Lankaran Diary: Critical Candidates, Even More Critical Problems
By Rovshan Ismaylov: 11/05/05

With official estimates for Azerbaijan's 2006 economic growth rate at a whopping 30 percent, voters in the country's poverty-stricken southern regions, along the border with Iran, are wondering how they will stand to benefit.

The area, home to the country's largest population of minority Talysh minority, is known for its cuisine, hospitality, strong military traditions, large families (in the Soviet era, average family size was 8-10 children) and centenarians. Its closeness to the Iranian border attracts particular attention from Western diplomats and journalists.

But this election season, other characteristics are gaining attention, too.

To the casual observer, the socio-economic situation in Lankaran, the center of Azerbaijan's south with a population of some 150,000, is much worse than in other big regional centers like Ganja, Sumgayit or Guba. The subject of living conditions in Lankaran dominates candidates' meetings with voters and appearances on local television. But unlike the cities to the north, the overwhelming majority of candidates running for parliament in and around Lankaran have outspoken criticism of both local and central government on the topic.

Lankaran residents say their houses have had no gas for heating or cooking for the past decade. Electricity shortages tend to be much more serious than in other regions. In the central square of Lankaran City, street lamps are no longer working, leaving the area plunged in darkness after 8pm. Locals say that all shops, cafés and restaurants in Lankaran have had to buy electricity generators to be able to work in the evenings. Small street kiosks rely on candles.

According to Elshad Ibragimov, a 35-year-old member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) who recently withdrew from the campaign in the #74 Lankaran village constituency, the lack of gas means people are cutting down surrounding forests for wood to heat their houses. Consequently, nearby woodlands are at environmental risk.

In an October 23 man-on-the-street survey of Lankaran residents by Lankaran TV, 19 out of 20 respondents interviewed said that they intended to vote on November 6. Tens of candidates are competing for 12 parliamentary seats from Azerbaijan's six southern regions (Lankaran, Masali,Lerik, Satara, Yardimli and Jalilabad); their posters provide an energetic splash of color in the area's villages and towns.

“How can we not criticize the government when the poverty level in our region is unbelievable, and about 25 percent of the young men have migrated to Russia in search of an income?” commented Takhmaz Takhmazov, an independent candidate from # 70 Masalli City constituency. “It would be unfair to our voters.”

Other candidates target transportation. Muddy, rutted roads to remote mountain villages are being repaired, allegedly by some candidates who are richer than others and enjoy the support of local authorities.

Atakhan Abilov, a lawyer and independent candidate from #75 Lankaran-Masalli constituency, claims that bad roads makes travel to Lankaran City from the mountain villages of Diryan, Jidi and Old Gadir close to impossible. Local government documents suggest that these roads were repaved several times in the 1990s, but no sign of asphalt remains. “Where is the asphalt? There is no asphalt at all,” Abilov said.

According to Ibragimov, unemployment in Lankaran's villages can run as high as 60-70 percent. In Soviet times, the region's tea plantations and processing plants provided unemployment. But now, “the tea plantations are destroyed and the factories do not work, and it fuels unemployment and sharpens social tension in the region,” commented Ibragimov.

Low monthly welfare payments for families with children (about $2 per child) further rile voter tempers, Many voters lay blame for these payments on Hadi Rajably, the incumbent member of parliament for #74 Lankaran Villages, and chairman of the parliamentary committee on social policy.

Rajably and representatives of the local government could not be reached for comment.

The socio-economic situation has also fueled some concerns of a possible revival of Talysh separatism, according to one candidate, who asked not to be named. Though separatism was not an issue in the campaign, «[s]ome people say that because of the events of 1993 [when the separatist Talysh-Mugan Republic was declared] the authorities 'took revenge' on the region's population. And it is a matter of concern.»

Outside observers have worried that the strong emphasis put on religion in the region could also influence stability. The region's proximity to and open border with Iran has sparked concern among outside observers that inhabitants will look to more conservative strains of Islam for relief from the burdens of everyday life. Attendance at village mosques runs high here, and candidates routinely insert traditional references to Allah in conversations with voters. But locals say that the fear of conservative Islam taking hold is misplaced. Though attendance at village mosques is higher than in other parts of Azerbaijan, Lankaran inhabitants “travel to Iran a lot and see the real situation in Iran is no better than here,” commented Gunel Akbarova, a news presenter for Lankaran Television.

Opium trafficking with Iran is a greater concern. Youth addiction to opium and marijuana, coupled with high unemployment, could feed tensions over Lankaran's dismal living conditions still further, most candidates in the region argue. Anar Sadikhov, the YeS bloc candidate for #73 Lankaran City constituency and Tatiana Agayeva, the opposition Liberal Party candidate from #76 Lankaran-Astara constituency, both call drug addiction the region's number one problem.

