It's hard to tell that it's election time in Azerbaijan.
In the last decade, the government has shortened the campaign period from four months to a little over three weeks, and even during that narrow window state-run television is showing no election campaigns. No rallies are taking place on the streets of the capital city Baku.
The ruling family hasn't changed in 22 years, so nobody is holding their breath for a swing vote on election day this Sunday. President Ilham Aliyev was elected for the second time in 2008 (following two terms served by his father) — and he swiftly held a referendum that secured a change in the constitution allowing him to run for a third term.
Though Azerbaijan effectively operates as a one-party state, there are opposition movements. They are split into two camps regarding the upcoming vote: Some are boycotting the election in the belief that taking part validates the process, and others are taking part in the hope of inching towards progress.
Democracy movement Republican Alternative (ReAL), was established in 2009 as a protest response to the constitutional amendment allowing Aliyev to run for continuous terms.
ReAL are taking part in the vote, although Khalid Bagirov, a human rights lawyer and party member told VICE News, "We don't have any illusions that we're going to win. We know there is no normal climate of an election campaign, but by taking part we're hoping we shed a little light on the issues."
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In the lead-up to the last elections, their leader was arrested and sentenced to seven years. The European Court of Human Rights ruled his detainment was a move "to silence or punish… for criticizing the government."
The government's methods for restricting the reach of the opposition are multi-pronged and complex. Financial suffocation, intimidation, public shaming, limiting numbers of candidates for each party, and charging high amounts for TV time are just some of the ways in which the ruling party keeps election time quiet.
Presidential mouthpiece Ali Hasanov denied the allegations of an undemocratic election earlier this month. "The elections, held so far in Azerbaijan, have been democratic and fair… we regard media as the important participant of elections. Its task is to truthfully analyze the electoral environment, to become familiar with the population's election mood and its activeness," he said.
'Europe offers hope with one arm and continues to cooperate with the regime with the other.'
Aliyev echoed those remarks at a press conference in Berlin in January. "I can say that all freedoms are guaranteed in Azerbaijan. The freedom of speech is fully guaranteed… freedom of the press is fully guaranteed," he said.
The OSCE, the international watchdog normally shipped in to observe elections, have announced they will not be attending this year due to too many restrictions being placed on them.
Last time, the report wasn't favorable. "Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign. Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of election day processes," the OSCE wrote.
Following what the Council of Europe, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Article19 and the European Parliament have called a "crackdown on civil society" in 2014, the media surrounding this election has also been quiet.
One of the few remaining opposition media outlets operating in the country, Azadliq, say they are struggling to exist amid rising debts for alleged unpaid taxes and numerous court fines for defamation.
Most now report in exile, relying on a network of anonymous contributors working in the country.
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Meydan TV, a Berlin-based online media platform that offers one of the only independent sources of media for Azeris, is run by the journalist Emin Milli, who escaped Azerbaijan after being arrested twice. His offices there had a brick thrown through the window, and he has received a threatening phone call.
"Berlin is safer than Baku, but they have billions of dollars and a criminal network worldwide," he said. "The police is informed and alerted in regard to my case and intentions of our governments to kill me here. I will continue my work."
Three days after Milli's brother-in-law and cousin were arrested in Azerbaijan, 23 other members of his family who remain in Azerbaijan signed a letter denouncing his activities. Just this month, two brothers of a Meydan TV editor, Günel Mövlud, were arrested in separate cities within an hour of each other for marijuana possession. They are now in pre-trial detention.
"This arrest laid bare another truth about the regime apart from what it is already capable of," Mövlud said in an article for Medyan TV about the arrest.
Individual journalists have also been targeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Azerbaijan as the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia.
Khadija Ismayilova was an investigative journalist who exposed government corruption, before she was sent photos of her having sex with her boyfriend inside her apartment. Her walls had been bugged. Instead of ceasing the investigations, she held a press conference and reported the blackmail herself. In retaliation, the sex tape was published online. Two years later, she was arrested. The government has branded her a national traitor.
On the flip side, journalists that support the regime receive awards and free apartments from a presidential fund. There is also a way out of prison for the opposition — if you denounce your membership, pledge allegiance to Aliyev, and go and visit his father Heydar Aliyev's grave. Many do.
'They have billions of dollars and a criminal network worldwide.'
Those arrested need lawyers, but they're thin on the ground too.
VICE News met with Khalid Bagirov, one of the last remaining human rights lawyers still operating in the country. He says he is now one of only a handful of human rights lawyers willing to take on the cases of political prisoners. Bagirov has recently been disbarred from the Azerbaijan Bar Association so is now only able to work with the European Court.
He says arrest and harassment is an inevitable hazard of the job. "My philosophy is to try and do as much as possible before I get arrested. Go as far as I can," he said. "I'm dedicated to the cause."
Bagirov is currently working on the candidates who were refused candidacy. Candidates must receive 450 signatures to stand, but he claims that the government regularly rejects applications saying the signatures have been falsified. He says they also visit the homes of those who sign support for an opposition candidate. After the visits, the signatures are retracted.
The president himself is defiant, referring in a parliamentary meeting to the repeated accusations of a restriction of free speech as "ugly foreign propaganda."
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"We showed the world what we are capable of… look how we have progressed in 24 years," Aliyev said in an interview with state-run TV last month. "The whole of Europe is amazed by us."
Aliyev is currently two-timing Europe with his close relationship with Russia, but any increase in pressure on his government to stop the crackdown could see his allegiances shift further toward his eastern partner. But the reality is that without European pressure, Aliyev's push to control and suppress dissenting voices will continue unabated.
Azerbaijan is an attractive friend to have. British oil giant BP gets about 5 percent of its oil production from Azerbaijan, and last month was reportedly ready to renew its role as operator of key Caspian oil fields. Aliyev's government has so far been able to enjoy a dominant place on the European stage: In 2012 it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, in 2015 the European Games, and next year it will host Formula 1 auto racing.
Now, however, the enormous oil field off its shore is moving into terminal decline. As it loses its power and influence, its European neighbors may have more — or less — motivation to push for change
But Bagirov has lost hope for help from the West. "Europe offers hope with one arm and continues to cooperate with the regime with the other," he said.
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