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Azerbaijan: Waiting For President’s, Opposition’s Next Moves After Arrests

President Ilham Aliyev (file photo) (AFP) Azerbaijan's law-enforcement agencies have arrested three former cabinet ministers on suspicion of plotting against the government with exiled opposition leader Rasul Quliyev. Yesterday, another cabinet minister and a high-ranking official of the presidential administration were sacked for reasons that remain unclear. With just two weeks left before the 6 November legislative elections, tension remains high in the country. RFE/RL explores President Ilham Aliyev's possible next moves and those of opposition leaders with Azerbaijani political experts.

Prague, 21 October 2005 (RFE/RL) –- Azerbaijan's law-enforcement agencies claimed yesterday to have foiled a coup attempt involving former Economics Minister Farhad Aliyev, former Finance Minister Fikrat Yusifov, and former Foreign Trade Minister Nicat Quliyev.

The Prosecutor-General's Office and the Interior Ministry also said a fourth man, Farhad Aliyev's brother Rafiq, was involved in the alleged plot. Rafiq Aliyev -- who owns Azpetrol, Azerbaijan's largest oil refiner -- was reportedly remanded in custody for two weeks. The fate of the other detainees remains unclear.

Fairy Tales

Investigators said the four men were working with the opposition with a view to taking control of Baku airport upon the return of exiled Democratic Party leader Rasul Quliyev.

Quliyev has rejected the accusations as "fairy tales."

Also yesterday, President Ilham Aliyev sacked Health Minister Ali Insanov and a high-ranking official of his own administration, Akif Muradverdiyev. Insanov, who is a founder of the Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) ruling party, is reportedly involved in the alleged plot. No reason has been given yet for the sacking of Muradverdiyev, who was a close associate of Ilham Aliyev's predecessor and late father, Heydar.

"It would be extremely risky to make any prognosis today [as to what President Aliyev's next move will be]. No one could have ever predicted what happened these past few days. Rather, we were expecting something like that, but we thought that would not happen until after the elections."

Azerbaijani media yesterday cited security sources as saying at least three other government officials -- including Education Minister Misir Mardanov and Labor and Social Protection Minister Ali Nagiyev -- had been sacked.

Although those reports were subsequently denied, they testify to the sense of uncertainty that prevails in Baku, two weeks ahead of the elections.

Sahin Rzayev, who heads the Baku office of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), said the country is now waiting for President Aliyev to either comment on the recent arrests or make his next move.

Too Early To Tell

"We're all waiting here," Ryazev said. "It would be extremely risky to make any prognosis today [as to what President Aliyev's next move will be]. No one could have ever predicted what happened these past few days. Rather, we were expecting something like that, but we thought that would not happen until after the elections. The situation is out of the ordinary and the president must now justify these sensational dismissals. What will happen will likely depend on the new facts the law enforcement agencies will release during the probe. In any case, it is very difficult to make any prediction."

Hasan Quliyev, a political analyst for Azerbaijan's independent Turan news agency, said he finds it difficult to explain President Aliyev's recent moves.

"Many people here believe the president is an impulsive and emotional man who can make unexpected decisions," Hasan Quliyev said. "What happened in Baku these past two or three days seems to confirm this view, because there is no apparent logic in all [these developments]. All this took place impulsively, and the authorities will probably try to put some logic to it a posteriori."

Money Or Politics?

Some Azerbaijani media have suggested that, beyond their political aspect, the recent arrests and sackings could be the result of an ongoing struggle pitting members of the ruling elite against each other for control over the economy.

Rzayev also said he believes there is a clan aspect to the ongoing developments.

"There is probably a redistribution of property going on," Ryazev said. "Azerbaijan is a small country, and all those material resources that could be shared have already been shared. But in some areas, there is a redistribution going on. Take [Rafiq Aliyev's] Azpetrol, for example; it is a very big chunk that people are ready to fight over. A struggle among oligarchs already took place under Heydar Aliyev and it is possible that, unfortunately, a new struggle is taking place right now -- as it is happening in Russia."

What role Quliyev could possibly play -- or be portrayed by the government as playing -- in these intrigues remains unclear.

A former parliamentary speaker and a one-time ally of Heydar Aliyev, Quliyev has been living in exile in the United States since 1996. He is wanted in Azerbaijan on embezzlement charges that he denies.

Election officials in August registered Quliyev as an opposition candidate in November's parliamentary polls. However, the Prosecutor-General's Office has ordered that his immunity be lifted and threatened to arrest him as soon as he enters Azerbaijan.

Quliyev was reportedly flying to Baku from London on 17 October when he was detained during a stopover in Crimea. A Simferopol court yesterday ordered his release, saying there were no legal grounds for extraditing him to Azerbaijan.

Does He Want To Return?

Political commentators in Azerbaijan have questioned Quliyev's willingness to return to Baku, suggesting he might have arranged for his detention in Simferopol.

IWPR's Rzayev said he does not believe Quliyev's claim that he wants to return to take part in the election.

"I was sure from the very beginning that [he] would not return to Azerbaijan. This is not the first time he has cheated his supporters. He simply lacks the courage [to return]," Ryazev said. "It is possible that after the elections his case will be either adjourned or reviewed. But one thing is sure, he will not return before the elections. He has announced his return three times already. This time, too, I'm sure he has no intention to return. Even less so after what happened [this week]."

Quliyev, however, told reporters in Simferopol yesterday that he will fly back to Europe for political talks and then return to Baku in time to take part in the polls.

"I will definitely return to Baku," Quliyev said. "However, because of recent events in Azerbaijan, I have to spend one more week in Europe and have some meetings at the Council of Europe and the European Parliament."

Whatever the motives behind this week's arrests in Baku -- and the reasons behind Quliyev's arrest in Simferopol -- commentators generally agree that the upcoming days will be decisive.

Hasan Quliyev of Turan said he believes much will depend also on the opposition's next steps.

He said new, unsanctioned antigovernment rallies such as those that have taken place in recent weeks might prompt the authorities to take more radical steps.

In that case, the political analyst said, he does not rule out the possibility that the elections could be postponed.