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Azerbaijan: Leadership Struggle Within Opposition Party Nears Climax

  • Liz Fuller --> (RFE/RL) March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The power struggle that got under way last year for control of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) appears to be approaching its denouement, with rival claimants to the leadership threatening each other with legal action and claiming to have expelled representatives of the rival faction from the party's ranks.

The acrimonious exchange of accusations, now in its second month, could negatively affect public perceptions of the orientation and political agenda of the opposition Azadliq bloc of which the DPA was a founding member.

Leadership At Odds

The standoff pits the DPA's chairman, former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev, against its original founder and current first deputy chairman, Sardar Calaloglu (aka Jalaloglu, Djalaloglu). Pugnacious and charismatic, Calaloglu was one of seven prominent oppositionists arrested, tried, and imprisoned for allegedly calling for a mass insurrection in the wake of the disputed October 2003 presidential election that legalized the transfer of power from Heydar Aliyev to his son Ilham. The seven were pardoned and released in March 2005.

Quliyev left Azerbaijan in 1996 following a public dispute over policy with President Heydar Aliyev, but retained the post of party chairman, and was regarded for years as one of the "heavyweights" within the opposition. The Azerbaijani authorities accused him in 1998 of large-scale embezzlement during his tenure as head of the country's largest oil refinery, and issued warrants for his arrest.
Quliyev left Azerbaijan in 1996 following a public dispute over policy with President Heydar Aliyev, but retained the post of party chairman, and was regarded for years as one of the "heavyweights" within the opposition.

Despite that threat, Quliyev sought to register as a candidate in the October 2003 presidential election, but was refused on the grounds that he was a permanent resident of the United States. He announced days before that ballot that he planned to return to Baku on polling day, but failed to do so.

Two years later, shortly before the November 2005 parliamentary election, Quliyev tried to return to Azerbaijan, but was detained by the Ukrainian authorities when his privately chartered plane landed in southern Ukraine to refuel. On his release, he abandoned his plans to continue to Baku, where two influential ministers were dismissed and accused of conspiring with him to overthrow the country's leadership.

The DPA participated in the November 2005 parliamentary ballot as a member of the opposition Azadliq election bloc that also included the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) and the Musavat Party, but the official election returns -- the validity of which was questioned by apparently defeated candidates and international monitors alike -- gave Azadliq only a handful of parliament mandates. And within months, the bloc split after Musavat's successful candidates decided to participate in the work of a legislature that the AHCP and DPA argued was illegitimate and should therefore be boycotted.

Followers Turn Away

It was in the wake of Azadliq's election defeat that Calaloglu first tried, albeit without success, to persuade Quliyev to relinquish the DPA chairmanship on the grounds that he had discredited himself and the party by his failure to return to Baku as he had said he would.

A steady exodus of DPA members during the summer of 2006 testified to the extent of dissatisfaction and demoralization among its members. Many of those defectors subsequently joined the Azerbaijan's Path movement headed by Ilgar Gasymov. Then, in late 2006, Calaloglu publicly floated the idea of launching a "dialogue" with the Azerbaijani leadership.

On January 27, the DPA's Supreme Mejlis (Council) convened in Baku and adopted a formal resolution affirming its intention to amend its previous "radical" tenets and embark on a "constructive dialogue" with the authorities. At the same time, the DPA dissolved all its existing leadership structures and replaced them with an Organizing Committee tasked with preparing for a party congress to take place in May 2007.

Sardar Calaloglu (RFE/RL)

Both Calaloglu and Deputy Chairman Yagub Abbasov had previously announced that they planned to run at that congress for the post of party chairman, given that Quliyev was, they stressed, in favor of "democratic elections" for that position. Quliyev, it subsequently transpired, was not informed in advance that the Mejlis session intended to adopt such a resolution, nor did he learn about it until several days later.

Meanwhile, Quliyev's supporters within the DPA denounced the Mejlis resolution in statements to the Azerbaijani media. Aydin Quliyev (he is not related to Rasul), one-time editor of the DPA-aligned newspaper "Hurriyet" and now editor of another newspaper, "Baki xaber," was quoted on February 3 by as saying that some grassroots DPA organizations are opposed to any such fundamental change in the DPA's political course.

The DPA chapter in Baku's Nasimi district issued a statement claiming that the Mejlis resolution seriously damaged the party's image, and it called for Calaloglu to be stripped of the right to represent the party within Azadliq, according to on February 6. Calaloglu responded by branding the branch head, Aga Abdullaoglu, as "sick," reported on February 7.

Then on February 7, DPA Supreme Mejlis Chairman Akif Sahbazov (aka Shahbazov) annulled the Mejlis ruling on the grounds that Rasul Quliyev did not approve it in advance, reported. (Sahbazov also said that Quliyev advocates a broad discussion among all political forces, not a dialogue between the DPA on the one hand and the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party on the other. Quliyev himself was quoted on February 22 by as saying that the present Azerbaijani leadership should sit down at the negotiating table with representative of the entire opposition spectrum.)

"Political Hooliganism"

Calaloglu, however, claimed Sahbazov was not empowered to annul the Mejlis resolution, and he went on to accuse him of "political hooliganism" and of committing "a criminal error," reported on February 9. The Organizing Committee met on February 11 and formally overruled Shahbazov, and then expelled him from the DPA ranks, the daily reported on February 13.

Meanwhile, on February 10 Rasul Quliyev imposed a veto on the Mejlis resolution and issued an edict stripping Calaloglu and several other senior DPA functionaries of their posts, reported on February 13.

Rasul Quliyev (official website)

Quliyev also named Sahbazov as the DPA's representative within the Azadliq bloc. But Calaloglu claimed that neither ruling had any juridical force. He argued that a veto can be issued only up to three days after the adoption of a Mejlis resolution, and that in the run-up to the anticipated May congress, supreme power within the party is invested in the Organizing Committee.

