Prague, 24 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan's Azadliq (Freedom) main opposition coalition once again defied a ban from Baku city authorities yesterday and staged a rally in the center of the Azerbaijani capital.
As in previous rallies, the protesters demanded free parliamentary elections and the resignation of President Ilham Aliyev.
Demonstrators had gathered near Baku's Narimanov Park outside the city center. But riot police and plainclothes security officers violently dispersed the crowd before it could reach central Baku.
Citing police sources, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported that some 15 protesters were apprehended.
Ali Kerimli, the leader of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan's reformist wing, one of Azadliq's three main parties, said yesterday that the protest showed once again that "the people of Azerbaijan want free and democratic polls." But he conceded the rally was only partly successful.
"Once again the Azadliq coalition attempted to stage a demonstration. I say 'attempted' because we only partially succeeded in gathering on Narimanov Park and nearby streets. Our action continued until 5:30 p.m. and, regardless of police violence, we voiced our main demands. But, as a rule in these kind of situations, it was impossible to stage a [full-fledged] rally because people were not authorized to gather all together in one place," Kerimli said.
But police violence may not be enough to explain this failure.
Although Azadliq leaders say hundreds of people took part in yesterday's rally, reporters from RFE/RL and elsewhere put the number of protesters at just 150 to 200. This a sharp decrease compared to the thousands of people who attended previous rallies.
Commenting on the demonstration, the Baku-based website day.az wrote yesterday: "One can reasonably state that today's planned action ended in failure."
Day.az suggested one explanation for the low attendance could be exiled opposition leader Rasul Quliyev's failure to return to Baku last week. It suggested another reason could be the recent arrest of cabinet ministers suspected of links with Quliyev.
Quliyev, whose Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) is part of Azadliq, has been registered as an opposition candidate in the upcoming elections. However, Azerbaijani authorities have threatened to jail him as soon as he enters the country and issued an international arrest warrant against him.
Quliyev, who has spent nine years in exile in the United States, is wanted in Azerbaijan on embezzlement charges. He has denied any wrongdoing. But he was detained on 17 October in Ukraine's Crimean city of Simferopol while reportedly flying to Baku from London.
A Simferopol court ordered his release four days later, saying it did not have sufficient grounds to extradite him to Azerbaijan.
Nair Aliyev, first deputy editor-in-chief of the Baku daily "Ekho," told RFE/RL he, too, believes last week's events have undermined the position of the opposition:
"The political climate is simmering with excitement. However, public opinion and politicians themselves are now much more interested in what's happening within the government than with the radical opposition. What people are talking about today are the spectacular sackings and arrests of the past few days. This explains why [yesterday's] opposition action did not arouse much interest. One must also say that Quliyev's failure to return to Baku -- whether authorities really prevented him from returning or, as some people say, he did not want to return -- also played a role. People were ready to welcome him at the airport, but the fact that he never made it to Baku has dealt a severe blow to Azadliq," Aliyev said.
Quliyev has flown back to London, vowing to return to Baku before the elections. However, few political commentators think his return is likely, especially in the wake of a recent series of high-profile arrests.
Authorities last week arrested former Economy Minister Farhad Aliyev, former Health Minister Ali Insanov, former Finance Minister Fikrat Yusifov, and former Foreign Trade Minister Nicat Quliyev on charges of plotting with Rasul Quliyev to overthrow the government.
Farhad Aliyev and Insanov also face corruption charges. Both men, who were fired the day before their respective detentions, have been remanded in custody for three months. They have denied the charges brought against them through relatives and lawyers.
Yusifov and Nicat Quliyev were arrested earlier. Authorities say it is evidence given by Yusifov that made all subsequent arrests possible.
Also arrested last week was Farhad Aliyev's brother Rafiq, whose Azpetrol company reportedly controls three-quarters of Azerbaijan's oil-refinery products.
Television reports say that a fourth man, former presidential-administration official Akif Muradverdiyev, was arrested on 22 October. The arrest could not be immediately confirmed.
Today, President Aliyev sacked Fikrat Sadyqov, the director of the state-owned Azerkimya petrochemical company. Reports also say Ilqar Rahimzade, the deputy head of Baku’s Nasimi district, was arrested for suspected secret dealings with the opposition.
No reason has been given to explain Sadyqov's ouster. However, his name surfaced last week among those of officials with purported links with the opposition.
Political analysts in Baku generally say the ongoing reshuffle may not be only connected with the upcoming polls. They believe it may also have to do with a struggle among oligarchs for control over the economy.
Nair Aliyev of "Ekho" said that whatever their motives, these arrests play into the hands of President Aliyev.
"One can even say that there is a PR angle to [these arrests]," he said. "There was a new sacking [today] and I'm pretty sure there will be more in the coming days. Everything is done to keep public opinion alert and the next sackings will certainly influence those voters who still haven't decided [whom to vote for]. The government is getting rid of corrupt officials and this is something the public can only approve of. Probably, this is what the government and those PR advisers who perhaps are behind this are expecting."
DPA leaders have denied any links with the arrested officials. They in turn accuse the government of seeking to blame the alleged corruption of individual ministers on the opposition.
But Nair Aliyev believes there may be some truth in the government's accusations. In any case, he said, the officials arrested in the past few days were probably seen by President Aliyev as not sufficiently loyal to his government. "Those ministers were probably both corrupt and not loyal," he added. "If they had just been corrupt, I'm sure they would not have been sacked."