The presidential campaign in the United States is being watched very closely in Azerbaijan — an oil-rich former Soviet republic, situated in the Caucasus region. And that is not surprising: Since the first year of its independence, Azerbaijan has been working to keep strong relations with the United States.
The first reason for this is democracy, as my country faces a period of transition. Another reason is the geopolitical environment — Azerbaijan borders Russia on the north and Iran on the south. A close relationship with the United States gives the Azerbaijani leadership an opportunity to be more independent in the dialogue with our powerful neighbors.
As to the attitude toward the U.S. presidential candidates, the sympathy of many people in Azerbaijan does not lie with President Bush. And war in Iraq is the main reason for that feeling. People see that things are getting worse there. But, ironically, we also have military in Iraq because the Azerbaijani leadership decided to join the U.S.-led coalition. Many people are also concerned with the possibility of a military operation against our southern neighbor — Iran — and what might negatively influence the regional situation.
John Kerry seems to be the more pragmatic leader. But there are also fears in my country that if Kerry is elected, the attitude of the United States toward Azerbaijan could change. One of the top-priority issues for my country is the restoration of territorial integrity. At the moment, 20 percent of Azerbaijani lands are occupied by a neighboring state — Armenia, which pursues the goals of increasing its territory by gathering "historical Armenian lands," which include part of the territory of Azerbaijan and Turkey. As a result of aggression of Armenia, thousands of people in my country were killed and wounded and hundreds of thousands became homeless. In 1994 a cease-fire was achieved and negotiations started. Unfortunately, they haven't brought any results up to now, but the good news is that they are continuing. And there is a large Armenian diaspora in the United States, which claimed support of Kerry's candidacy. That's made people in Azerbaijan cautious about Kerry.
It seems to me that Thursday's presidential debate increased the chances of Bush winning the race. The American president looked much stronger than his opponent. Kerry's stance was, as clearly stressed by his opponent, "inconsistent."
Watching the debate, frankly speaking, I was impressed by the atmosphere of openness and mutual respect between candidates. It's very difficult to imagine the current president in Azerbaijan running for another term and participating in such a debate with his opponents. Unfortunately, there is lack of respect for opposite views in my country, and that makes the political situation in Azerbaijan very tense.
Azerbaijan is moving towards democracy, but this movement is still very slow. One reason: It's difficult to build democracy with those who ruled Azerbaijan in the Soviet period. They can say they are democrats, but in reality their way of thinking and doing things has nothing in common with this word. We adopted good laws, but often they don't work because of the resistance of such "democrats." People in my country, for instance, have the right to elect and be elected, but there are still big doubts about the fairness of the vote.
Unfortunately, it was also the case during the last presidential elections in the United States when some American watchdog organizations were seriously concerned about the results. And it strengthened the standing of Azerbaijani "democrats," who used the example of the American elections of 2000 in debate with those who criticized the vote in my country. Now, upon harsh criticism of Azerbaijani elections, they could point to the American case and say that it's not only Azerbaijan that had problems during elections, but also the United States — the leading democratic state.
Let us hope that the upcoming elections in the United States become really the best example of democracy at work.