov himself is a well educated politician, who understands the ongoing changes in international relations. He seeks to utilise every aspect and invention of the modern digital age in the fight for democratisation and freedom in Azerbaijan. He has already made it clear that his main political objective is to reincarnate the historical foundations of the Azerbaijan Republic, such as republicanism, political pluralism and parliamentarian democracy. Ilgar Mammadov’s political opposition presents an alternative not only to the ruling Soviet style political system, but to the old-fashioned opposition and its failed methods. He clearly stated on many occasions that his base are youth and the educated as well as critical thinking people of Azerbaijan. Whether Mr Mammadov is going to be able to change the old Soviet type politics in Azerbaijan is not certain. But he has already had an impact on Azerbaijani society and politics. His presence has to a certain extent revived politics from a state of stagnation.

Ilgar Mammadov’s vision

Mr Mammadov advocates for peaceful change through elections. Because of his views, he is under attack from the old-fashioned opposition groups. He claims that to bring about change it is very important to mobilise the electorate to defend their choices in the ballot box. In other words, participation in an election should be seen as an opportunity to engage with the people and organise them to be able to defend their votes in a scenario of electoral fraud. Mr Mammadov himself grasps the point that the current electoral commissions and environment are not favourable to defeat the Aliyev regime. This is where most of the criticism of him comes from. However, his point is that change can happen as a result of participation in an election, as it did in Armenia and other countries. As a matter of fact, this is a pragmatic and realistic approach to trying to facilitate change in Azerbaijan.

What the critics failed to understand is the second phase of Mr Mammadov’s policy which is the most vital factor. Since 1993, Azerbaijani opposition forces have failed to mobilise the voters to defend their candidates after an election. This resulted in the shrinking of the political space to fight against the growing authoritarianism. The failure to mobilise the public caused the defeats in the 2003 presidential election, 2009 constitutional referendum and the 2016 referendum, in which the regime eroded political freedoms and almost terminated the constitutional rights of the citizens.

The creation of an autocratic regime is a gradual process and those who claim that the current dictatorial system has existed since 1993 are wrong. The erosion of rights and freedoms and the failure to organise a united front each time culminated in the September 2016 referendum, which enabled President Ilham Aliyev to appoint his wife as the first vice-president. In that sense Ilgar Mammadov’s doctrine addresses the root cause which strengthened the ruling regime in dictating its terms in politics. Ilgar Mammadov’s doctrine covers the domestic as well as external aspects of facilitating democratisation in Azerbaijan: participation in elections and working with the electorate in order to mobilise them to defend their rights and drawing international attention to Azerbaijan to force the ruling system to implement its international obligations regarding human rights and democratic reforms. This is a unique and realistic approach in the current political environment; however its success will depend on the strong will of Mr Mammadov to stand firm and not to retreat in a scenario of repression, as well as on public support and of course the international mechanism playing a key role in pressuring the Azerbaijani authorities to implement its obligations. How these will play out is uncertain.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East, including for the website I have a Masters' degree in International Politics & Human Rights from City, University of London.