Azerbaijan’s Aliyev calls snap election after Karabakh victory

(Reuters) – Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, riding high on a wave of support for his recapture of the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Thursday called an early presidential election for Feb. 7.

Aliyev, 61, was last re-elected in 2018 for a seven-year term, with a declared 86% of the vote, in a poll boycotted by major opposition parties.

With political dissent largely suppressed, he is almost certain to win a new term as head of the oil-rich state on the Caspian Sea courted by Russia, Turkey and the West.

In September he ordered a lightning offensive, after a nine-month blockade, to take full control of Nagorno-Karabakh from the ethnic Armenians who had run it for over three decades.

It was Baku’s second successful assault on ethnic Armenian-controlled territory in three years, and finally overturned what Aliyev and most in Azerbaijan saw as the historical wrong of Karabakh’s de facto secession in a bloody ethnic conflict that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost all the region’s 120,000 or so ethnic Armenians fled.

Helped by his country’s oil wealth, Aliyev has established a solid alliance with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan while also managing to maintain working relationships with both Russia and the West, deeply at odds over Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Western energy firms such as BP are heavily exposed to Azerbaijan, which is party to the “OPEC+” pact between the OPEC oil producers’ club and other key exporters such as Russia to restrict output in order to support world prices.

Aliyev has led Azerbaijan in authoritarian fashion since 2003, when he succeeded his father Haydar. As the result of a constitutional referendum in 2009, there is no limit on the number of terms he may serve.

In recent weeks, at least six independent journalists have been arrested including three at Abzas Media, an independent online outlet known for investigative reporting.

The organisation Reporters without Borders (RSF) ranks Azerbaijan 151st out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index; international press freedom groups described the arrests as an attempt to silence reporting on corruption.

(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Kevin Liffey; editing by Reuters)