Friday, November 11, 2005

Back from Baku

Well, the Azeri elections are yesterday's news at this point, but I've been slowly winding my way back to Tbilisi. Going the non-traditional route, it took my friend and I two days and $12 (not counting hotel) to get from Baku to Tbilisi, and it was a real planes, trains, and automobiles kinda jaunt. We tagged along in a private car part-way across Azerbaijan, switching halfway to a bus, then walked across the international border on foot with high hopes that there'd be further transport options on the far side. On the Georgian side we argued over the price of petrol before convincing a taxi driver to take us a bit further, and then took a minivan to the capital. Where, of course, the electricity was off in my apartment.

So, the elections. For anyone following, it was, to nobody's shock a dirty election. I was an observer only of the exit polling process, however, so I cannot offer first-hand commentary on the conduct of the elections within the stations themselves. But I can say that the second-hand reports of fraud, particularly with the counting process, were abnormally high and blatant enough to suggest that precinct chairmen had their marching orders, and observers be damned.

What's most interesting to me, though, is the post-election game. After the similarly foul 2003 elections, the OSCE issued a wishy-washy wrist slap along with the conclusion that the elections were "generally well administered in most polling stations." The US put the nail in the coffin with a quick congratulations to Aliyev on his victory. I know people who observed that election that were utterly disgusted at this turn of events. That's the international community saying: deal with it.

The stage was set differently this time: the OSCE issued a harsher report criticizing the elections and the US followed up with a press release stating that "We are disturbed [...] by credible reports in selected districts around the country of major irregularities and fraud that may have disenfranchised voters in those districts."

Through this sort of statement, similar to the language used immediately after the Ukrainian elections, the international community has a bit of flexibility. They've acknowledged serious irregularities which they can rhetorically upgrade, as conditions necessitate, to deliberate fraud, or downgrade if circumstances point that way, to issues that are being appropriately handled by the election commission. This essentially opens the ground and if the opposition is there to mount rallies, they can do some damage.

But it doesn't seem to be taking hold. And I'm not too surprised. Relying on pure anecdotal evidence, one did not have the feel, walking through Baku, of impending revolt or mass discontent. One had the feeling that it might be a good time to by a Sony stereo and drink some tea. Perhaps it is naive to assume that there would be some tangible sentiment one could pick up on, but there wasn't even an overwhelming police presence, no demonstrations that week, no general tension in the air. I spoke with a number of young people, in the age group prime for opposition, and I came away with the following feeling: people are generally dissatisifed with this government, and their sentiments range from discontent, but a feeling that life is generally better than five years ago and working within the system is key, to outright disgust. But, and this seems to be key: people are equally disgusted with the opposition. This is not the stuff of mass street rallies. I did meet a few committed opposition activists, but this seemed an exception.


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