Azeri Leader Shrugs Off Rights Criticism

By Guy Faulconbridge

Jan 30 2009

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said a
proposal to scrap a two-term limit on his presidency was aimed at
creating more democracy, not keeping him in power indefinitely.

Aliyev accused the West of applying double standards in its criticism
of the referendum due in March on whether to scrap the two-term limit,
a step that could allow the 47-year-old to stay in power long after
his term ends in 2013.

The West criticizes Aliyev for concentrating too much power in his
own hands but he remains popular after years of economic boom and
there is little doubt that the presidency will be extended.

"You will not find any member of the European Union whose leader
cannot be elected as many times as the people want him to be in this
position. Is it democratic? Yes. So the same should be applied to
Azerbaijan," he told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday at the
World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

"It is democratic, so if the people support this or that leader they
have the right to elect him. So I think lifting the restrictions
(on the number of terms) is more democratic than having these
restrictions," he said, speaking in English.

The Aliyev family has governed the oil-producing Caspian country
for most of the last three decades, first by former President Heydar
Aliyev and since 2003, by his son Ilham.

Azerbaijan has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with
average annual GDP growth of 21.1 percent from 2003-7 and estimated
growth of 10.8 percent last year.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said last
year’s presidential election, won by Aliyev with 89 percent of the
vote, made "considerable progress" but that it fell short of fully
democratic standards.


Aliyev dismissed much of the criticism of Azerbaijan’s record on
human rights and democracy.

"If the criticism is justified and when it comes from a respectable
source we are more than ready and willing to discuss it," he
said. "Some of the criticism we sometimes hear from various NGOs
actually does not bother (us) because this criticism is mainly biased."

Aliyev said the West often judged human rights selectively and ignored
major violations in countries where it had geopolitical interests. He
mentioned Armenia as an example.

"The situation with human rights in Azerbaijan is not bad. If you
look at our region you will see that countries in our neighborhood
who brutally violate the elementary human rights of their people have
not become the subject of criticism."

"Sometimes those countries that are considered to be more friendly
or more close or more, how to say it, more associated with the West,
if they do something wrong it is not noticed."

"But if Azerbaijan, which is also friendly to the West but which
pursues its own independent policy, does one percent of what those
other countries do then we immediately become a subject of criticism."

On resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, one of a handful of
"frozen conflicts" stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union,
Aliyev said there were still no results.

Ethnic Armenian separatists, backed by Armenia, fought a war in the
1990s to throw off Azerbaijan’s control over Nagorno- Karabakh. An
estimated 30,000 people were killed. A fragile ceasefire is in force
but a peace accord has never been signed.