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Azerbaijan Report: April 5, 2004

5 April 2004
Experts Call On Opposition For More Active Participation In Municipal Elections
International institutions continue diligently criticizing serious vote fraud in the last presidential and parliamentary elections, calling on the Azerbaijani government to spare no effort for free and fair elections. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission has now recommended changing the composition of the pro-government Central Election Commission (CEC), dominated by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP).

As early as before the 15 October presidential vote, both international institutions and the opposition were dissatisfied with the composition of the commission. In fact, the proposed form was chosen temporarily as a compromise version, and the commission was formed hurriedly in the run-up to the elections. At present the CEC gives six seats to the ruling YAP, six seats to opposition parties in parliament, three seats to the pro-government "independent" parties in parliament, and three seats to the opposition not represented in parliament.

According to Eldar Ismailov of the domestic monitoring organization For the Sake of Civil Society, the principles of the formation of the commission do not meet international standards. Human rights activist Murad Sadeddinov recalls that it was not the first time the Venice Commission and the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights make recommendations in this regard. In March 2003, several months before the presidential elections, they voiced similar advice.

Experts say that the Venice Commission's demand this time could be linked to the upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections. Rauf Mirgadirov of the independent newspaper "Zerkalo" suggests that one of the reasons why the presidential elections were not held democratically in accordance with European standards is because of the improper formation of election commissions. Mirgadirov says that now all efforts must be directed at guaranteeing fair voting and vote-counting procedures at polling stations. This is very important, at least for the representation of the opposition in parliament and on the municipal-level in the next elections. But Mirgadirov thinks that many things will depend on the opposition's activity and the position of international institutions calling for reforms.

Some observers refer the Venice Commission's recommendations as a step designed to revive the local opposition, which cannot "come to itself" after last October, and push it toward the next elections. "After the latest presidential elections, unfortunately, it is international organizations and leading Western countries that play the role of the opposition in the country. The opposition still cannot get out of shock," Mirgadirov said. "The opposition must at least develop a common stance and try to change of the composition of election commissions. Because primarily this is in its interests. Nobody wants to attach importance to municipal elections that possess no special authorities. Though, this is may be of the benefit to the opposition," Mirgadirov concluded.

But Murad Sadeddinov thinks differently. He urges that the modification of the CEC composition will serve not only the interests of the opposition, but also the interests of Azerbaijan as a whole. The matter concerns not the opposition, but how much Azerbaijan is a democratic country and whether it is interested in meeting its engagements before international organizations.

Meanwhile, CEC head Mazahir Panahov has accused the local media and opposition parties of greatly exaggerating the significance of the recommendations from international institutions. "International groups could submit their suggestions. But as an independent country, Azerbaijan acts according to its national interests, not advice from these groups," Panahov said.

(Shahnaz Beilergizi and Natig Zeinalov)

Could Military Operations Be Resumed?
The situation surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh problem seems to be becoming aggravated again. During U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to Baku, even official circles voiced caution about the possible liberation of the Armenian occupied territories by forcible means.

Defense Minister Safar Abiev said that Azerbaijan was always ready to liberate its occupied territories by force. It is not the first time Abiev has voiced such an opinion. Not only the defense minister, even President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly noted that if peace negotiations fail, Azerbaijan would use force to restore its territorial integrity. But now these statements sound somewhat different in comparison with previous ones. The peace negotiations have been practically stopped in recent months and the latest meeting between the two countries' officials on the Karabakh problem has been postponed indefinitely due to a lack of new suggestions. Besides, the killing of an Armenian military officer in Budapest by an Azerbaijani officer has further worsened attitudes.

When it joined the Council of Europe, Baku assumed obligations to solve the Karabakh problem by peaceful means. In addition, a high-ranking official from the U.S. Armed Forces Command in Europe warned during his visit to Armenia recently that if war breaks out, the United States would impose sanctions against both Baku and Yerevan. But former Foreign Minister Tofig Zulfugarov does not think that these factors are enough to restrain the conflicting sides from resorting to violence.

Economist Nazim Imanov is also in earnest about Baku's intention to go to war. He says that Azerbaijan far surpasses Armenia in economic development and this gives Baku an advantage in financial resources to resume military operations.

But how would foreign companies and transnational corporations, which have invested billions of dollars in Azerbaijan, react to the resumption of the war? Political scientist Zardusht Alizade thinks that foreign companies generally disregard the government's statements to launch a war.

(Rovshen Ganbarov)

U.S.-Azerbaijani Military Cooperation: Different Views
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Ramsfeld's visit to Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani defense minister's visit to the United States testify to the level of development of military cooperation between the two countries lately. But how will such a development of relations affect Azerbaijan? On one hand, such collaboration may have a positive effect in terms of cementing the sovereignty from Russia, but on the other hand, it may arouse irritation among some neighboring countries.

"The recent visit of high-ranking U.S. military officers to Azerbaijan, as well the one of Azerbaijani Defense Ministry Safar Abiev to the United States signifies a new stage in the cooperation between the two countries," according to former adviser on foreign affairs Vafa Guluzade. In 1999 Guluzade, still an adviser, called for NATO bases in Azerbaijan and now he says that the expansion of military cooperation between the two countries is of benefit to Azerbaijan, as in this way it protects itself from Russian influence.

But Guluzade does not think that the U.S. military presence in Azerbaijan would someway affect positively the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. According to him, this problem mainly depends on the Azerbaijani leadership and its will. On the other hand, the solution to the problem will be possible only when the Russian lever of influence over the region wanes and pro-Russian forces in Armenia are ousted from power.

Political scientist Zardusht Alizade welcomes the U.S.-Azerbaijani military partnership. But he warns that the alleged arrival of U.S. soldiers to Azerbaijan may cause great problems for Baku.

According to Zardusht Alizade, by displaying interest in military cooperation with the United States, the Azerbaijani government seeks somehow to neutralize and soften the pressure it faces because of the sad plight of democracy in the country.

But former Defense Minister Tajaddin Mehdiev does not believe that the cooperation between Baku and Washington in the defense area will produce any negative consequences. He says that as the relations with Russia are normal, Baku will only benefit by this balanced policy.

(Rovshen Ganbarov)

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)