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Analysis: Azerbaijan's 'Grey Cardinal' Lambastes Opposition

Ramiz Mekhtiev, who served as Azerbaijan's Communist Party ideology secretary in the1980s and since 1993 has headed the administration of two successive Azerbaijani presidents, Heidar and Ilham Aliyev, has launched a scathing attack on the Azerbaijani opposition and on unnamed foreign powers that he claims sought to promote Islam in Azerbaijan in ways that posed a threat to the country's national security.

Mekhtiev's criticisms are larded into a 15,000-word article published in the official Russian-language government daily "Bakinskii rabochii" and titled "Azerbaijan in the Era of Globalization: A Development Strategy." The first half of the article does indeed focus of the implications of globalization for Azerbaijan, painting a rosy picture of economic development and integration into both regional and global economic processes. At the same time, the author affirms that Azerbaijan is a European state committed to democratization and strengthening the rule of law. In that context, Mekhtiev dismisses suggestions that Azerbaijan has a "monocentrist" political system, but goes on to stress that "even if it is bipolar or multicentrist, the political space must answer the requirements of the masses, express the interests of the population, contribute to the development and flowering and, most important, try to preserve national sovereignty."

Mekhtiev then proceeds to underscore the need for tolerance in political dialogue in civil society. "For this reason," he writes, "the leaders of the opposition, especially its destructive-radical wing, should understand that Azerbaijan has entered a phase of its development in which relations between the opposition and the authorities and the struggle for power can be carried out only by civilized methods, by means of dialogue." That latter statement is clearly a reference to the clashes between police and opposition supporters that took place in Baku in the wake of last October's disputed presidential ballot.

Mekhtiev notes that municipal elections are scheduled in Azerbaijan for this fall, and a parliamentary ballot for late 2005. He expresses the hope that "young, enterprising, energetic, patriotic" candidates who are committed to "building a strong and independent state" will successfully contest both ballots and thus "contribute to the emergence of a new political elite." That new elite, while conscious of their national identity as Azerbaijanis, will, he predicts, work to strengthen national statehood and economic integration on both a regional and global scale.

Mekhtiev stresses that while Islam is a component of Azerbaijanis' national identity, Azerbaijan is nonetheless a part of Europe. He expresses concern that in the 13 years since Azerbaijan regained its independence, unnamed powers have sought to promote specific religious models, and the removal of all constraints on religious activity created a situation that could undermine the country's national security, as "attempts were undertaken to unite radical Islamist groups under the banner of a political party." He likewise condemns unidentified "patrons" who financed the construction of countless mosques throughout Azerbaijan, many in districts that did not have the most basic facilities such as schools and hospitals. It has, Mekhtiev continues, taken a decade to come up with a balanced conceptual definition of the place and role of Islam in Azerbaijan. (In practice, that redefinition has meant the closure of unregistered religious communities or those, like Baku's Djuma mosque, that are not tightly controlled by the "official" Muslim clergy.) In that context, Mekhtiev observes that there are groups in Azerbaijan who reject both globalization and the concepts of Western democracy and civil society because they suspect the West has a hidden agenda in seeking to promote such values.

The final section of Mekhtiev's article focuses on national security. He defines Azerbaijan's national security policy as having three main components: "Eurocentrism," in acknowledgement of the country's participation in European security structures, including NATO; "Atlanticism," comprising "strategic rapprochement" with the United States and participation in the international antiterrorism coalition; and the "regional component," which centers on cooperation with regional and Caspian states in developing Caspian hydrocarbon resources. A further aspect of this latter regional component is Azerbaijan's participation in both East-West and North-South transport corridors.

In conclusion, Mekhtiev proposes that Azerbaijan should profit from the inevitable "narrowing of national sovereignty" that accompanies globalization to create a "civilized" domestic political space dominated by forces that will promote development, economic modernization, and "the strengthening of the moral foundations of contemporary Azerbaijani society."