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Azerbaijan: Preelection Tensions Mount

  • Robert Parsons

With just five weeks remaining to Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections, fears of violence in the country are growing stronger. The opposition parties accuse the government of trying to prevent or marginalize their demonstrations and of filling the electoral commissions with government supporters. They've announced a hunger strike in protest and are planning to demonstrate this weekend in the center of the capital, Baku, in spite of a government ban. The presidential elections in 2003, condemned as seriously flawed by international observers, were marred by violent clashes.

Prague, 30 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Five weeks to go and the political temperature in Azerbaijan is reaching fever pitch. At a demonstration last week, supporters of the opposition Azadlyq (Freedom) election bloc rally at a demonstration in Baku that was broken up by the authorities.

The atmosphere is becoming increasingly rancorous with little or no dialogue between the opposition and government. A restrained report issued by the OSCE, which is observing the election, commented today that "campaign rhetoric is often heated and negative, reflecting a polarized political atmosphere." One of the key flash points has become the right to hold demonstrations.

Freedom Of Assembly

The OSCE and the European Union have attempted to persuade the authorities to permit freedom of assembly. But the argument does not appear to have carried much weight with Baku. Azadlyq has claimed some of its rallies have been banned and others violently broken up.

"The opposition is not being given a real chance to campaign. Our activists get detained simply for carrying out their electoral duties, putting up posters and so on," said Murad Hasanli, a special adviser to Azadlyq. "The right to freedom of assembly is not being observed. We're still not able to hold rallies in central Baku and in the regions. In total, eight applications to various authorities across the country have been turned down by the government. We've not been able to campaign properly because of that."

The OSCE report notes that the authorities have ignored its recommendations to improve the legislative framework for the elections; have stuffed the electoral commissions with supporters of the governing party, Yeni Azerbaycan Party (New Azerbaijan); and rejected a proposal for inking of voters' fingers to diminish the risk of multiple voting.

Not Entirely Critical

But the report is not entirely critical. It praises a presidential decree of 11 May, in which President Ilham Aliyev, it said, acknowledged "mistakes and deficiencies in the sphere of elections." Geert Arens, the head of the OSCE Observers' Mission in Azerbaijan, said the overall campaign environment had improved.

"President Aliyev's decree is a clear reference to local officials not to interfere with the elections and I'm being told by my high-level contacts in Baku that such officials will be reprimanded if they interfere," Arens said. "I have an understanding with the authorities that our observations will be brought to their attention because we want to work as transparently as possible."

Others are less sanguine. Wahid Gazi, head of the nongovernmental organization Inam (Belief), which specializes on human-rights issues, said: "I would say that these elections are no different from the last ones, despite the appearance of some sort of progress. Key issues have still not been resolved."

Mounting Tensions

Matters though are now rapidly coming to a head. Azadlyq said it plans to go ahead with a big rally at 28th May Square in the center of Baku on 1 October, even though the government has denied it permission. The opposition bloc, which unites the biggest three opposition parties in Azerbaijan, said it provided the government with five alternative venues and that the authorities rejected all of them.

Murad Hasanli said he anticipates confrontation. "Tomorrow there will be an unsanctioned rally in central Baku because the authorities are refusing to engage in dialogue and negotiations with the opposition and as a result we are quite likely to see bloodshed," Hasanli said. In the past, the opposition in Azerbaijan has been splintered by internal disagreements and an inability to agree on fundamental principles.

Fixed Voting?

This time, it claims, the three main parties have taken a leaf out of the Georgian and Ukrainian books and are speaking in one voice. The question on everyone's minds though is whether Azerbaijan is about to go the same way as Georgia, where an attempt by the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze to fix the vote in the parliamentary elections of November 2004 led to the Rose Revolution and his overthrow.

"If the elections are free and fair, we will not have to go down that path," Hasanli said. "However, if the authorities decide to steal this election like they stole the election in 2003, like they stole the parliamentary elections in 2000, then we'll have no choice but to stand up to this abuse of our rights and call people to the streets. And, yes, we'll try to cancel the result of that election and hold a new election."

These are critical times for Azerbaijan. It is a member of the Council of Europe and aspires to long-term membership of the European Union. But its record on human rights and political freedoms remains among the worst in the former Soviet Union. The vote on 6 November should give a clear indication of the direction President Aliyev wants to take his country.