Sixteen opposition groups in Azerbaijan have signed a letter asking the UN, the U.S., and European groups to help ensure fair parliamentary elections in their country this fall. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully attended a symposium in Washington where the opponents of Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev contended that there is virtually no legal governing body anywhere in Azerbaijan because all elections since independence have been rigged.
Washington, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Four opposition leaders from Azerbaijan are in the United States to ask for American and United Nations help in ensure that the parliamentary elections in their country in November are free and open.
On Wednesday, they released a letter to the Western political leaders accusing Azerbaijan's president, Heidar Aliev, of being a dictator. As they put it, Aliyev "has been illegally and forcefully oppressing democratic organizations, independent associations and independent mass media."
The Azerbaijani opposition leaders launched their appeal during a symposium at the Washington offices of the International Republican Institute, a group that promotes democracy around the world.
Attending the event were Zardusht Alizade, chairman of the Social Democratic Party; Nazim Imanov, a member of Parliament from the National Independence Party; Rasul Gouliev, co-chairman of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party; and Sardar Jalaloghlu, secretary-general of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party.
The letter says there has never been a free or open election in Azerbaijan since its independence from the Soviet Union a decade ago. As a result, it says, there is what it calls "practically no legal government in Azerbaijan at any level that truly represents the nation's actual will."
The letter was signed by 16 political opposition groups and was sent to UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan; U.S. President Bill Clinton; the leading figures of the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the heads of government of what the letter called "democratic states."
Gouliev and Jalaloghlu told the symposium that they must seek outside help to ensure fair elections because Aliyev maintains absolute control over law enforcement and the media in Azerbaijan.
Alizade said no one in Azerbaijan doubts that the parliamentary elections in November will be rigged. And Imanov noted ruefully that previous observers had used what he called a "formula" in describing elections in his country.
According to Imanov, the observers always say they found irregularities but had consistently concluded that each flawed election was a further step toward true democracy.
"I am very hopeful that, after the November parliamentary elections, international observers will not be using the same formula to describe these elections in Azerbaijan."
Elin Suleymanov, the press officer for the Azerbaijani embassy in Washington, dismisses these accusations. He says there are always difficulties with elections in what he calls "countries in transition." But he stresses that Aliyev enjoys the support of the vast majority of Azerbaijanis and that election results reflect this.
Suleymanov also found it odd that Imanov disputes Azerbaijan's election process, especially since he himself is an elected member of parliament.
"The very fact that people from [the] opposition can come -- you know -- speak here freely and express, I would say, quite radical views, speaks for itself that, I mean, we are not talking about dictatorship. We are talking about a country which is in the process of transition and building a democracy."
The opposition leaders also discussed the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey. Gouliev said the line is very important for his country's political independence, but is being used as a way to enrich Aliyev personally. Likewise, he said, the pipeline is more likely to benefit Turkey's president, Suleyman Demirel, than his people.
The American administration is interested in promoting the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline because it would provide an east-to-west conduit for petroleum, but would not traverse Iran.
Gouliev said previous U.S. administrations have made strategic blunders by supporting the dictators of oil-rich countries, such as Iran. When these dictators are overthrown, as the shah was in 1979, the people turn against the supporters of their former leaders, just as Iranians turned against the United States.
"The United States can lose all their strategic interest in Azerbaijan as they did in Iran in 1979."
Suleymanov, the Azerbaijani Embassy press officer, dismissed this logic. He said the shah of Iran was a monarch, and that Aliyev is a man who has twice been elected president in a democratic process.
He says the problem is not that America supports Aliev's government too much, but that it does not support it enough.
Suleymanov called attention to U.S. government economic sanctions against his country contained in Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992. The sanctions remain in place because most members of the U.S. Congress believe that Azerbaijan is at fault in its dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave in Azerbaijan is populated mostly by ethnic Armenians.