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Azerbaijan: Opposition Party Leadership Paralyzed By Infighting

Musavat head Qambar (left) with party activists Arifoglu (center) and Akper (file photo) (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, July 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In late May, a congress of Azerbaijan's opposition Musavat party reelected Isa Qambar unopposed for a third term as the party's chairman, ignoring the provision in the party's statutes that one person may not serve three consecutive terms in that post.

But this evident show of unity was belied by a failed attempt earlier this month to elect a new chairman of the party's Mezhlis (governing council) that brought to a head a confrontation within Musavat's senior leadership that has been simmering since the October 2003 Azerbaijani presidential election.

The Post-Election Clashes

In the wake of that ballot, senior Musavat members and other opposition activists -- outraged that apparent vote rigging had deprived Qambar of his anticipated victory -- clashed with police in Baku.

Seven oppositionists, including Musavat deputy chairmen Rauf Arifoglu and Arif Gacili, were arrested and subsequently jailed for five years following an investigation and trial characterized by egregious procedural violations. They were pardoned in the spring of 2005.

Police in Baku prepare to disperse a post-election demonstration on October 17, 2005 (TASS) Since their release, they have been at odds with other leading Musavat members who managed to escape arrest and imprisonment following the post-election violence, including former Musavat Deputy Chairman Sulhaddin Akper. Arifoglu has accused Akper of collaborating with the Azerbaijani authorities, but has produced no evidence to substantiate those allegations.

Immediately after the May congress at which Qambar was reelected party chairman, Gacili, Akper, and former Musavat First Deputy Chairman Vurgun Eyyub all signaled their intention to run for election to the post of Mezhlis chairman. But Gacili subsequently reconsidered after a conversation with Arifoglu during which, Arifoglu told on July 8, they acknowledged that Gacili's election could split the party.

A 'Worthy' Chairman?

Hours before the Mezhlis session on July 8, Arifoglu told that he does not trust either Eyyub or Akper, and that in his opinion neither is "worthy" of being elected Mezhlis chairman. He hinted that he would quit the party if either man were elected to head the Mezhlis.

In the event, however, Arifoglu publicly appealed to Mezhlis members not to vote for Eyyub or Akper. He accused Akper of having "fled without even warning me of the danger" during the October 2003 standoff with police. Consequently, neither candidate received the required minimum 60 votes: Akper received 58 and Eyub 40, with nine Mazhlis members voting against both candidates and 11 ballot papers deemed invalid, according to on July 11.

In an interview with on July 10, Arifoglu explained his objections to both candidates in greater detail, noting that Akper once worked for Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry and branding Eyyub "a has-been" who should retire from political life. As in his July 8 interview, Arifoglu argued that the new Mezhlis chairman should be a "neutral" political figure rather than a political "star."

The Next Round Of Voting

Akper, however, rejected that argument, and told on July 12 that he plans to put forward his candidacy again for Mezhlis chairman and anticipates that next time around he will be elected. He alleged that Russian intelligence launched a smear campaign to prevent his election in a bid to split and marginalize the Musavat party.

Eyyub similarly dismissed as "delirium" the argument by Arifoglu and Gacili that a "neutral" candidate should be elected to head the Mezhlis. But in contrast to Akper, Eyyub told on July 14 that he will not participate in the repeat election for Mezhlis chairman if Akper is a rival candidate, as doing so would be unethical.

An Opposition In Crisis

Several observers in Baku have construed the standoff within the upper echelons of Musavat's leadership as further evidence of a profound crisis besetting most of Azerbaijan's major opposition parties in the wake of successive crushing election defeats over the past decade. (Musavat won only five of the 125 seats in the parliament elected last November.)

Those observers point to the split earlier this year in the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party, and to the apparent struggle under way for control of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, still nominally headed from his exile in the United States by former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev.

Qambar, however, in an interview published in the online daily on May 25 rejected all suggestions that either he or his party have been weakened by successive defeats in the 2003 presidential, the 2005 parliamentary elections, and the repeat elections on May 11 in 10 constituencies.

'Normal Democratic Processes'?

He claimed that none of those ballots was free and fair, and that the outcome was exclusively the result of vote rigging on the part of the authorities to deprive Musavat of its rightful victory.

Former Musavat First Deputy Chairman Vurgun Eyyub (Turan file photo)

In a second interview two weeks later with the news agency, Qambar rejected the suggestion that his party was "in crisis" and its leadership deeply divided. He claimed that "normal democratic processes" were under way within the party, and refused to identify his preferred candidate for the position of Mezhlis chairman.

In contrast, Hikmet Hacizade, a longstanding and respected Musavat member, admitted in a July 10 interview with that the ongoing "crisis" within the Musavat party only serves to substantiate the impression of some outside observers that the activities of Azerbaijan's democrats are confined to "intrigues, bragging, trips abroad, and attending receptions at foreign embassies."

Meanwhile, Musavat has announced that it will not field candidates in the repeat municipal elections scheduled for this fall.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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