Washington, 5 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The return of Azerbaijan's exiled former President Abufez Elcibey to public life marks the start of a new test for democracy in Azerbaijan.
Elcibey, who was president for little over a year from June 1992, was allowed to return to the capital Baku last week after spending four years and four months away, mostly under house arrest in his home village in Nakhchyvan.
In an interview with Turan news agency in Baku, Elcibey said he sees that most Azerbaijanis are worse off than in his time. He says wealth is concentrated in the hands of five percent of the population, and the rest are doomed to toil -- something which he says has led to hatred of the reform process, which people interpret as the source of all their troubles.
Comments like this of course can be viewed as the opening shots in a possible Elcibey candidacy for the state presidency in next year's elections. He clearly sees himself as having a political role in future, but he says he has not yet decided whether he will stand for the top office.
The thought running though the minds of many observers is why current President Haydar Aliyev has permitted his old rival to make a come-back at this point. There is speculation that foreign powers, namely Turkey and the U.S., have demanded that Elcibey be freed from exile as a condition for further investment in Azerbaijan's economy and burgeoning oil industry.
Another interpretation is that current polls indicate that in any presidential contest between Aliyev and Elcibey, Aliyev would win by a landslide. Another speculation is that Aliyev might want Elcibey to run for election to deflect attention from genuinely powerful opposition figures like Isa Gambar. Or that Aliyev is seeking an ally among the opposition for the signing of the Nagorno Karabakh peace agreement .
In any event, there is still some time before the elections, and a new factor is entering the equation, namely oil. The first Caspian Sea oil will begin to flow to the marketplace from Azerbaijan very shortly. Both the government and the people hope that the profits from this will soon begin to alleviate some of the hardships suffered in the republic. If there is no perceptible change in the standard of living, it is possible Aliyev, despite his current high standing in recent polls, could lose popularity very quickly.
Another question is whether Elcibey might stand as the leading candidate of the opposition. In remarks made on October 31, he said he would make a decision after consultations with the Democratic Congress, the grouping of 25 opposition parties.
In Elcibey's years of exile, the Azerbaijani press generally described his presidency as a time of "turbulence and ineptitude." The war over the largely Armenian-populated Nagorno Karabakh enclave was still raging then, and economic reforms, though planned, had not yet been implemented.
At the same time, it cannot be said that any of the other newly independent states had made much progress in this regard by 1993. In the last four years, however, some of the other countries have made significant progress, both in repairing their infrastructure and introducing democratic reforms. Azerbaijan can claim no such successes, and this will no doubt become an issue in the next presidential election. The accusations hurled at Elcibey about his "ineptitude" seem insubstantial in the light of the lack of positive change subsequently.
In his interview with Turan, Elcibey discussed his immediate goals. He set the task for himself of unifying the democratic forces within society and beginning a process that would achieve civil peace. In order to do this, he said he is willing to work with the regime. He is sure that his arrival in Baku "will promote closer relations between the authorities and the opposition, and that this process will form the basis for mutual understanding." Observers find his comments at this point somewhat over-optimistic, given the apparent mood of the ruling Yeni Azerbayjan party.
Elcibey himself has expressed no basic objection to Aliyev's conduct of foreign policy. If he does stand for election, the focal point of his run against Aliyev would be Yeni Azerbaycan's conduct of domestic policy, especially in connection with the lack in improvement in the standard of living and the regime's spotty record in human rights.
If the Aliyev regime is clever, they will divert some of the profits from the oil into visibly improving the electorate's lives. If this is done, Aliyev and his party can be fairly confident of winning the election. If, on the other hand, the five percent of the population in whose hands 95 percent of the wealth is concentrated continue to get richer while the rest continue to get poorer, Elcibey's showing could be much better.
In any event, Elcibey's return begins a new phase in Azerbaijan's political history, and offers the opportunity for the ruling party, the opposition and the society as a whole to continue the democratization of Azerbaijan's society on a larger scale.