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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Azerbaijan: the authorities and the opposition on the eve of elections

MOSCOW. (Alexei Makarkin, for RIA Novosti) -- As November 6's parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan approach, the pre-election campaign is gaining momentum. Both the authorities and the opposition are busy getting ready for them. The opposition is banking on an Orange Revolution scenario, hoping for the backing of its supporters inside the country, as well as of Western political forces that expressed their sympathy for similar events in Ukraine and Georgia. This is why it accuses the authorities of corruption and persecution of democrats. However, the opposition is split and is torn by internal rivalry. While the Azadlyg (Freedom) bloc is in radical opposition to President Ilham Aliyev, the Yeni Siyaset (New Policy) bloc adheres to more moderate positions. For his part, Aliyev must be guided by the need to ensure stability in the country and to take the positions of Russia and the West into account. The point at issue is balancing the various factors, which are at odds with each other in some cases. It is comparatively easy to take the Russian position into account. Moscow does not intend to teach Azerbaijan the fundamentals of democracy - on the contrary, it is striving to preserve the status quo that had formed in the former Soviet space by the year 2000. However, it is a matter of principle for Russia to prevent Western states from deploying military bases in Azerbaijan, whatever the pretext: to guard the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline or the possibility of bringing pressure to bear on the neighboring Iran. Small wonder that Baku, which does not want to quarrel either with Moscow or Tehran, has so far been preventing the implementation of such projects, despite numerous "advances" by the Americans. The internal logic of Baku's actions, which are a far cry from the principles of classic democracy, implies the need to give a sharp rebuff to the opposition - as happened after the presidential elections two years ago when opponents of the Aliyev clan took to the streets amid accusations of vote rigging. Then, the authorities quickly dispersed the protesters. However, the situation has now changed. In 2003, the West (like Russia) was interested in seeing Aliyev Sr. pass on power to his son ahead of time, which could help prevent serious upheavals in the oil-rich country. Currently, Western countries want to hold a "democracy exam" for Baku, making it clear that their attitude to Azerbaijan will depend on whether it succeeds in holding really pluralistic elections. At the same time, no one in the West, as before, wants the country to see hard times, which could lead to serious problems for the new oil pipeline and send already high oil prices even higher. As a result, Aliyev has to maneuver carefully. All major political forces have been allowed to run, including the first Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov, one of the leaders of the Yeni Siyaset bloc, who has been in exile for many years, and ex-parliament speaker Rasul Guliyev, whose Democratic Party is a part of the Azadlyg bloc. However, while Mutalibov is showing the utmost caution and is prepared to return to the country only provided he receives a deputy's mandate (and hence acquires parliamentary immunity), Guliyev has taken the risk of returning to the country, although he was stripped of parliamentary immunity. Guliyev's risky step has shown that the opposition intends to change the course of the election campaign, which is going the way of the authorities. In the past few days, the ex-speaker, who has recently been living in the United States, intended to come to the country accompanied by Western politicians and journalists. Moreover, thousands of the opposition's supporters intended to come to the airport to meet him. In such conditions, it was practically impossible to arrest Guliyev. In order to do this, police had to shoulder their way through a crowd of the regime's opponents, including foreign guests. All this would have had extremely negative consequences for Baku, which is doing everything to demonstrate its high degree of democratization. However, had Guliyev remained at large, this would have demonstrated the authorities' weakness to the voters, which is unforgivable in the East. The personality of the ex-speaker, accused of corruption and half-forgotten in his home country, did not matter because there are more influential opposition members in the country, such as Azadlyg leaders Isa Gambar and Ali Kerimli. As a result, the Aliyev regime chose what is, from its point of view, the least worst option - the plane with Guliyev onboard was not allowed to enter Azerbaijan's air space and had to land in Ukraine, where the ex-speaker was detained as a person wanted by the Interpol. So, the pre-election struggle is heating up. Neither the authorities nor the opposition intend to retreat. Now much will depend on whether Ilham Aliyev will be able to control the situation without overstepping the line separating strict observance of the law and cruelty, which is unacceptable to the international community.

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