While the October 9th re-election of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev led to some familiar criticisms by Western observers, according to exit polls conducted by American political researcher Arthur J. Finkelstein, Aliyev, 52, won by 82.7 percent. The outcome may never have been in doubt, but the meaning of a third term says a lot about where oil-rich and strategically central Azerbaijan is heading in the years to come.
Since Aliyev first assumed office in 2003, real GDP growth has averaged at 10 percent, powering steady economic growth and job creation. Per capita GDP has risen from $4000 in the 1990s to $10,500 today. Displaying a vision that is rare elsewhere, Aliyev has insisted that his country’s debt to GDP ratio be capped at 12 percent so as not to burden future generations of Azeris with a mountain of debt. (By contrast, the U.S. stands at a staggering 87 percent!) As a result of his stewardship, Azerbaijan’s transparent oil fund has accumulated $34 billion. In short, Aliyev has stabilized the economy thus allowing the arduous transition from a centrally planned economy to a free market economy.
Importantly for Azerbaijan and the region, Aliyev has strenuously preserved the tradition of religious tolerance which is a bedrock of Azeri society. In this Shia Muslim nation of eight million, Jews, Christians, Bahais and other religious groups live under the protection of not just their government but under the protection of a culture of tolerance. For example, while members of the Bahai faith are persecuted in Iran, in Azerbaijan they are allowed to practice their faith openly. In 2011, the largest synagogue was built by government funding and inaugurated in Baku in a ceremony attended by the Chief Rabbi of Israel. In this model of secular Islam, Azerbaijanis voted for Aliyev because he has presented a vision in which a Muslim country can be secular – religion is not dogma. As Aliyev is fond of saying: “Our faith is in our hearts not on our streets.”
Azeris also voted for Aliyev because he has maintained good and normal ties to Washington and other major actors on the international stage. One of the shared foreign policy goals of both Washington and Baku is the uninterrupted transportation of the Caspian Sea basin’s energy resources to European markets and beyond. Indeed, Azerbaijan today benefits from having been transformed into a crucial hub for energy exports to international markets, as its booming capital, Baku, demonstrates. A visit by senior members of the U.S. Congress to Baku would cement this growing importance of Azerbaijan as an alternative to Russian domination of European gas imports.
Equally important, Azeris voted for Aliyev because he has preserved their young country’s independence from Russia and Iran. After acquiring its long-sought independence in 1991, the most precious commodity for Azerbaijanis is to ensure that their country – sandwiched between an aggressive Russia and theocratic Iran – does not get subsumed by either. Azerbaijan’s neighbor Armenia for example was recently forced by Moscow to turn its back to the U.S. and Europe and enter the Russian orbit.
Finally, Azerbaijanis voted for Aliyev because he has restored pride to a country that for over seventy years lived under the shadow of Soviet communism; thus holding hostage the identity of what makes his country unique. Towards this end he (and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva) has promoted Azeri culture, music, history and heritage by hosting international events. Last year it sent its US-made satellite into orbit. On the global stage, its troops are serving in Afghanistan – they were deployed to Iraq alongside American troops.
President Aliyev has acknowledged that two main challenges remain – which he hopes to tackle in his third term. On October 1 in a speech he referred to the “evil” of corruption and how this “disease undermines Azerbaijan”. In his new term he will tackle this cancer. The second challenge is finding a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh.
The implications of an Aliyev victory for the West are threefold. First, it allows President Obama to invite Aliyev to Washington in order to set the stage for a historic resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict. Congress should encourage the White House to extend this invitation. Second, Aliyev’s reelection ensures Azerbaijan’s continued role as a secure, reliable partner for exports of oil and gas from Caspian Sea basin to Western energy markets. Third, Aliyev has provided a model for the Muslim/Arab world – in the end, good governance is key. If a citizenry are provided with the basic needs and opportunity to grow and prosper within a limited political zone then progress has been achieved.
Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.