Baku, 17 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- With the first round of balloting in the Armenian presidential elections completed on Monday, attention is turning to the other major presidential race in the Caucasus this year -- in Azerbaijan.
Former Soviet Politburo member Heydar Aliyev, who was hired by Leonid Brezhnev and retired by Mikhail Gorbachev, took over the helm of Azerbaijan in its darkest days in 1993. This was after the Azerbaijani military crumbled as Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh separatist forces overran Azeri territories surrounding the one-time enclave and threatened to lay waste to Azerbaijan's second largest city Gyandzha.
The country's democratically elected president, Abulfaz Elchibey, went into exile in the Nakhichevan enclave on the border with Iran and Turkey. Aliyev set about solidifying power. He announced last month he will run for reelection in early October. Aliyev will be 75 years old in May.
Recently published official statistics show that, by local standards, the Azerbaijani economy is faring well. Gross Domestic Product grew last year by 5.8 percent over the previous year's level. Per capita GDP rose from $420 in 1996 to $506 in 1997. Foreign investment in Azerbaijan nearly doubled last year to $1.2 billion, of which more than half, $784 million was invested in the oil sector.
However, Azeris of all political persuasions point out that 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory is occupied by ethnic Armenian troops of the Nagorno-Karabakh army, and that 12 percent of the country's population, 850,000 people, are refugees or displaced persons.
The chairman of President Aliyev's Department for Social Policy, Ali Hasanov, says that Azerbaijan's elections will be fair.
In Hasanov's words: "I think President Heydar Aliyev is more interested than any other candidate in the elections being conducted democratically because his standing at the moment is far ahead of any of the others."
Hasanov says, too: "Azerbaijan has chosen a course to become a democratic state -- no one has forced us to take this path of development."
As he puts it: "We chose it ourselves because our nation needs it. We could have taken the Islamic path, but we chose the democratic path, the road to a market economy."
Whatever the path is called, public anger at widespread corruption at the highest level could cost Aliyev many votes, but probably will not cost him the election.
Most domestic political observers in Baku would agree with Hasanov that Aliyev will win even if the elections are free and democratic. Yet he has no shortage of opponents.
Aliyev's dismissal last month of Foreign Minister Hasan Hasanov for misappropriating a $10 million loan from Turkey and building a luxury hotel and casino with money earmarked to house the diplomatic corps does not appear to have succeeded in restoring his own image, tarnished by the affair.
The head of one of the main opposition parties, Isa Gambar, who chairs the Musavat party, predicts Hasanov's dismissal will come back to haunt Aliyev in the October presidential elections.
Gambar says this: "In Azerbaijan, power is completely corrupt, the regime is totally corrupt and this shows the influence on all spheres of life in Azerbaijani society."
In Gambar's words: "Current authorities in Azerbaijan are interested only in economic enrichment."
He says that in comparison to their attitudes in past years, the authorities, including some Aliyev family members, have become increasingly afraid to admit their corruption.
Gambar says Hasanov's arrest is an enormous blow to Azerbaijan's prestige internationally.
"This scandal would be enough for the whole government to resign in any normal country because terrible facts have emerged that Azeri authorities misused a credit and after Heydar Aliyev's son was mixed up in gambling business to cover several outstanding debts."
Gambar is highly critical of what Aliyev has done to the parliament.
Gambar says: "Azerbaijan's parliament functions like an addition to the presidential aparat. It hardly makes any decisions on its own. Almost all bills are prepared either by the presidential aparat. Out of 125 MPs, only one is a member of our party." Gambar says that if normal parliamentary elections were to be held, Musavat would emerge as the largest parliamentary faction. The next elections are scheduled for 2000.
Gambar says it would be sensible to have a single presidential candidate representing Azerbaijan's democratic opposition forces. He says he should be that candidate.
As Gambar puts it, "If you ignore the heavily exaggerated figures put out by (Aliyev's) New Azerbaijan Party, then Musavat is currently the biggest party in Azerbaijan in terms of members and the electorate who support our party."
Aliyev's spokesman (Ali Hasanov) says the Hasan Hasanov affair is not part of any organized corruption but rather an isolated case "involving the guilt of a single, concrete person, in this case, Hasan Hasanov, who took advantage of his position." The spokesman says Aliyev has actively fought against corruption "his entire life." The spokesman denies the existence of any sort of clan, saying what exists in Azerbaijan is no different from anywhere else -- a "team" of people whom the president trusts and to whom he delegates authority.
Former president Elchibey returned to Baku last autumn from exile in Nakhichevan at the urging of his own opposition party, the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. The National Front differs only slightly from Musavat, mainly in tactics rather than ideology and like Musavat, it claims to be the largest opposition party in the country. Soon after his return, Elchibey unofficially launched his presidential campaign, announcing he would participate in the next presidential elections.
The National Front Party's first deputy chairman, Ali Kerimov, is one of just seven opposition MPs in parliament.
Kerimov says: "All previous elections were falsified and the law violated except in 1992 when six candidates ran, including the chairman of the National Front, Abulfaz Elchibey, who won. There is no certainty that these new elections will be democratic because for democratic elections to be held in Azerbaijan, democratic conditions first have to be established. But unfortunately I cannot say that in Azerbaijan there is any opportunity for fair and equal competition."
