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Azerbaijan: Opposition Faces Uncertain Future

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Following last week's post-election violence, Azerbaijan's president-elect, Ilham Aliyev, has unleashed a brutal crackdown on the country's largest opposition group. Authorities say they have arrested nearly 200 people in the past few days, but human rights organizations believe the actual number of detainees is much higher. In Baku, experts believe Aliyev's lack of experience in leadership -- and opposition leader Isa Qambar's tactical mistakes -- may seriously impact the domestic political landscape.

Prague, 22 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With the violent street protests that erupted after last week's disputed election and the overall crackdown on opposition parties that followed, the mandate of Azerbaijani President-elect Ilham Aliyev already appears tarnished.

Official results released on 20 October show that the son of outgoing President Heidar Aliyev garnered 77 percent of the votes. Isa Qambar, the leader of the main opposition Musavat Party, came second with only 14 percent, way ahead of the remaining six contenders.

Qambar, who claims the election was fraudulent, has said he will use any constitutional means at his disposal to have the results nullified.

Angered at the outcome of the vote and spurred by an unprovoked police attack on Musavat headquarters on election night, thousands of Qambar's supporters on 16 October clashed with police forces on Baku's main Azadliq Square.

Officially, the violence left one protestor dead and dozens injured on both sides. But rights groups believe the toll among civilians was much higher.

The government and the presidential administration have said Qambar and his aides will be held personally responsible for the unrest, while leaders of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party have described last week's events as a coup attempt masterminded by Musavat.

While noting that authorities played a major role in post-election violence, independent observers acknowledge that Qambar also made a serious tactical mistake. Sahin Rzayev is the Azerbaijan coordinator for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). He told RFE/RL that the Musavat leader overestimated his popular support.

"I agree that [Qambar] made a mistake. Rather, he miscalculated. He believed developments similar to those that took place in Yugoslavia [in 2000] and led to [President] Slobodan Milosevic's downfall were possible in Azerbaijan. He thought that all he had to do was to drive [Musavat] clerks and militants into the streets and that the population would support him. But, unfortunately, the population this time did not support him," Rzayev said.

A former parliament speaker under late President Abulfez Elcibey, Qambar left the ruling Popular Front party to take the leadership of Musavat in 1992.

A pan-Turkic, pan-Islamic, and nationalist group that eventually turned moderate and secular, Musavat claims to have its roots in the eponymous party that ruled over the first independent republic of Azerbaijan in the late 1910s. After the 1993 political upheaval that made Heidar Aliyev's comeback possible, Musavat progressively took over from the divided Popular Front as Azerbaijan's most prominent opposition party. But many in Azerbaijan believe Qambar and Musavat are now under serious threat.

Following last week's street protests, Ilham Aliyev ordered a general crackdown on all parties and political groupings that belong to Our Azerbaijan, the electoral coalition that supported Qambar's candidacy.

Authorities say nearly 200 people have been arrested in connection with last week's unrest. Azerbaijani rights groups, however, say most of the detainees are not related to the 16 October protests and include many regional election officials who refused to certify the results of the polls.

Unconfirmed reports say the number of people arrested in the wake of the 15 October election is much higher than government officials claim. They also raise questions about the fate of about one dozen opposition activists and journalists who remain unaccounted for after the security crackdown.

Qambar has not been detained but was reportedly put under house arrest. International organizations and Western governments have expressed their disappointment at last week's polls, saying they failed to meet democratic standards by many accounts. They have also expressed concern at the political situation in Azerbaijan and are calling on the president-elect to show restraint.

Mubariz Ahmedoglu chairs a Baku-based think tank known as the Political Innovations and Technologies Center. He believes that, despite the pressure that the authorities are exerting on Musavat, they will not succeed in silencing the opposition.

"With regard to Musavat's fate, I think the party will remain under strong pressure [from the government]. But I also believe there are within the party a few clever individuals whom the population appreciates and who are [carefully] analyzing the situation. These individuals are aware of the mistakes their leaders have made, and I think that in the near future -- how near, I cannot say -- they will undertake something. I think Musavat will continue to exist, although not necessarily under its current leadership," Ahmedoglu told RFE/RL.

Even before the election, many political experts predicted that the opposition's failure to close ranks behind a single candidate would cost it dearly. They now say last week's unrest may hasten the downfall of its most prominent leader.

"The events that occurred on 16 October have largely contributed to discrediting the opposition in general, and Musavat in particular," IWPR's Rzayev told RFE/RL. "I know a lot of people who were [favorable to Musavat] and who, after witnessing what happened in the streets of [Baku], say now they fear these people might one day assume power. That's why I think the opposition must change its tactics and give up all ideas of radical, uncompromising struggle. Perhaps they should even get a new leader whose name would not be associated with what happened in 1992 and 1993 when the Popular Front was in power and with the events of 16 October."

Political expert Ahmedoglu said that, unlike Musavat, he does not expect any upheaval within other opposition groups, such as Azerbaijan's National Independence Party (AMIP), whose leader Etibar Mammedov garnered less than 3 percent of the vote despite the support of reformers from the Popular Front.

"AMIP has long undergone changes. As a result of the strong pressure, so to speak, exerted by pro-government forces, many people have left the party. I do not expect anything similar to happen with AMIP, nor with the Popular Front now. The leaders of these parties may draw a lesson from their electoral failure and resign, although I cannot say for sure now. But I do not expect any new major changes [within these two parties]," Ahmedoglu said.

Despite existing signs that show authorities are unwilling to negotiate with their opponents, Ahmedoglu believes Ilham Aliyev will eventually seek some form of dialogue with the opposition.

The IWPR's Rzayev, by contrast, believes the crackdown is unlikely to stop any time soon and said the Azerbaijani opposition has entered a "very difficult period of repression."

There is widespread concern in Baku that the president-elect, who is said to lack both his father's charisma and political wit, may rely on coercion to establish his authority.

Except for a short interval in the early 1990s, Heidar Aliyev has ruled over Azerbaijan with an iron fist for almost 35 years -- first as first secretary of the local Communist Party, then as president of the second independent republic of Azerbaijan.

The 80-year-old leader, who suffers from heart troubles and other ailments, has disappeared from the public eye since he collapsed twice in April. He has since undergone medical treatment in Turkey and is now hospitalized in the United States. On 2 October, authorities said Heidar Aliyev was withdrawing from the presidential race in favor of his son.

Heidar Aliyev's prolonged absence and silence have sparked speculation that he may be dead or in a coma. Government officials deny the reports, saying the outgoing leader will return soon to Baku.

Many in the Azerbaijani capital, including IWPR Azerbaijan coordinator Rzayev, believe last week's post-election violence would never have occurred under the elder Aliyev.

"I believe [Ilham Aliyev] was taken aback by the rapidity with which the situation developed. I think that should Heidar Aliyev had been in power then, he would have never let any such disorder erupt and would have taken all necessary steps to prevent it. When everything started [on 16 October], the authorities lost their head and reacted with the utmost brutality. This is probably a consequence of the new president's lack of experience. I cannot imagine such unrest happening under Heydar Aliyev," Rzayev said.

Another factor that could explain last week's protests and harsh reaction from the government is the president-elect's inability to deal with the opposition -- a circumstance analysts say is aggravated by the absence of his father. "Ilham Aliyev is afraid of the opposition because he lacks his father's experience. And that may also explain all this unnecessary violence," Rzayev said.

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