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Azerbaijan: Panic Capitulation, Tactical Concession, Or Calculated Risk?

Demonstrators in Baku on 4 June During talks in Baku late on 3 June, the Baku municipal authorities finally caved in to demands by the opposition Ugur bloc (comprising the Musavat party, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party [AHCP]) that they give the green light for a planned march and rally in the city the following day.

Opposition spokesmen attributed that U-turn to pressure from the international community. It seems more probable, however, that the authorities intended all along to permit the planned rally, but gave permission only at the last minute in order to wrongfoot the opposition and limit the number of participants. Such tactics would be in line with the inconsistency that has for years been one of the hallmarks of Azerbaijani domestic policy.

The 4 June rally in Baku was the first for which the authorities had granted official permission since the violent clashes in Baku in the wake of the disputed presidential election of October 2003. On 21 May, police resorted to violence against several hundred people who defied an official ban and tried to congregate to hold a similar rally, also organized by Ugur. Dozens of would-be participants were beaten or detained. Within days, Ugur announced plans for the 4 June rally, and presidential administration official Ali Hasanov hinted that the authorities would not ban it, but on 2 June a senior municipal official summoned the organizers to inform them that permission was refused to hold the gathering at any of the four alternative venues they suggested, but they were free to do so at the motorcycle racetrack on the outskirts of the city. But organizers rejected that venue as too remote and inaccessible.
But if the 4 June rally highlighted certain demands common to most Azerbaijani opposition parties, it also demonstrated the limitations on opposition solidarity.

The rationale for both the abortive 21 May rally and the successful one on 4 June was identical: to publicize opposition demands for free elections, freedom of assembly (theoretically guaranteed by the constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic), amendments to the existing election legislation that would remove the restrictions on election monitoring by local NGOs, and changes in the composition of election commissions at all levels to give the opposition and the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) equal representation. The opposition raised that issue in the run-up to the October 2003 presidential ballot, and greater opposition representation on election commissions was one of the recommendations made in the final assessment by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the October 2003 ballot. It also figured among joint recommendations submitted to the Azerbaijani authorities in March 2004 by ODIHR and the Council of Europe.

In an interview with Turan news agency two months ago, Gianni Buquicchio, who heads the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, said the council urged Azerbaijan in April 2005 to submit proposed amendments to the composition of the election commissions. But Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly said no such changes will be made prior to the November parliamentary elections. In late May, however, Azerbaijani representatives told the Venice Commission that they are prepared to make such changes after the November ballot, according to on 4 June. That signalled a readiness to compromise may be -- like the last-minute permission for the 4 June rally -- part of a carefully calibrated program of minor concessions intended to deflect international criticism.

But if the 4 June rally highlighted certain demands common to most Azerbaijani opposition parties, including the Umid party, the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan and the youth movement Yeni Fikir which also participated along with the three parties aligned in Ugur, it also demonstrated the limitations on opposition solidarity. According to on 7 June, members of the various parties marched in separate columns, and supporters of the Musavat and ACHP chairmen, Isa Qambar and Ali Kerimli, vied with each other as to which faction could chant its leader's name louder. (On 6 June, reported that Qambar will seek election in Baku's Narimanov Raion while Kerimli will run in Khatai Raion.)

The number of participants in the 4 June rally likewise served as an indication of Ugur's popularity, or lack thereof. Estimates of attendance ranged from 3,000-4,000 (the municipal authorities' estimate) to 8,000 ( or 10,000 (ITAR-TASS). Those numbers included some small children brought along by their parents, according to The relatively low turnout (compared with the hundreds of thousands who rallied on Baku's Azadlyg Square in the summer of 1989) can be attributed partly to uncertainty whether the rally would indeed take place. In addition, police blocked the main Gyanja-Baku highway late on 3 June to prevent would-be participants from travelling to the capital to participate in the rally, Turan quoted Musavat party spokesmen as saying on 3 June.

Addressing the 4 June rally, Kerimli announced that Ugur will hold another such demonstration on 18 June, and he predicted that attendance will be double that of 4 June. The Azerbaijani authorities have publicly pledged not to impose any restrictions on holding rallies after the election campaign formally commences in mid-June.

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