"Not only are the rights of every citizen being violated in Azerbaijan but the rights of members of parliament are also being ignored. I am an MP from the opposition but I can not meet with my voters who invite me to a meeting."
Kerimov says the opposition is denied access to the airwaves and all newspapers are subject to pre-publication censorship.
In his words: "If these conditions continue, there is no way the elections can be considered democratic."
Kerimov points out that before the Hasanov case surfaced, several other members of the government were accused of corruption. He says even the government commission which audited the distribution of humanitarian aid came to the conclusion that many government officials diverted foreign aid.
Kerimov says: "This is not the first or last such broad-scale case of corruption in the Azerbaijani government and the fact that Hasan Hasanov, an influential member of the government, faces criminal prosecution, confirms our allegations that the majority of cabinet members are corrupt and corruption in this government is supported at the cabinet level."
He says: "Such violations of the law do not happen by accident." He notes that the Finance and Defense ministries have accused each other of embezzlement.
The third major opposition party is the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, headed by Professor Laula Shofket. Shofket resigned from the post of state secretary in December 1993 to protest Aliyev's dismantling of the country's democratic institutions. The Liberal Party was founded in June 1995 in the refugee-filled town of Berde, near the Karabakh front lines.
The Liberal Party's deputy chairman, Zakir Mamedov, holds out little hope for fair elections in October.
In Mamedov's words: "It is very doubtful the elections will be democratic."
He says: "In 1995, in the last parliamentary elections, the political parties wanted the elections to be conducted democratically but police batons against us proved to be much stronger. The current leadership conducted the elections as they saw fit. The winners were already decided one month before the elections."
As Mamedov puts it: "It shows what a nightmare this is"
Mamedov says the Liberals intend to nominate their chairman, Laula Shofket, as the opposition presidential candidate. But Shofket is unacceptable to some Azeris for her harsh statements in the past about Elchibey. She once referred to him as a "monkey in a suit."
As Mamedov puts it: "Other parties will nominate their leaders but I think today, political parties have to work out a mechanism."
He too believes corruption is a major issue, noting that some 70 to 80 percent of MPs in the current parliament are "People from a single clan." That is, "Aliyev's people" -- many from his native Nakhichevan or else 'arrivals' from Armenia.
In Mamedov's words: "Today, corruption leads to the highest levels of power and the current leadership must give an accounting"
Meanwhile, Mamedov says, Aliyev monopolizes the TV airwaves. He is turning Azerbaijan, Mamedov says, into a "country of concerts and jubilees."
Aliyev is, Mamedov says, "Solidifying the personality cult." Aliyev's portrait and quotations adorn billboards all over the country.
The Liberal Party's head of external policy, Rashad Rezaguliev, puts it even more succinctly:
In Rezaguliev's words: "At present in Azerbaijan, the ideology, the leadership, is a cleptocracy."
He says: "We are led by a tribal nomenklatura -- a bureaucracy which above all links its own interests with whatever it can extract from this country and sooner or later this has to reflect on the country's image."
Rezaguliev predicts that once Aliyev leaves the political stage, the country will face a very painful transition that may well involve bloodshed. As a result, the opposition parties' basic goal should be in his words, "To ensure a peaceful, less bloody transition to a normal, civilized framework, to a normal civil society."
Those outside the mainstream opposition parties share similarly dark views about what lies ahead.
The editor-in-chief of one of Azerbaijan's leading opposition dailies, Azadliq, says it is doubtful that what will happen in October could be termed genuine democratic elections. The editor, Gunduz Tairli, says Aliyev will remain in office as long as his health allows.
In Tairli's words: "No chance exists for the victory of an opposition candidate."
Tairli says 90 percent of members of parliament belong to Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party, having been chosen to support Aliyev and be obedient even in extreme situations. He describes them as, in his phrase: the "bearers of clanism in Azerbaijan."
Former dissident Nadir Agayev, who upon his release in 1990 had spent 18 years in Soviet prisons and mental hospitals, predicts that more than half the electorate will not vote since the leadership and the opposition parties do not enjoy the nation's trust. He says they deceived and robbed many innocent people.
In Agayev's Words: "As long as Heydar Aliyev is around, there will not be an opposition, because they have their people in the opposition. They are all in this together."
Agayev says that an honest opposition never lets itself be pushed aside.
A decorated disabled veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Lt.-Colonel Shakin Tagiev, who was awarded the title "National Hero of Azerbaijan," dismisses Aliyev's claims of democracy.
Tagiev says: "In the 20th century, there have been three fascists: Hitler, Pinochet and the last is Heydar Aliyev."
He says: "Currently Azerbaijan is in very bad shape. I do not know where this nation is heading. There will be presidential elections and he will be president because his desire is to be president until he dies and as long as he is president we in Azerbaijan will suffer. We will rot in prison. We will be tormented by the police."
Tagiev points out that Aliyev was a KGB general. He says that the Aliyev government is what he calls an "Azeri KGB regime."
As the war hero puts it, no party can currently be trusted.