Baku, 3 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Suspicion and intrigue may be part of everyday life in this oil-boom city by the Caspian Sea, but this week the rumor mills have been working overtime.
It's election week in Azerbaijan and the first chance for the people of this country to pass collective judgment on President Ilham Aliyev's leadership.
Supporters of the opposition have complained of intimidation and an orchestrated campaign by the government to prevent it from getting its message across to the electorate. Their complaints found a measure of support from a succession of international observers -- so much so that last week President Aliyev caved in to pressure and issued a decree ordering the inking of voters' fingers to prevent them from casting more than one ballot. He also called on prosecutors to get tough on electoral fraud.
U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish welcomed the move -- but added that people want action, not just words.
"If properly implemented, and I stress properly implemented, it [eds: the decree] would meet many of the concerns that have been expressed," Harnish said. "There are still things that need to be assessed and I hope the government will move to address them as well. Despite the president's clear statement there are still reports of ex-cons (eds. convicts) putting pressure on candidates and their families. These need to be prosecuted. So, in sum, there have been a number of positive steps over the last week but there are still items of concern."
The secretary of Azerbaijan's Central Election Committee, Natik Mamedov, painted a different picture, telling RFE/RL that he sees no problem with the conduct of the campaign. There were some minor difficulties, he said, but nothing worse than you could expect in Western Europe.
"I think all the necessary steps have been taken and the conditions prepared for conducting normal elections," Mamedov said. "Of course, before the announcement of the elections a presidential decree was issued on 11 May this year -- a document that did a great deal to help ensure that these elections were properly prepared."
Others are more skeptical than Mamedov, who said that -- as secretary of the committee -- he stands above politics. Others aren't so convinced, among them Matilda Bogner, an Australian who works for the South Caucasian office of Human Rights Watch. She's been observing the campaign right from the start.
"We have documented many cases of persecution, of arrests, of beatings, of other forms of intimidation against the opposition and independent candidates and their activists," Bogner said. "And in such an environment, when this type of persecution is going on throughout the country, I don't think that it's fair to say that the preelection environment has been free and fair."
But if you compare this election to the presidential elections of 2003, or the last parliamentary elections in 2000 -- progress has been made. It's a point conceded even by Rauf Arifoglu, the editor of the popular "Yeni Musavat" newspaper who is running in this election on the opposition Azadliq (Freedom) bloc platform. He admits that things are more open this time around, that there has been more access to the media -- even the state media -- and that more candidates are contesting the constituencies than ever before. But that's as far as he goes.
The government says the opposition has no support, but while on the campaign trail this week in Biljeh, a small town to the north of Baku, some 400 people crammed into a former food store to hear Arifoglu speak. Those who couldn't squeeze in gathered outside to listen by loudspeaker.
The reception Arifoglu received was warm, but members of the crowd often expressed their anger. One man shouted that if the authorities try to falsify the election results, they would have to do so "over our dead bodies."
Arifoglu was more moderate than that but the message was much the same:
"Our goal is for the vast majority of the people of Azerbaijan to participate in the elections in a demonstrative manner. That's really important," Arifoglu said. "We'll be trying to get official figures from all the polling stations on the day [of the election] and will document and analyze them within 24 hours. Then, if the results show there was total falsification we will act in one way. If they show there was just local falsification we will act in another way."
If that sounds like a veiled threat, that's the way the opposition appears to intend it. There is much talk of civil disobedience and "colored revolutions" -- a reference to the popular movements that overthrew the existing order in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan when the authorities attempted to falsify elections results.
But there is little evidence though of a revolutionary mood in Azerbaijan. There is much social discontent, particularly at the high level of corruption and the failure of the country's oil revenues to improve citizens' living standards, but the anger is not concentrated and has not yet led to massive outpourings of popular anger.
A photo gallery of the Azerbaijan opposition protests in Baku on November 9, 2005.