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Caucasus Report: December 22, 2006

December 22, 2006, Volume 9, Number 42

FRAGMENTED AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PONDERS OPTIONS. Over the past 12 years, Azerbaijan's various fractious opposition parties have failed time and again to join forces to pose a strong, united, and cohesive alternative to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party. RFE/RL regional analyst Liz Fuller looks at the reasons why.

Partly as a result of individual opposition party leaders' reluctance to subordinate their personal ambitions to the greater opposition cause, but also partly due to ballot stuffing and other blatant procedural violations, the opposition suffered three successive crushing defeats in the parliamentary elections of 1995, 2000, and 2005.

In 2000, official returns gave opposition candidates only 15 of the 125 parliament mandates, and in 2005, 21. By contrast, the unofficial Center for Election Monitoring reportedly calculated on the basis of its own data that the opposition Azadliq bloc alone won 40 seats.

In the wake of the disputed 2005 ballot, some opposition deputies demonstratively refused to take up their mandates in protest at perceived massive falsification. Several other nominally opposition deputies who do participate in the work of the legislature are widely regarded as in cahoots with the authorities.

Nor have opposition candidates fared any better in successive presidential ballots. Several opposition leaders boycotted the 1998 presidential election, in which official returns gave incumbent President Heydar Aliyev 76.11 percent of the vote compared to 11.6 percent for his closest challenger, Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) Chairman Etibar Mammadov.

Failing health prevented Aliyev from running for a third term, but his son Ilham won the October 2003 presidential ballot, again with 76 percent of the vote. Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar finished a distant second with 13.97 percent, followed by independent candidate Lale Sovket-Haciyeva (3.62 percent), and AMIP's Mammadov (2.92 percent). Four other candidates polled 1 percent or less.

As with previous ballots, international observers dubbed the vote as failing to meet international standards for free and fair elections. Police in Baku used violence against Musavat supporters who gathered to protest Qambar's apparent defeat, claiming that he was, in fact, the victor.

Following the 2003 presidential election, observers in Baku predicted the emergence of a new political force that they anticipated would replace an "old" opposition widely perceived to be a spent force.

One of the opposition figures touted as a possible rallying figure -- former presidential adviser Eldar Namazov -- aligned in 2005 with other opposition leaders of disparate political views, including Mammadov and exiled former President Ayaz Mutallibov, to form the Yeni Siyaset (New Politics, aka YeS) bloc. However, YeS won only two parliament mandates in the November parliamentary election, and suspended its activities in the summer of 2006.

A second election bloc, Azadliq, which united the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA), and the Musavat party, effectively collapsed in February 2006, when Musavat defied its partners' proclaimed boycott and decided to participate in the work of the new legislature.

The collapse of Azadliq and subsequent acrimonious infighting within both Musavat and the Democratic Party was met with undisguised schadenfreude on the part of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP). Senior members of that party have dwelt at length in interviews in recent months on what they consider the opposition's weaknesses and failures.

For example, YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanli said in a November 17 interview with the website that the opposition is incapable of putting forward any convincing and palatable alternative to the policies currently being implemented by the Azerbaijani leadership, and is therefore losing popular support.

He accused unnamed opposition politicians of resorting to "populist slogans and baseless slander" in a fruitless attempt to blacken the authorities and in a competition among themselves to be acknowledged as "the most radical opposition party." But even though a political opposition is a "normal attribute" of a democratic society, Gurbanli continued, "we shall not create an opposition artificially."

Opposition politicians were dismayed and embittered by the international community's lukewarm condemnation of the rigging of the 2005 parliamentary ballot. (The OSCE Monitoring Mission noted that election officials blatantly juggled figures in favor of YAP in 43 percent of precincts where their monitors were present for the vote count.)

That Western failure to express support for the Azerbaijani opposition was all the more painful when contrasted with the West's enthusiastic support of the Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004. Democratic Party First Deputy Secretary Sardar Calaloglu, for example, accused the West of "betraying democracy" in Azerbaijan.

That collective sense of impotence and frustration among opposition party leaders was compounded by restrictions throughout the year on the holding of opposition rallies, and most recently by the eviction on November 24, 2006, of the AHCP progressive wing and the editorial staff of the newspaper "Azadliq" (which began publication 17 years as the AHCP organ) from the premises in central Baku that they had occupied for the past decade.

The following day, AHCP progressive wing Chairman Ali Kerimli and Liberal Party leader Haciyeva proposed drawing international attention to the absence of normal conditions for the functioning of either opposition parties or opposition media by suspending indefinitely the activities of both, reported on December 5. Democratic Party First Deputy Chairman Calaloglu expressed support for that proposal, but Musavat and AMIP reportedly rejected it.

Mehman Aliyev (no relation to the president), director of the news agency Turan that was evicted from the same building that housed "Azadliq" and the AHCP, argued that despite the constraints on opposition activity, the opposition should not adopt the "emotional decision" to suspend its activities.

