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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Revolution All Dressed Up, But Nowhere to Go

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- By Nov. 6, election day in Azerbaijan, a small room off the customs area at Heidar Aliyev International Airport was packed with satellite equipment seized from reporters arriving to cover the vote. "Can you send live pictures with this?" a polite customs inspector asked one foreign broadcast journalist after he landed with satellite equipment. "Then I'm afraid it's not allowed."

Also barred from the country that weekend were a group of election observers and youth activists from Ukraine, whose Orange Revolution had become a source of inspiration for Azerbaijan's opposition. Any indication of a rigged vote would galvanize the population to take to the streets to demand political power, as people did in Ukraine, opposition figures there predicted.

It was, however, not to be. The airport controls were merely small last moves in a months-long campaign that had already boxed in President Ilham Aliyev's rivals. The government also made some democratic concessions and never let its strong-arm tactics get strong enough to completely alienate its allies -- the United States and European Union. Before a vote was cast, the opposition had already been checkmated.

In the end, this mix of tactics, applied against an inherently weak opposition, made Azerbaijan infertile ground for the kind of popular revolts that toppled governments in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in addition to Ukraine.

In 15 years of independence, Azerbaijan has never had an election that international monitors considered largely free and fair. But this time, Aliyev promised, the vote would win praise abroad. Estranged from Russia, which keeps close ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan's rival, Aliyev has embraced the United States. He sent troops to Iraq and oversaw construction of a Western-backed pipeline to Turkey.

"We have indivisible interests here," a U.S. Embassy official said on condition of anonymity. "Security, democracy and energy."

As elections for the 125-seat parliament approached, the president and his ruling party attempted to balance Western demands for fairer political competition with a need to keep the opposition and domestic opinion in line.

"Every step is a calculation," said Arastun Orujlu, chairman of the East-West Research Center in Baku. "How much to give, how much to take, and how will the West react."

In presidential decrees, Aliyev committed himself to fair balloting, including the inking of voters' fingers to prevent them from voting more than once. Opposition voices were allowed on a private television station. Foreign NGOs were allowed to work with candidates and parties. At the same time, police violently broke up unsanctioned opposition rallies and harassed youth activists. Hundreds of candidates were pressured to remove their names from the ballot, analysts said. Officials told rural residents to vote the government's way or risk losing access to water and electricity.

After polling places closed on Nov. 6, official results showed an overwhelming victory for Aliyev's party and its allies. But monitors from the 55-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the vote was tarnished by widespread fraud. State television, the major source of news for many people in the country, simply ignored the report from the most prestigious foreign group to monitor the election. Instead, television concentrated on the positive verdicts of other observers invited in by the Central Elections Commission, including delegations from Iran, Turkey and the United States.

The U.S. group of 12 observers was headed by Bob Holden, former Democratic governor of Missouri, and was sent by William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, at the behest of the Azeri Central Elections Commission. "The voters have very quickly learned and embraced free and open elections," said Holden at an election night news conference that got heavy airtime on state television. "We Americans could learn from the citizens of your country."

In a telephone interview, Holden said the judgment of his group, which included professors from colleges in Missouri, applied only to the balloting itself, not to the campaign or the vote count. He rejected charges that the Azerbaijan government exploited his group to offset the OSCE judgment and burnish the vote for domestic consumption.

"From what I understand, most of the problems were with the count, and next time I would try to watch the process all the way until the vote is counted," Holden said. He said he was not paid for his work.

On election night, opposition leaders quickly rejected the official results. One leader, Isa Gambar, promised one of the largest demonstrations in the country's post-Soviet history. Some supporters said they would pitch tents and occupy public spaces, as Ukrainians did on Kiev's Independence Square.

But rather than strike immediately, opposition leaders accepted a permit that allowed their supporters to demonstrate between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on the Wednesday after the Sunday vote. The delay apparently worked, because only 15,000 people showed up for the rally, and when it ended everyone went home. "Revolution from Three to Six," read a derisive headline in the leading Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.

A few days after that, the square where the opposition rallied was again deserted 15 minutes after the time set by the government for the demonstration to end. A few students had begun what they hoped would be a sit-in but quickly realized that no one was joining them.

On Saturday, opposition supporters rallied a third time. The OSCE estimated that 15,000 people participated, but police said that fewer than 5,000 were present and that there were no disturbances, Reuters reported.

The massive Ukrainian demonstrations, by contrast, were organized with almost military-like discipline, and were backed by the ample funding of Ukrainian tycoons who wanted President Leonid Kuchma out. Azerbaijan's opposition lacked the support, the structure and the financing to take on the government.

After election results were falsified in Ukraine, U.S. diplomats laid down "red lines" for the Kuchma administration -- no violence and no certification of the election results. If those terms were violated, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine's hopes for Euro-Atlantic integration and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud."

The Azeri opposition got no such support from the United States or Western Europe. The United States has been pushing Aliyev hard for democratic progress and is seeing slow gains without a street revolution, the U.S. official said.

Now, Aliyev is again doling out concessions while preserving his ruling party's suspect victory. According to local news reports and opposition sources, discussions continue about a compromise by which some results would be reversed and the opposition would control at least 20 seats in the parliament, up from the six it won on election night.

Aliyev would cement his win, while the opposition would gain a base to launch a stronger push for power in presidential elections in 2008. "Formally, there were all the signs of the Orange Revolution," said Arif Yunusov, an analyst at Azerbaijan's Institute of Peace and Democracy, speaking at a seminar at the Carnegie Moscow Center last week. "There were tents, flags, orange colors, a youth movement."

But in fact, Yunusov said, "We were getting ready for a revolution a little later, closer to the presidential elections, closer to 2008."