When Azerbaijan's opposition wrapped up a two-day strategy session this week in Tbilisi, there were hopes that they would return home with one more person than when they left.
But in the end Rustam Ibragimbekov -- Azerbaijan's current best hope for political change -- stayed away.
"I'll absolutely go to Baku. There's no doubt about that," Ibragimbekov said. "But today my friends and comrades here categorically advised me against going right now, because some legal questions still need to be resolved. Only after that I'll come."
The 74-year-old filmmaker, who last set foot in Azerbaijan in January, had pledged to return home on July 31 to begin work on his campaign as the united opposition challenger to Ilham Aliyev in the presidential election scheduled for October 9.
But a host of challenges, including potential criminal charges in Baku and stalled efforts to revoke his citizenship in Russia, have made his return a risky prospect, both personally and politically.
Ibragimbekov, whose works include "Burnt by the Sun" and the Soviet classic "White Sun of the Desert," has expressed fears that he will be arrested on charges of tax evasion if he returns to Azerbaijan.
He has also been unsuccessful at shedding his Russian passport and the dual-citizen status that formally prevents him from registering as a presidential candidate.
The National Council, the umbrella group backing Ibragimbekov's candidacy, concluded its July 30-31 meeting in Tbilisi with a plan to personally appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to speed up Ibragimbekov's denaturalization request.
It had been hoped that Ibragimbekov, who holds considerable sway among the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, could pose a formidable challenge to Aliyev, whose family has maintained a dynastic-style rule over the oil-rich country for more than two decades.
But Ibragimbekov's prolonged absence has fueled speculation that frustration may be mounting among opposition members coping with an invisible candidate.
At least one other council member, Isa Qambar, chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, has indicated in past weeks that he is prepared to step in as a replacement. Speaking on July 31 to RFE/RL, however, Qambar said that for now all eyes remain on Ibragimbekov.
"Our current priority is to get rid of all the artificial obstacles standing between [Ibragimbekov's] nomination for the candidacy, to register him as a candidate, and achieve victory," Qambar said. "That's the direction our activities are focused on. As for other issues -- they can be settled at an appropriate time."
Will Putin Help Aliyev?
The opposition impasse appears to have boosted the confidence of the ruling regime.
Presidential administration head Ali Hasanov this week noted, with evident mirth, that Aliyev -- who officially drew nearly 90 percent of the vote during the last elections in 2008 -- is ready for dialogue with "any political parties" fronting candidates in the presidential vote.
Azerbaijan's state press has also characterized an imminent visit by Putin as a sure sign that Moscow's bet is with the ruling regime rather than Ibragimbekov -- despite the filmmaker's long-standing Russian ties and Aliyev's independence from Russian energy and influence.
Ibragimbekov told RFE/RL there was "no basis" to assume that Russia was playing favorites one way or the other.
However, with Putin able to indefinitely delay Ibragimbekov's denaturalization, his August 12-13 visit may see the Russian president demanding major concessions from Aliyev in return for a smooth, opponent-free ride though the elections.
Ibragimbekov, meanwhile, said that even if he failed to be registered, he would continue to work with the Azerbaijani opposition to fight corruption and government brutality. But standing in Tbilisi -- 550 kilometers of rocky political road from Baku -- the burly would-be candidate said he was still aiming to become Azerbaijan's next president.
"I'm pretty critical of myself. But I still have the feeling that the Azerbaijani people want a change of government so much that they'll do everything to make sure I win," Ibragimbekov said.
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting in Baku and Tbilisi by Maarif Chingizoglu and Chingiz Sultansoy of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and Tea Topuria of RFE/RL's Georgian Service