Prague, 17 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In the capital of Azerbaijan, police have blocked access to the city's airport and say they will arrest Quliyev if he enters the country. The possibility has not been excluded that authorities may prevent his plane from entering Azerbaijani airspace in the first place.
Quliyev has been gone from Azerbaijan for nine years, but on 17 October, he proved he has not been forgotten. The one-time speaker of the national parliament timed his planned return to cause the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party maximum embarrassment in the run-up to the elections.
Even before Quliyev could set foot on his native land, the massive security operation needed to prevent the opposition from welcoming him at the airport guaranteed nationwide publicity. Opposition activist Murad Hasanli was among those trying to find a way through. "
The police have cordoned off the main roads into the airport," Hasanli said. "No access to the airport is given. Journalists are not being allowed into the airport. They're just being allowed to a point near the airport. The international observation mission of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] wasn't allowed in either, nor was the U.S. ambassador. Water cannons have been brought into the airport, as well."
It's a report confirmed by the TURAN news agency, which says that several cars with diplomatic plates have been stopped on the airport road and that members of Quliyev's Democratic Party have been detained. The Azerbaijani authorities say they will arrest Quliyev the minute he steps off the plane -- but that's not a prospect that appears to trouble Quliyev.
RFE/RL spoke to Quliyev just before his chartered flight departed from London and asked him whether he is reluctant to return, knowing that he might be arrested. (For a complete transcript of the interview click here.)
"Not at all," Quliyev said. "I’m not reluctant at all because people are behind me. The government is acting based on illegal decisions. And that is why I'm not concerned at all."
There's more to it than that, though. Quliyev is one of the few politicians of real stature in Azerbaijani politics and is thought to command support not just in the opposition but in government circles, too. "Rasul Quliyev was a very powerful figure when he was in the government," said Elman Salaev, deputy head of the Social Democratic Party. "And despite his nine-year exile, his party remains one of the strongest opposition parties in Azerbaijan. Rasul Quliyev has a very strong charisma, and Rasul Quliyev is respected not only by members of the opposition but also by circles inside the ruling elite, the current ruling elite."
Quliyev's Democratic Party forms part of a united opposition bloc, Azadliq (Freedom), which is challenging the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party for control of parliament in the elections on 6 November. It has been a rancorous campaign, in which the opposition has accused the government of stifling debate and preventing opposition election rallies.
Threat Of Unrest
Elman Salaev warns that Quliyev's arrest might trigger social unrest. "This could lead to the opposition in the Azerbaijani nation concentrating not only on the election process but on regime change as a whole," he said. "We really don't want that -- we want evolutionary changes in Azerbaijan. But if the arrest happens, things might just develop in a way the opposition won't be able to control."
But Quliyev, who spent his nine years of exile in the United States, insists he is not returning to stir up unrest but to press for democratic change.
"The main goal is to achieve democratic elections in Azerbaijan, to establish a tradition of democratic elections," Quliyev said. "I see the future of the Azerbaijani people only in democracy. This is our chance to have free and fair elections this year, which will basically lay the foundation of future democratic elections in Azerbaijan."
The government of Azerbaijan might retort that Quliyev had his chance when he was part of the ruling elite in the early 1990s – and missed it. Corruption, they point out, was just as much a part of the old administration as the present one. And Quliyev faces charges of embezzlement – albeit from his days in the oil industry when the Soviet Union still existed. But Quliyev's possible return puts the spotlight back on the government. A clumsy overreaction could elicit international criticism and stir up internal unrest.