Calaloglu further claimed that 58 of the 80 Mejlis members support the idea of dialogue with the authorities and reject a call by Quliyev to convene an emergency Mejlis session to reconsider the controversial January 27 resolution.

The remaining members of Azadliq were at a loss how to respond to the virtual open warfare between the two DPA factions. The online daily on February 13 quoted an unnamed source within Azadliq as saying the bloc would side with Calaloglu on the grounds that Rasul Quliyev is unable to return to Azerbaijan and assume the party's leadership.

Azadliq's leaders duly met for over six hours on February 13, hearing separate accounts of the dispute first from Sahbazov and then from Calaloglu, but failed to reach a decision. Instead, Ali Kerimli of the AHCP stressed that stressed that "we are for a united, opposition DPA within the Azadliq bloc," reported.

On February 14, however, Azadliq formally recognized Calaloglu as the DPA's representative within the bloc. At the same time, Azadliq issued an appeal to the DPA to refrain from further infighting, reported. It also noted that the cooperation agreement signed among Azadliq members does not permit the DPA to pursue any policy at odds with that of the bloc as a whole, noted on February 15. On February 15, a disappointed Aydin Quliyev deplored Azadliq's endorsement of Calaloglu as the worst possible outcome.

Bring On The Lawsuits

Azadliq's appeal for reconciliation fell on deaf ears, however. The DPA filed suit against Aydin Quliyev and Sahbazov for making unauthorized statements to the media in the name of the DPA, and Calaloglu brought a separate libel case against Aydin Quliyev, reported on February 16.

On February 14, Sahbazov announced that the Mejlis -- or at least those of its members who support Rasul Quliyev -- would meet on February 18 to discuss Rasul Quliyev's decisions, a move that Calaloglu immediately condemned as violating both the law on political parties and the DPA statutes, reported on February 15.

Regardless of the legal technicalities, the events of the past six weeks look suspiciously like a naked power grab.

The Organizing Committee warned Mejlis members they would be expelled from the DPA if they attended that emergency session. Some Mejlis members nonetheless duly gathered on February 18 at the headquarters of the conservative wing of the AHCP, where they discussed the situation.

It would seem that someone present promptly delivered an account of the proceedings to Calaloglu, as in February 19 the DPA Control-Revision Committee and the Organizing Committee met and formally removed Rasul Quliyev from the post of DPA chairman for engaging in "intrigues," abusing his authority, and for passing "insulting" comments about other, unnamed party figures, and reported on February 20. Calaloglu then filed a formal request with the Justice Ministry to acknowledge him as the legal head of the DPA.

In a telephone interview with the online daily, summarized in its February 22 issue, Rasul Quliyev dismissed talk of a "split" within the DPA and argued that only a full-fledged party congress is empowered to expel him from the party ranks. But the same day, Calaloglu appealed to a Baku district court to recognize the legality of the January 27 Mejlis session.

Regardless of the legal technicalities -- meaning which faction violated or acted in accordance with the party statutes at which juncture -- the events of the past six weeks look suspiciously like a naked power grab on the part of Calaloglu and his supporters.

As such, they only serve to substantiate the widely held perception that Azerbaijani oppositionists are prepared to sacrifice political principles and opposition solidarity to promote their own personal interests. What is more, many commentators are inclined to believe that Calaloglu is not acting on his own initiative, but at the behest of a faction within the Azerbaijani leadership that seeks to use him as a Trojan horse in the run-up to the presidential ballot due in October 2008 to strip the opposition of what minimal credibility it still enjoys among the electorate.

At the same time, by agreeing to Calaloglu's proposed "dialogue" the Azerbaijani leadership would be better placed to dismiss complaints that the largely extraparliamentary opposition is being sidelined and excluded from the political process.

Opposition Sidelined?

That possibility creates a painful dilemma for the DPA's longtime associates within the Azadliq bloc: even if Calaloglu is being manipulated by a person or group within the Azerbaijani leadership, they cannot disassociate themselves from him without that move being construed as a simultaneous rejection of the broad political dialogue he espouses.

That may explain be why, following deliberations among its members on February 21, Azadliq issued a statement again calling for the two rival DPA factions to seek a "compromise" that would avert the anticipated split of the DPA into two separate political entities. Should that not prove possible, the statement continued, Azadliq would continue to cooperate with both DPA factions. But on March 6, one week after Rasul Quliyev wrote to the leaders of other Azadliq member parties, reportedly condemning Calaloglu, those leaders resolved to "suspend" cooperation with the DPA on the grounds that the DPA has violated the article of Azadliq's statutes under which all the bloc's members pledge to coordinate their activities.

Meanwhile, other, smaller and less influential opposition parties make no secret of their hopes of exploiting the disarray within the DPA and its impact on Azadliq in order to present themselves as the true, unsullied face of the opposition. Mirmahmud Miralioglu, who heads the conservative AHCP wing, was quoted on February 24 by as saying that "within the next few days," unnamed opposition parties will begin discussing a draft plan to create a new "unified and strong" opposition center.

On March 1, he said 14 parties have approached him and signaled their interest in joining such an alignment, reported. Azerbaijan's Path leader Gasymov claimed on February 23 that the ongoing crisis within the DPA has triggered a new exodus from that party, with "very many" of its former members joining Azerbaijan's Path.

In the final analysis, Rasul Quliyev's defiant statements may prove to be little more than a tactic to save face and delay the inevitable: as long ago as February 3, Aydin Quliyev told that "we have already applied to the Justice Ministry" to register a new movement named "For Democracy." He said the founding congress of that movement would take place in an unspecified European country in late February or early March, and that Rasul Quliyev himself would be present.

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