But in the view of some candidates, one perennial problem looms larger still: Nagorno Karabakh. Southern Azerbaijan has one of the highest populations of veterans of Azerbaijan's 1988-1994 war with Armenia over the enclave. In television debates, candidates routinely name the issue of returning Karabakh to Azerbaijani control as their primary concern. First peace for Azerbaijan, their message goes, then prosperity for the country's south.Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismaylov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

With less than a day before Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections, unanswered questions still exist regarding the exit polls that were intended to serve as a check on official vote results. Among the more problematic issues, according to a Central Election Commission source: which of three main polls to use for comparison with official results.

One poll will be run by a group organized by the Washington, DC-based PA Consulting Group in 65 constituencies and funded by the United States Agency for International Development. New York-based Warren Mitofsky International and the Estonian firm Saar Poll will run polls in all 125 constituencies.

The source, who asked not to be named, said that the commission is quite confused by the number of polling companies conducting exit polls for the election, as well as by differences between their margins of error. Presidential administration officials have stated that an investigation of a polling station will be launched if the discrepancy between a polling station's official result and that of an exit poll exceeds the standard margin of error of the exit pollster's work.

The source said that the CEC for now has no set plan for which exit poll to use for comparison with official results. “We hope that there will be no discrepancies between the results of the exit poll companies,” the source said, adding that if such a discrepancy did occur “we will find a solution.”

Confusion also surrounds the margin of error which would be used as the benchmark for comparison with official results. Both Mitofsky and Saar Poll claim that their results have less than a 3 percent margin of error. PA Consulting Group's website states that its polls have a 3.5 percent margin of error. However, during a visit to Baku earlier in October, Assistant US Secretary of State for Eurasia Daniel Fried told a press conference that the USAID- funded exit poll could have a margin of error of no more than 2 percent.

Speaking to journalists on October 27, Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's public and political affairs department, only said that three companies will conduct exit polls in Azerbaijan, and that all three are respected organizations.

In his May 11 decree on providing for free and fair parliamentary elections, President Ilham Aliyev ordered local authorities to provide all opportunities for conducting exit polls and “for [the] fair and transparent disclosure of the results of the parallel voting."

Unlike the government, the opposition has been outspoken in its reaction to the three exit pollsters. The opposition believes that both Mitofsky and Saar Poll have the government as their clients, albeit using front organizations. Reluctance by both Mitofsky and Saar Poll to discuss their clients has fueled these doubts. Mitofsky originally claimed that its exit poll is sponsored by a Switzerland-based company called Renaissance. Saar Poll has named its client as Santo Communications, a British financial institution, the company says. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive].

On November 1, Turan News Agency reported that it had received a letter that allegedly identified the client of Mitofsky International as Renaissance Associates, a lobbyist firm which represents the Azerbaijani government in Washington. In response to the claim, Mitofsky International stated on November 2 that Renaissance Associates is a respected organization with which Mitofsky has had experience working.

Opposition accusations of bias have also dogged PA Consulting Group's two local partners, Baku-based SORGU (Survey) and GORBI, an opinion research firm based in Tbilisi, Georgia, which will act as a technical advisor. “They have the reputation of being biased organizations,” said PFPA Deputy Chairman Fuad Mustafayev. “ We do trust PA Consulting, but not their contractors.” The opposition traces its reservations to a May 2005 opinion poll commissioned by GORBI and implemented by SORGU, which gave President Ilham Aliyev a 77-percent approval rating, and was incorrectly attributed to polling giant Gallup International.

Choice of constituencies is another trouble spot for poll critics. PA Consulting Group chose the 65 constituencies in which it will conduct exit polls by random selection. None of the constituencies include races between opposition leaders and nominees of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party.

The head of one non-governmental organization who shares the skepticism about SORGU and GORBI, has commented that if the random selection procedure had taken place in the presence of journalists, belief in the poll's objectivity would have been stronger. “Maybe it would be worthwhile to choose two organizations - one trusted by the opposition, another by the government,” said Leyla Yunus, director of the Peace and Democracy Institute.

Speaking to EurasiaNet earlier in October, PA Consulting Group representative in Baku David Hoffman said that the random selection of constituency is a widely used polling practice and that there is no reason to abandon it.

Domestic and international reactions to the polls and their role in the election process promise to be mixed. Elin Suleymanov, senior counselor in the presidential administration's foreign relations department, commented that the exit poll can be viewed as an auxillary method for vote counting, but in no way official. Sabine Freizer, director of the International Crisis Group's Caucasus Project, named international observers as a preferable means for determining how far and free the elections since they will see the actual process of voting.

For now, with many Azerbaijani voters, curiosity about the polls appears to be winning out over any doubts about their effectiveness. Baku resident Sona Mamedova, 18, will be voting in her first elections on November 6 and says she has thoroughly researched all three polling companies. Mamedova conceded that she has doubts about how effective the polls will prove as a check against official results, but added: “[I]t is good that we have an exit poll. . . I like the fact that the opinion of people like me is interesting to someone.”

Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismaylov is freelance journalist based in Baku.

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Uzeir Jafarov, a retired army colonel and parliment election candidate, informs his supporters in a local tea house about the marking procedure with indelible ink. (Sophia Mizante for EurasiaNet)