Both Aliyev and Musavat argued that the opposition should instead align in a broad-based "resistance movement" that would coordinate its activities more closely, and reported on November 27 and 28, respectively. But opposition parliament deputy Panah Huseynov was quoted on December 5 by the daily "Ayna/Zerkalo" as saying mutual distrust, insincerity, and fundamental disagreements continue to preclude closer cooperation between the various opposition forces.

In early December, Calaloglu addressed an open letter to President Aliyev, again raising the possibility, which the opposition had floated earlier, of establishing a National Forum in which political parties, NGOs, the media, trade unions, and possibly also leading government figures would participate.

Azerbaijani media construed that proposal as a direct call for dialogue between the opposition and the ruling authorities. So too did the president, who responded on December 7 that "I have said many times that we are ready for political dialogue," which would serve the country's interests.

At the same time, Aliyev slammed the opposition for acting in what he termed a "destructive" and "uncivilized" fashion and for resorting to "threats, illegal actions and attempts to destabilize the situation," reported on December 8.

Calaloglu then explained to journalists on December 12 that his proposal was to convene a forum that would be capable of proposing solutions to unspecified "national problems." At the same time, he stressed that the opposition is not against dialogue with the authorities and is ready to participate in such an exchange at any time. Calaloglu went on to identify as the main obstacle to such a dialogue unnamed pro-Russian politicians in both the opposition and the government camps who, he claimed, wish not merely to prevent a rapprochement between the two sides, but to provoke a major political and economic crisis.

Whether Calaloglu seriously believed the authorities would agree to his proposal -- or whether he counted on a refusal that the opposition could subsequently adduce to substantiate their argument that the leadership has no interest in promoting democratization -- is unclear.

Previous initiatives, such as the OSCE-mediated roundtable discussions between YAP and several opposition parties in the early summer of 2005, collapsed due to bickering over what issues should be addressed and Azadliq's failure to send representatives. (Liz Fuller)

THE PARANOIA OF ARMENIAN POLITICS. Much of the recent political developments in Armenia have been dominated by two main themes -- the ongoing mediation of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh and the approaching electoral cycle. Neither of these two themes represents anything new for Armenian politics.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains locked in a seemingly endless series of talks and meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials, fueled by an occasional outburst of enthusiasm, only to be followed by yet another diplomatic setback or lost opportunity. And just as predictably, a series of tactical maneuvers, most often obscured by the opaque and murky nature of Armenian politics, routinely define the months leading up to elections in Armenia.

From a broader perspective, and for much of the past 15 years of Armenia's independence, politics have been largely confined to an ever narrowing set of issues, with little debate and even more limited discourse. Within the increasingly restricted political parameters, democratization has become disabled. This too is nothing new for Armenia.

Yet there has been an interesting shift in Armenian politics in recent weeks, marked by a convergence between the politics of Armenian nationalism and the paranoia of Armenian politicians.

This shift first emerged with the arrest and subsequent deportation of a prominent veteran of the Karabakh war. The authorities charged Lebanese-born Zhirair Sefilian, and his associate Vartan Malkasian, with plotting the violent overthrow of the Armenian leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 12, 2006). The incident sparked immediate suspicion and apprehension, with some charging a conspiracy, linking the arrest to rumors of a possible breakthrough peace deal with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

According to this line of reasoning, the motivation for the arrest was driven by the politics of nationalism, compounded by the paranoia of politicians. But this presupposes one essential, and specific, variable -- a looming peace deal. Only in such a case could the arrest be seen as a preemptive move to deflect dissent and overcome opposition. The key question, however, remains: is there really such a pending deal on Nagorno-Karabakh?

The more realistic understanding of the arrest lies in a broader context. It is the broader perspective that reveals a more general paranoia of politicians, unrelated to any sense of nationalist politics. In this way, the arrest and deportation of Sefilian was actually preceded by a similar incident, only weeks before.

In early December, the Armenian authorities deported an ethnic Armenian activist from the predominantly Armenian-populated southern Georgian region of Djavakheti to Georgia. The activist, Vahagn Chakhalian, a leader of the United Djavakhk organization campaigning for regional autonomy, was first arrested in October, just hours after he, his parents, brother, and fellow activist Gurgen Shirinian were reportedly stopped and attacked as they arrived in Yerevan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20 and December 5, 2006).

The linkage between the arrests and later deportations of both men is based on more than tactics or techniques, however. Both cases demonstrate that it is the paranoia of the political elite that is driving the most recent political developments in Armenia. Both men posed a threat, not in terms of the politics of nationalism, but more as a perceived threat to paranoid politicians.

Yet what is most ironic is the pronounced and misplaced paranoia among the political elite. The real threat to their power comes not from anything that these people could or would do prior to elections. The real threat stems from the elections themselves, as the political elite still seems unable to realize that the May 2007 and 2008 election are the true challenges, to them and to the country. And until the ruling elite recognizes the necessity for improved elections, arrests and deportations will do little to ensure stability and security in Armenia. (Richard Giragosian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I am not altogether sure that Russia is heading in the right direction. We need to see a firmer commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the market economy. We do not want Russia to go in an authoritarian direction. We are fully entitled to be concerned at the way things are going in Russia." -- Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, addressing the European Parliament on December 15.