US Calls for Democratic Vote in Azerbaijan, Reaffirms Strong Ties

BAKU (Combined Sources) — This month’s presidential election in Azerbaijan should be "free, fair and transparent," US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said Thursday on a visit to the ex-Soviet republic.

"October 15 represents an important opportunity for Azerbaijan to demonstrate its commitment to democratic reform by holding an election that is assessed by its own public and the international community to be free, fair and transparent," Negroponte told reporters.

President Ilham Aliyev is widely expected to sail to victory in the vote, which is being boycotted by leading opposition groups, who say the election will be a fraud.

Critics have accused Azerbaijani authorities of persecuting political opponents, muzzling the media and fixing previous polls.

Aliyev, 46, has ruled this Caspian Sea state since October 2003, when he took the place of his deceased father Heydar in a vote marred by police action against mass protests, with hundreds arrested.

Despite concerns over democracy in the country, Aliyev has built close security and energy links with the United States.

Negroponte repeated a message delivered by US Vice President Dick Cheney in Baku last month that the US "has deep and abiding interests" in the security of Azerbaijan and the rest of the South Caucasus region.

The United States continues to support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, he said, adding that “The United States, as a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, makes significant efforts to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."

Cheney visited the region after the August war between Azerbaijan’s neighbors Russia and Georgia, which raised fears of instability throughout the Caucasus.

Negroponte also praised Azerbaijan for its role in projects to deliver oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Western markets.

"We have long been partners in major strategic energy projects that have built links between this region and Europe," he said, adding that the projects "are strengthening energy security in Europe and beyond."

Energy-rich Azerbaijan is a key partner in a Western-backed corridor of oil and gas pipelines built in recent years to deliver Caspian energy resources to the West through Georgia and Turkey, bypassing Russia.

Negroponte said the US is "open to all formats of cooperation in the defense sphere with Azerbaijan" and praised the country for sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Azerbaijan’s parliament on Thursday approved plans to nearly double the number of the country’s troops serving with NATO-led forces in Afghanistan from 46 to 90.

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