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Analysis: Azerbaijani President Holds Out Olive Branch To Opposition

Ilham Aliyev Ten months after the disputed ballot that formalized his succession to the presidency, Ilham Aliyev has appealed to Azerbaijan's opposition parties to embark on a dialogue aimed at national reconciliation, reported on 4 September. Leading members of at least three opposition parties, however, have reacted with caution and skepticism, arguing that the president should take specific actions to demonstrate his good faith.

Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mammedov, who according to official returns polled fourth of eight candidates in the 15 October ballot with just 2.9 percent of the vote, pointed out that he had made a similar call for dialogue and reconciliation immediately after the disputed election. While positively assessing the presidential initiative, Mammedov suggested that Aliyev should demonstrate his sincerity by ceasing to pressure the opposition. Ali Kerimli, chairman of the reformist wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), argued that the current standoff between the authorities and the opposition is the direct consequence of official actions, including the violation of fundamental freedoms and rights, the falsification of the elections, the use of torture against political prisoners, including seven opposition activists currently on trial for their alleged role in the violent clashes in Baku on 15-16 October between police and supporters of defeated opposition presidential challenger Isa Qambar. "I think that if the authorities create all the conditions for a revival of democracy and give [us] the possibility to hold just elections, then relations between the political camps will become civilized as they are in democratic countries," Kerimli said.

Aydin Guliev, ideological secretary of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA), similarly said that as long as political prisoners are jailed and there is pressure on the opposition, no changes in relations between the authorities and opposition can be anticipated. DPA Secretary-General Sardar Djalaloglu is one of the seven oppositionists currently on trial. The DPA, which is still headed by self-exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev, is currently undergoing a struggle for power between acting Secretary-General Akif Shahbazov, whom describes as "loyal" to the present Azerbaijani leadership, and Djalaloglu's close relative Gurban Mamedov. Shahbazov has expelled from the DPA seven of its members who for political reasons are currently living outside Azerbaijan. The tensions within the DPA have impelled one of its most prominent members, Nureddin Mamedli, who as chairman of the DPA board was third in the party hierarchy, to defect last month to Kerimli's wing of the AHCP. Mamedli told in an interview on 27 August that he thinks the DPA has no future.

The seven Azerbaijani oppositionists currently on trial responded on 6 September to President Aliyev's initiative with a statement listing proposals they consider essential for national reconciliation, Turan reported. Those proposals include a broad amnesty for persons imprisoned on political grounds; the return to Azerbaijan of political exiles, including former President Ayaz Mutalibov and former parliament speaker Guliev; measures to democratize the political process, including the annulment of the constitutional amendment approved in 2002 that abolished the use of the proportional system in parliamentary elections; and the inclusion in election commissions of representatives of all political forces. The seven also advocated the creation of a consultative board to promote national reconciliation, on which the opposition and respected public figures would be represented.

The cautious reaction of the opposition party leaders, on the one hand, and the sweeping demands by the seven trial defendants, on the other, suggests that little will come of President Aliyev's initiative. Aliyev himself apparently anticipated as much, affirming that if the opposition fails to respond positively, it will be to blame for the ongoing standoff.

There is, however, one man who would welcome an overture from the Azerbaijani leadership, and that is Mutalibov, who has lived in exile in Moscow for the past 12 years. Mutalibov told the Russian-language daily "Ekho" in an interview published on 2 September that a decision by the Azerbaijani authorities to permit him to return to Baku would be in line with their professed commitment to democratic development and would contribute to national reconciliation and the consolidation of society. He argued that at present there is no democratic mechanism that would deter the authorities from trampling on the rights of the opposition, and the opposition from trying to oust the authorities.

In a second interview carried a week earlier by, Mutalibov similarly argued that his return from exile would contribute to the consolidation of Azerbaijani society, and that by preventing his return, the authorities are infringing on the rights of members of the small Azerbaijan Social-Democratic Party of which he is co-chairman. Mutalibov stressed that the opposition should be "relatively cohesive," with a clear conceptual program. At the same time, he denied that he is engaged in any talks with the Azerbaijani authorities about the conditions for his return to Azerbaijan.

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