On 2 May, the leaders of the Yeni Siyaset (New Policy, aka YeS) election bloc adopted a declaration entitled "From Authoritarianism to Democracy," which is intended to ensure that the parliamentary elections to be held in November are truly free and democratic.
The following day, the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) extended an invitation to several prominent opposition parties to attend a roundtable discussion of the political situation on 4 May. (Insofar as the nucleus of YeS is comprised of individuals, rather than political parties, it was not invited to that roundtable.) But despite YAP's stated readiness for dialogue, recent statements by both Azerbaijani officials and Council of Europe experts suggest that the former are reluctant to remove possible restrictions on the holding of democratic elections.
In the eyes of the opposition, the primary obstacle to fair elections is the current election law, in particular those paragraphs that specify the composition of the Central Election Commission and parallel regional-level bodies. That issue was the subject of protracted and heated arguments in the run-up to the October 2003 presidential ballot not only between the opposition and the authorities but also between individual opposition parties (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 23 May 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 11, and 13 June 2003).
Representatives of opposition parties are far outnumbered on the Central Election Commission by members of YAP, which has a majority in the present parliament, and on lower-level commissions by district officials who may not necessarily be YAP members but who owe their positions to their loyalty to the authorities.
In recent months, Azerbaijani officials have made conflicting statements, some suggesting that the composition of the Central Election Commission could be changed, while others rule out any such changes. President Ilham Aliyev made clear on 27 April that he considers such changes unnecessary and potentially destabilizing. The website day.az quoted him as saying that "we should act in such a way as to ensure that destructive forces do not appropriate a mechanism which would enable them to disrupt the conduct of the election." But two days later, the same website quoted presidential administration Social-Political Department head Ali Hasanov as saying that "we are ready introduce into the Electoral Code any amendments" that will contribute to fair and democratic elections.
Presidential-administration head Ramiz Mehtiev for his part told journalists on 3 May that there is "no need" to change the composition of election commissions as they already include some opposition representatives. Mehtiev affirmed that the Electoral Code as currently worded allows for free and fair elections. That statement echoes the opinion expressed two weeks earlier by Estonian parliamentarian Andres Herkel, who was quoted on 22 April by zerkalo.az as saying that while the Electoral Code in its current form could indeed serve as the framework to hold democratic elections, the profound mutual suspicion between the authorities and the opposition renders it unlikely that the ballot will be free and democratic.
A second obstacle to free elections is the restrictions currently in force on the freedom of assembly, especially in Baku. Parliament deputy Alimamed Nuriev was quoted by the online daily exho-az.com on 30 April as saying that the Baku municipal authorities will soon issue a list of venues where the opposition may convene "large-scale gatherings." Some parliament deputies, however, advocate amending the existing legislation on freedom of assembly, which they reportedly consider "excessively liberal."
Finally, the opposition and the Council of Europe are perturbed at the repeated delay in launching an independent national public broadcaster. That station was supposed to be operative by June, but its director, former parliament deputy Ismail Omarov, told journalists last week that it will not be ready to begin broadcasting before August-September at the earliest, according to zerkalo.az on 28 April.
The Fear Of Revolution
There are several possible explanations for the authorities' inconsistency and apparent delaying tactics. First, the ruling elite is understandably nervous at the prospect that blatantly falsified elections could trigger mass protests that culminate in regime change, as happened in Georgia in November 2003, Ukraine last fall, and Kyrgyzstan in March. As Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross, who is one of the two Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteurs for Azerbaijan, observed at a press conference in Baku on 21 April: "One must bear in mind that the elite in Azerbaijan is extremely wealthy. You don't surely think that it will simply disintegrate? If they feel that they could be stripped of power, they may offer armed resistance."
Second, some individuals within that elite may be confident that the international community will continue to turn a blind eye to its unwillingness to democratize rather than risk major upheavals in the run-up to the commissioning later this year of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export pipeline for Caspian oil. Third, the lack of consistency between official statements may be intended both to wrong-foot and confuse the opposition and to convince the international community that at least some elements within the leadership are campaigning to ensure the upcoming ballot is democratic, and that excessive criticism or pressure could undermine the position of those progressive elements. Alternatively, there may well be disagreement, if not infighting, under way between various factions within the Azerbaijani leadership. Gross hinted at that latter possibility during his 21 April press conference, admitting at the same time that despite having visited Azerbaijan 19 times since November 2002, he still cannot identify all the factions within the country's leadership.
Gross did, however, make several perceptive observations concerning the interaction between the president and his entourage. He described Aliyev as being more democratic than his late father and predecessor Heidar Aliyev, and less conservative that his entourage which, according to Gross, is split between those who are ready to help the president implement his stated plans to create a democratic system and those who seek to put the brake on such change.
At the same time, Gross said, Ilham Aliyev does not share his late father's total commitment to and absorption in politics, is apparently unwilling to devote himself to politics 15-16 hours per day, and does not see politics as the focus of his entire life. Western journalists similarly quoted former colleagues of Ilham Aliyev at the time of his election in October 2003 as noting his limited attention span. Gross added that it would "not be beneficial for Azerbaijan" if Ilham Aliyev were to tire of politics and distance himself from political activity.
No Single Opposition Bloc Emerging
At his 21 April press conference in Baku, PACE rapporteur Andreas Gross contrasted the emergence in Ukraine last year of a strong opposition united around former Prime Minister and opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko with the lack of a single comparable opposition force in Azerbaijan. The online daily echo-az.com quoted Gross as pointing out that "you cannot create a Yushchenko in just three or four months." Gross added that in light of the exceptionally strong presidential rule in Azerbaijan, the only hope of implementing "serious changes" is to create a single strong opposition party that would win parliamentary representation and then work to push through such changes.
There is, however, little sign that the opposition is ready to join forces. Almost every week, the press announces the launching of yet another new election bloc. The most prominent are Solidarity and Trust (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 14 January 2005); an as yet unnamed bloc that unites the opposition Musavat party, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party; Yeni Siyaset (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 April 2005); Public Leaders, which according to echo-az.com on 23 April is "against revolution and in favor of dialogue with the authorities"; and Builders of a Civil Society, which is composed largely of former army officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May 2005).
In the six weeks since Yeni Siyaset was formally launched, four political parties -- the Azerbaijan National Independence Party, the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, the Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and the National Movement -- and 73 NGOs have joined it, Turan reported on 2 May.
Former President Ayaz Mutalibov too has signaled his readiness to join Yeni Siyaset, prompting Interior Minister Ramil Usubov to warn that Mutalibov risks arrest if he returns to Baku from Russia, where he has lived since fleeing in the wake of an abortive comeback attempt in May 1992.