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Azerbaijan: Has Government Taken A Troubling Example From Andijon?

Azerbaijani oppositionists demonstrating in Baku on 9 August (RFE/RL) As campaigning for the 6 November parliamentary elections gets under way, the Azerbaijani authorities are directing their efforts toward ensuring that the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, together with ostensibly independent but loyal candidates, retains control of the new parliament. While such efforts are not unexpected in light of previous tainted elections, the Azerbaijani government's blatant disregard for the international community's insistence on electoral fairness and transparency is surprising.

Moreover, this apparent disdain for world public opinion is at odds with -- and signals a retreat from -- initial moves apparently aimed at reversing the country's record of election "illegalities."

In mid-May, President Ilham Aliyev issued a decree warning election officials and local councils against any voting irregularities. The decree also tasked local election officials with compiling accurate and updated voter lists, set forth procedures for uniform exits polls, and made provision for all candidates to have equal access to state run media.

Just a few weeks later, however, in late June, the parliament adopted numerous minor amendments to the election law that failed to include a number of the most significant recommendations of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. Those changes, which opposition parties, too, deemed indispensable to ensuring a fair and democratic election, ranged from greater opposition representation on electoral commissions to the use of indelible ink to mark voters' fingers in a bid to prevent multiple voting.

The Crackdown Begins

The passage of half-hearted electoral reforms was soon eclipsed by much more disturbing events, however. Starting in early August, the country's already embattled political opposition was targeted in a new campaign of intimidation and innuendo. Ruslan Bashirli, chairman of the opposition youth movement Yeni Fikir (New Thinking), was arrested, charged with conspiring to overthrow the government and, for good measure, accused of accepting money from an unlikely combination of Armenian intelligence officers and American nongovernmental organizations.

The case also implicated Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) Chairman Ali Kerimli by charging that Bashirli was acting on Kerimli's behalf. Perhaps fearful of the Ukrainian example of the potential power of a youth movement, the Azerbaijani authorities arrested Yeni Fikir deputy head Said Nuri and another of the organization's leaders in September on similar treason charges. Those arrests were followed by a raid on the offices of the AHCP during which police "seized" three grenades and an undisclosed amount of explosives in a room used by the Yeni Fikir movement.

Then, on 15 September, a special team of security officers from the Azerbaijani Border Service and National Security Ministry arrested Serhiy Yevtushenko -- an activist of the opposition Ukrainian youth movement Pora -- at the Baku airport and interrogated and later expelled him. Yevtushenko had been invited to Baku by the opposition Azadlyg bloc, of which the AHCP is a member, to attend a conference on democratization. In a more imaginative move, some recent Azerbaijani media reports also "reported" that opposition Musavat party Chairman Isa Gambar recently met with an Armenian intelligence operative to discuss plans to disrupt the election. The most amusing aspect of that report was the contention that Gambar was able to meet freely with the Armenian during a visit to Turkey, not a country known for permitting Armenian intelligence such freedom of action.

Bold Tactics

Such actions on the part of the Azerbaijani government so close to the election raise several questions as to Baku's motives for such outright disregard for international opinion and, even more confusing, why the Aliyev administration assumes that it has far less to lose by adopting such confrontational tactics. Such actions also give grounds for serious concern over the actual conduct of the voting and the possibility of a repeat of the postelection violence that erupted in Baku after the flawed presidential ballot of October 2003.

One factor driving the Azerbaijani government's disregard for international reaction to its tactics over the past six weeks may be its inferences from Western -- specifically the U.S. -- response to two other developments. The first test case for Azerbaijan was what Baku perceived to be the lukewarm Western reaction to the May unrest in Uzbekistan.

Not only did Uzbek President Islam Karimov's bloody response to the violent events in the southeastern town of Andijon, his government's dubious definition of the events as an uprising by Islamic extremists, and the repressive handling of the victims and witnesses not result in international sanctions, most importantly, the Uzbek case was a direct and blatant challenge to U.S. credibility. The second key development was Washington's praise for Egypt's presidential election earlier this month. That praise may have been construed in Baku as signaling that the United States would be content with even the most modest progress toward greater democracy.

Moreover, for a presidential republic like Azerbaijan, which remains as much a one-family state as a one-party state, the test for its November parliamentary election will be limited to the conduct, and not the outcome, of the poll. (By contrast, the role of the parliament in Azerbaijan is almost cosmetic.) Thus, assuming that the Azerbaijani authorities are acting in line with a carefully crafted strategy, they may be assuming they have wide latitude to ensure a victory for the pro-government majority, albeit allowing for greater opposition representation than before, perhaps in line with the prognosis by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur Andreas Gross, who calculated that the opposition is capable of winning at least 25 of the 125 seats. If the Egyptian case is any indication, such an outcome -- which would be a marked improvement over previous Azerbaijani elections -- might induce Washington to overlook violations in the preelection campaign and deliver an overall favorable assessment.

See also: Ukrainian Youth Activist Deported From Azerbaijan

Another Azerbaijani Activist Detained Ahead Of Polls

For RFE/RL's full coverage of events in Azerbaijan and the runup to the November elections, see "News And Features On Azerbaijan"