YEREVAN, SEPTEMBER 3, ARMENPRESS: The Azerbaijani opposition's inability to wrest power from the all-powerful regime of Ilham Aliev (pictured) seems to have driven it into drug dependency. In the year between May 2012 and May 2013, the government charged six prominent critics with possession of narcotics, as reports Armenpress, says The Economist.
But police only found the drugs after arresting the suspects, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW). They were far more interested in the defendants' political activities than in any recreational highs. Drugs tests came back negative. The drugs busts are another example of how trumping-up charges-for drugs or weapons possession, hooliganism, incitement or even treason-is a favoured Azerbaijani tactic to silence government critics.
The government is intensifying its crackdown in the run-up to the presidential elections on October 9th, HRW contends. Take the treatment of critical journalists. In 2012 the government released several journalists from prison. But since the beginning of this year it has arrested at least six more. It uses threats, smear campaigns and violent attacks to force them to toe the line.
Recent changes in legislation underline this trend. Fines for participating in unauthorised protests have increased a hundredfold over the last year. Minor public-order offences now carry maximum jail sentences of 60 days, up from 15. A new law that criminalises online defamation could lead to prison sentences of up to three years.
What is the government scared of? Although there are numerous opposition parties, they are barely represented in parliament. Neither the judiciary nor parliament acts offers much by way of checks or balances on the government's power. A popular referendum in March 2009 removed the two-term limit on the presidency, enabling Mr Aliev to stand for his third term next month. Defeat is unlikely even though opposition demonstrations in 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring, left Mr Aliev's government rattled.
This year the opposition hopes to mount a more concerted challenge. Inspired in part by Bidzina Ivanisvhili's success in uniting opposition parties in neighbouring Georgia last year, a score of different opposition parties formed the National Council of Democratic Forces in May 2013. Their preferred presidential candidate, Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbeyov, is a popular cultural figure.
Yet Mr Ibragimbeyov is a Russian as well as an Azerbaijani citizen. Russian bureaucracy stymied his application to cancel his citizenship. On August 27th Azerbaijan's central election commission rejected his application to register for the election, citing their dual citizenship laws and Mr Ibragimbeyov's residence in Moscow. A second candidate, Camil Hasanli, will run instead.
Mr Ibragimbeyov travelled to Washington in June to plead for greater international pressure on Azerbaijan to hold free and fair elections. Some external observers have already arrived in Azerbaijan to monitor the elections. That is a step in the right direction. After all, what happens on election day is only the tip of the iceberg. Careful manipulation of the electoral system can enable repressive governments to steal elections long before the electorate has casts its vote.
Will the observers make any difference? Four delegations of election observers monitored Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections in 2010. Observers from the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, perhaps seduced by Baku's "caviar diplomacy", made positive noises, to the consternation of civil society groups in Azerbaijan. A far more negative assessment came from the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The different conclusions effectively cancelled each other out, according to the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank. Although deeply fraudulent, the 2010 parliamentary elections were quickly forgotten.
The European Union is pursuing closer ties with Azerbaijan, based on energy resources and a commitment to "shared values" (that only one side shares). Azerbaijan routinely ignores EU criticism of its human-rights record. The Vilnius summit on November 28th and 29th will point the direction of the future of that relationship.