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Azerbaijan Report: September 22, 2003

22 September 2003
At Least Two Opposition Parties Agree On Common Candidate
Two of Azerbaijan's main opposition parties have united behind a single candidate for the October presidential elections. On 17 September, the People's Front Party (AXCP) of Ali Kerimli and the National Independence Party (AMIP) of Etibar Mamedov signed an agreement "on coalition in the presidential elections." Under the agreement, AXCP activists will vote for the two parties' common candidate, Etibar Mamedov, in the 15 October presidential elections. According to the agreement, a coalition government will be established on a parity basis should they have a victory in the elections, where the post of prime minister, as well as the forming of a cabinet will be entrusted to AXCP leader Ali Kerimli. Moreover, the two parties will be represented in ministries, state committees, and central and local executive power institutions on an equal basis.

Kerimli noted that he does not intend to appeal yet to the Central Election Commission regarding the withdrawal of his candidacy. He said that he intends to make the most efficient use of the airtime given to him on state television and will withdraw his candidature a week prior to the elections.

According to Mamedov, this agreement is not directed against some opposition political institution. He did not rule out that other candidates could also accede to the agreement and expressed hope that this will be realized in the near future. As for the fate of the Democratic Stability Union, signed earlier in London between four opposition leaders (Mamedov, Kerimli, Isa Gambar, and Rasul Guliev), Mamedov pointed out that the pact made by the two parties does not constitute a threat to this union.

According to local observers, Kerimli's withdrawal from the election race will go some way toward preventing a split among the voters who are dissatisfied with the government. Rauf Mirgadirov, commentator for the independent newspaper "Zerkalo," told RFE/RL that two other opposition leaders who are now living abroad, ex-speaker Guliev and ex-president Ayaz Mutallibov, are expected to endorse Mamedov's candidacy as well.

"Political commentators say that Rasul Guliev and Ayaz Mutallibov will also enter Etibar Mamedov's coalition," Mirgadirov said. "In this case, if the elections are held at the minimum democratic level, a second round will be inevitable."

Mubariz Ahmedoglu, head of the Center for Political Innovation and Technologies, suggested that ex-speaker Guliev could accede to Mamedov's coalition. But he ruled out ex-president Mutallibov's participation in this coalition, considering that he had appealed to his supporters to boycott the elections, calling on them to spoil their ballots by crossing out the names of all candidates.

"Guliev can make this step," Ahmedoglu said. "But I do not think that Mutallibov will support Mamedov."

Nevertheless, there is no common view among political observers regarding a possible second round in the elections. Ali Abbasov, department chief of the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Law and Philosophy, thinks that the incumbent government will attempt to ensure its victory in the first round at all costs.

(Maarif Chingizoglu and Natig Zeinalov)

PACE Delegation Demands Free and Fair Elections
"The delegation welcomes the arrangements made by the Azerbaijani authorities, well in advance of the vote, to ensure that the 15 October election is conducted in an acceptable manner. The amended Electoral Law accommodated several recommendations of the Council of Europe and, while not yet perfect, would provide a satisfactory framework for good elections if applied in good faith," said Andreas Gross, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) special mission, at a press conference on 16 September during a visit to Baku.

"However, the health problems of the incumbent president and the main candidate of the ruling party, Heydar Aliev, have left the nation in a deep state of uncertainty and a precarious situation ahead of the election," Gross added. "Ilham Aliev, the son of the incumbent president, and also a candidate, was appointed prime minister, but had to step down to comply with the requirements of the existing legislation. There is a need for clarification if a real election is to be held."

Gross noted that another source of concern is linked with the composition of the Central Election Commission, most members of which belong to the ruling party or its supporters. The delegation expects the Central Election Commission to take urgent steps to meet the requirements of the Electoral Law.

Moreover, the delegation suggested, "the results of the vote count should be made public immediately, once available, and not after 48 hours as currently foreseen." The mission also voiced concern about complaints regarding harassment and intimidation against the media, nongovernmental organizations, and opposition supporters.

"The delegation insists that fair and equitable conditions for all candidates be created without further delay if the opposition is to have a democratic alternative to make its demands heeded," Gross concluded.

(Kebiran Dilaverli)

Unemployment Statistics Inaccurate According to Independent Expert
During the first eight months of 2003, the unemployment level in the country has increased by 6.4 percent and now amounts to 53,484 people, according to the State Statistics Committee's report on registered unemployment in Azerbaijan.

Commenting on the report, independent expert Vusal Gasimov said that the procedures for granting unemployment status are regulated by the law on employment. In fact, granting this status is a difficult procedure. Citizens granted this status, are paid 27,500 manats ($5.6) monthly. However, those who cannot collect the necessary documents are deprived of both being added to the statistics and receiving welfare.

"Therefore, the State Statistics Committee's figures cannot reflect the realities," Gasimov said. "According to independent calculations, some 2 million people have left Azerbaijan due to unemployment. One million of them have migrated to the Russian capital, as well as other CIS regions and towns. The remaining 1 million are in various European countries. The number of unemployed in developed countries amounts to 5 percent. This is a norm accepted throughout the world. But Azerbaijan has long ago exceeded this figure." But he agreed with the committee's figure regarding the amount of the average monthly income, which is about $75.

