Can the opposition topple President Ilham Aliyev?
With seven months still to go before the November parliamentary elections, two new election blocs have already emerged in Azerbaijan and a third is expected to be formally unveiled this week. The two most recent alignments both highlight the role that individual personalities, rather than ideologies, continue to play in Azerbaijani politics.
On 18 March, the leaders of the opposition Musavat and Democratic parties and the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party announced their alignment in an as yet unnamed bloc that will campaign under a joint manifesto and field a single list of candidates in the November ballot. They told journalists that the bloc is open to any other opposition party that seeks to join. Musavat head Isa Qambar, who served in 1992-1993 as parliament speaker, is possibly Azerbaijan's most respected opposition leader and was the only serious presidential challenger to acting President Ilham Aliyev in the October 2003 presidential election. Qambar continues to insist that the results of that ballot were falsified to deprive him of his rightful victory. AHCP progressive wing Chairman Ali Kerimli is a decade younger than Qambar and one of the country's most charismatic political figures. In addition -- unlike some other prominent opposition activists -- he has worked tirelessly and self-effacingly in recent years to promote unity among opposition groups and, to that end, declined in 2003 to run for president in the hope that the opposition would agree on a single candidate to challenge the incumbent. Both men, and also the Democratic Party, are unequivocally pro-Western in their political orientation.
Musavat head Isa Qambar continues to insist that the results of that ballot were falsified to deprive him of his rightful victory.
Rival politicians, however, were swift to disparage the Musavat-AHCP-Democratic Party alignment. Sabir Rustamkhanli of the Civic Solidarity Party (VHP) complained that his party was not invited to join the new bloc, and would not do so even if it now receives such an invitation, day.az reported on 25 March. Liberal-Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Fuad Aliev, for his part, said on 23 March that the new bloc does not represent the entire opposition spectrum, and he predicted that it will split the opposition and "cast a shadow on the transparency of the elections," day.az reported. He called for the creation of a counter bloc that would represent "healthy opposition forces."
Azerbaijani media announced on 26 March the imminent unveiling of another opposition bloc, one formed by individuals rather than political parties. Turan reported on 31 March that talks on finalizing that alliance are still ongoing, but it is anticipated that it will unite several intellectual heavyweights and two former members of deceased President Heidar Aliyev's administration: Lala-Shovket Gadjieva and Eldar Namazov, who both served as state advisers to Aliyev. Other founding members of the group are former Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov (Aliyev's main challenger in the 1998 presidential ballot that Qambar boycotted), former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Masimov, and Eldaniz Guliev, who heads the Movement of the Intelligentsia.
In a commentary published on 26 March, the online daily echo-az.com noted that the existence of two pro-Western blocs in opposition to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party poses a problem for the West, which echo.az.com said will have to choose which opposition alignment to back. By contrast, the first opposition bloc to emerge -- Solidarity and Trust, which was established in January (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 January 2005) -- is perceived as pro-Russian. Its leader, Ilgar Gasymov, is a former department head at the Russian Justice Ministry and one of the authors of the Russia-Belarius Union treaty. But he was quoted in a 5 February interview with echo-az.com as stressing that while he advocates closer ties and mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries, it would be wrong to assume that he is out to defend Russia's interests in Azerbaijan. The same online daily noted on 26 March that Gasymov has been careful to maintain "constructive" relations with prominent pro-Western oppositionists who belong to other election blocs.