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Azerbaijan: Youth Leader's Arrest Triggers Political Turmoil

Police raiding the Baku headquarters in May (RFE/RL) Tensions are running high in Azerbaijan ahead of the 6 November legislative polls. Last week, authorities claimed they had foiled an opposition plot to overthrow President Ilham Aliyev's government with the help of foreign money --> . In the following days, attacks targeted the progressive wing of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (AXCP), one of the country's main opposition parties, while voices demanded that it be closed down. Rights campaigners fear the political climate may further deteriorate as Azerbaijan nears the polls.

Prague, 9 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ruslan Basirli, leader of the Yeni Fikir (New Thinking) youth movement, was arrested on 3 August on charges of receiving $2,000 from Armenian security officers in return for a promise to carry out a revolution in Azerbaijan. To support the charges, Azerbaijan's security agencies released a video purporting to show Basirli receiving the money while secretly meeting with his sponsors in Tbilisi. The video was played on Baku's street video billboards.

Georgian Connection?

Yesterday, Basirli's lawyer, Elcin Qambar, quoted his client as saying he had received funds not from Armenian agents, but from a friendly Georgian nongovernmental group, and that he intended to spend part of the money on his wedding. Although officially there are no organizational links between Yeni Fikir and Azerbaijan's opposition parties, AXCP leader Ali Kerimli denounced what he said is a government plot to discredit him.

"The action undertaken against Basirli is in fact directed against me," Kerimli said on 5 August. "What it means is that the AXCP and myself are the real targets [of the government]. This is by no means accidental."

Subsequent events appear to support Kerimli's claim. On 5 and 6 August, unidentified assailants raided the AXCP's Nakhichevan regional offices, while in Baku, voices demanded that the party be banned. Deputy parliament speaker Ziyafat Asgarov called for the immediate closure of the AXCP for allegedly seeking to stage a coup. Also on 6 August, the pro-government Muasir Musavat (Modern Musavat) party accused the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) of funding the opposition and demanded that it be banned from the country. The NDI denies the charge.

Ongoing Clashes

Since Basirli's arrest, Muasir Musavat protesters have twice marched on the AXCP's Baku headquarters to demand the party's closure. In both cases, the rallies triggered clashes with opposition activists. Fazil Mammadov is responsible for registering political parties at the Justice Ministry. He told our correspondent that Azerbaijan's laws forbid political parties from receiving any kind of financial subsidies from abroad and that any offenders face closure.

"There is no other sanction possible," Mammadov said. "In other countries, political parties [that violate the law] can be suspended, or fined. But this type of sanction does not exist in Azerbaijan. There are no such provisions in our legislation."

Mammadov said that the authorities have collected evidence that some opposition parties have received subsidies from abroad. But he declined to comment when asked whether the AXCP is among the suspected beneficiaries of foreign funds. Eldar Zeynalov, who chairs the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, said that the political situation in the country is deteriorating dramatically.

"The atmosphere here is stifling. It is clear that the 'Basirli affair' did not come out of the blue and that it was carefully planned," Zeynalov said. "It is clearly a provocation. I believe [Basirli] acted under duress."

Strife Within The Ruling Elite

Zeynalov said he does not give credence to the official account of events that portrays Basirli as a foreign-hired plotter. He said he suspects foul play on the part of members of the ruling elite. He also said he believes the "Basirli affair" may be directly connected to ongoing internal strife within the country's ruling team that reportedly started during late President Heydar Aliyev's illness in 2003.

"This affair hits not so much on the opposition as it does on the country's top leadership," Zeynalov said. "[I believe] this campaign is aimed at discrediting the president [Ilham Aliyev]. Its organizers should be searched for among his own team, more precisely among the law-enforcement agencies."

A Journalist's Death

Zeynalov said he sees a link between last week's events and the assassination of Elmar Huseynov, the editor in chief of the opposition "Monitor" news magazine. Unidentified gunmen killed Huseynov in the stairwell of his Baku apartment building on 2 March. Although Aliyev condemned the killing and pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice, the investigation has made little progress.

Huseynov's relatives and colleagues suspect members of the presidential team are behind the killing. Zeynalov likened Huseynov's assassination to that of Ukrainian opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze five years ago. Gongadze's slaying, which investigators say was perpetrated by Ukraine's security services, is generally considered a turning point in the country's post-Soviet history.

To many observers, it paved the way for the change of political leadership that followed last year's Orange Revolution. Zeynalov said he believes those behind Huseynov's killing and Basirli's arrest are seeking to undermine Aliyev with a view toward convincing Western democracies to shift their support to an alternative leader from among what is known in Baku as former President Heidar Aliyev's "old guard."

"[Their aim] is to destabilize the situation so that the West denies its support to the leadership it currently recognizes," Zeynalov said. "For any 'orange' experiment to succeed, the West must support a candidate from among the 'exes.' In Georgia, it is ex-members of [former President Eduard] Shevardnadze's team who came to power. In Ukraine, it is ex-members of [former President Leonid] Kuchma's team. In Kyrgyzstan, it is ex-members of [former President Askar] Akaev. All these people came to power only after receiving the support of the West."

Who Wants Unrest?

Zeynalov further argued that, unlike some representatives of the ruling elite, Azerbaijan's opposition parties are not interested in fomenting political unrest -- if only because they fear a possible repeat of the repression that followed the 2003 presidential election. Kerimli offered a different view of who may be behind the "Basirli affair."

In comments printed yesterday in the opposition daily "Yeni Musavat," the AXCP leader accused Ilham Aliyev of personally orchestrating the ongoing campaign against his party. The Azerbaijani president has not reacted to the developments of the last few days. But the pro-Aliyev Lider TV television station has provided detailed coverage of Basirli's arrest and given extensive airtime to those who are calling for the closure of the AXCP.

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service correspondent Arifa Kazimova contributed to this report from Baku.)

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