(Zhale Mutallimova)

The government and pro-government newspapers provided detailed coverage of Prime Minister Ilham Aliev's participation in the CIS Yalta summit, as well as his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

In the article "Azerbaijan's new oil era" in the governmental newspaper "Khalg," Rizvan Vahabov comments on the "contract of the century" signed on 20 September 1994. The author suggests that this oil strategy is finally bearing its fruit. The country's oil industry and sectors linked with it have been revived and developed. Those employed here are working on the basis of international standards, receive high wages and are walking amid technological advances in the country. To date, $780 million have been contributed to the State Oil Fund making oil revenues the people's common property. This figure will increase to $5 billion by 2010. The actions taken by President Aliyev to ensure this fund's transparency have made it known to the world as the world's most transparent oil fund. All this strengthens the place of independent Azerbaijan in the world arena and creates a firm basis for a solution to its problems.

Natig Mamedli, commenting on the anniversary of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export pipeline laying ceremony, writes in the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" that oil diplomacy requires too delicate and sensitive an approach. The "hostile" attitude of foreign forces toward Azerbaijan is understandable. These forces intended to prevent the pipeline from being constructed at all costs regardless of this being the key to stimulating the young republic's steady development. But the position of the opposition, which does not know what it wants from the people, seems abnormal.

Under the article "Wheat crisis in Azerbaijan," the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" points to the rise in prices for foodstuffs, especially bread. Some specialists suggest that this is linked with the increase in pensions. In other words, the people's purchasing capacity has improved due to this increase and the local market has brought its prices into line. The newspaper cites a source close to the government as suggesting that the current wheat crisis, and prices for wheat products are expected to rise more rapidly after 16 October.

Rovshen Murfetoglu in the article "Street trade has increased" in the independent newspaper "Uch Nogta" writes that "street trading in various districts of Baku has rapidly increased, especially the trade of agricultural products and clothing." Touching on the factors that discourage legal trade in the markets, Murfetoglu notes that, firstly, the number of customers in the streets is greater than in the markets. Secondly, sellers pay less for street commerce than in the markets. In addition, almost 80-90 percent of those engaged in street trade avoid paying taxes. The author adds that non-stationary commercial outlets do not pay taxes for all finalized sales. As a result of such illegal actions, the state budget loses considerable revenues. But the Tax Ministry's officials have yet to find a way to compel these trade non-stationary units to pay taxes. Moreover, street trade is harmful in terms of health since most foods are sold without sanitary rules being observed or passing health inspection. Most specialists suggest that along with state institutions, the customers must also take an active part in the prevention of commerce in the streets. Therefore, the population must turn to the markets.

In an article entitled "Heydar Aliev's 'telephone conversations'" in the opposition newspaper "Baki-Kheber," Konul Valieva writes that after President Aliyev was taken out of the country due to his health condition, some high-ranking governmental officials stated that they maintain telephone contacts with him. Such statements are generally given by the Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, the head of the Presidential Executive Administration Ramiz Mehdiev, speaker Murtuz Alesgerov, and the president's son Ilham Aliev. But now Health Minister Ali Insanov's name can also be added to this list. His recent statement to the local media regarding his telephone conversation with the head of state did not differ from previous ones, made by other officials. According to the author, the members of Heydar Aliev's team -- Alesgerov, Mehdiev, Usubov, and others -- are seeking to show their close relationship to the president through maintaining telephone contacts. In this case, the health minister does not want to lag behind his colleagues and intends to promote his proximity to Aliev. Therefore, the officials' statements about telephone contact with the president are merely sly gestures, Valieva concludes.

In an interview with the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," political scientist Leila Yunus said that the West is now exerting more active pressure on Azerbaijan through the Council of Europe. "Economic interests usually prevail in two-sided relations. But such organizations generally aim at goals regarding democracy and human rights. In short, with the assistance of the Council of Europe, Western countries are seeking to realize a goal, which cannot be done on a two-sided level. In this sense, America's opportunities for pressure seem to be minimal in comparison with such institutions, since the United States are interested in preserving relations with a country that provides it with economic resources," Yunus concluded.

Aidin Mirzazade, a parliament deputy from the ruling YAP and advocate of the presidential candidate Ilham Aliev, said in an interview with the pro-government newspaper "525" that Azerbaijan was the first among CIS countries to adopt a democratic election code on the basis of the people's demand and the Council of Europe's recommendation. In a larger and more-experienced country such as Russia, a new election code is planned to be adopted by the next elections to the Duma in 2007. "The election law has determined election principles that will suit all the country's political forces. This can be considered as one of the great successes. On the other hand, no ban is imposed on the activities of political forces participating in the elections. Someone can be dissatisfied with something, but this is simply human character. It is not the government's fault that election posters are torn down or that not all meetings can be held. These are events which occur in every country."

The National Security Ministry's statement refusing recent allegations that a number of high-ranking officials had been arrested by the ministry during a common operation conducted by Azerbaijani and Turkish special services was published in the governmental newspaper "Azerbaycan."

In an interview with the independent newspaper "Khalg Jebhesi," Azai Guliev, head of the National NGO Forum complained about the multitude of shortcomings in the country's law on nongovernmental organizations. According to him, now either a new law on NGOs must be drafted or radical amendments must be introduced to the existing law. Guliev noted that it has been agreed upon to discuss this matter in parliament this week.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)