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Caucasus Report: August 15, 2003

15 August 2003, Volume 6, Number 29

AZERBAIJANI POLICE WARN AGAINST ATTEMPTS AT DESTABILIZATION. Up to 20,000 Azerbaijanis braved temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius on 9 August, taking to the streets of Baku to protest the appointment five days earlier of President Heidar Aliev's son Ilham as prime minister.

On 11 August, the leaders of the nine opposition parties aligned in the Opposition Coordinating Center (MKM) met to assess the success of the 9 August rally, one of the largest in recent months, and to schedule daily protests both in Baku and other towns across the country starting on 13 August. Possibly in response to that development, on 11 August the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office issued a joint statement in which they warned that they will act resolutely to curtail any "negative developments that threaten the interests of the state." The following day, police armed with rubber truncheons forcibly dispersed several separate small groups of opposition protesters who tried to picket the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court buildings in Baku.

Those protests involved only a few dozen opposition activists. But commentators writing in suggest that there is a large untapped reserve of support for the opposition both in Baku and outside. The paper claimed that some participants in the 9 August protest had urged its organizers, without success, to diverge from the approved route and march to the center of the city.

In addition, activists from the nine MKM member parties in two rural districts have issued an ultimatum to those opposition party leaders who have succeeded in formally registering as candidates in the presidential election scheduled for 15 October. The activists asked the party leaders to close ranks behind a single opposition candidate to challenge the incumbent Aliyev (assuming he does not withdraw from the race because of his failing health) and his son Ilham.

For months, three of the most influential opposition leaders -- Isa Gambar (Musavat party), Etibar Mamedov (Azerbaijan National Independence Party) and Ali Kerimli (Azerbaijan Popular Front Party progressive wing) -- have affirmed that they support in principle the idea of a single opposition candidate. Gambar and Mamedov both clearly hope to be selected in that capacity, and observers doubt that either would step down in favor of the other. Kerimli, in contrast, has stated that he would be prepared to do so -- but as of 14 August, the Central Election Commission (CEC) had not ruled on whether the minimum 45,000 of the 50,856 signatures that he submitted on 5 August in support of his registration as a presidential candidate are valid.

At a further meeting on 14 August, Kerimli argued that the opposition should reach consensus without delay on backing a single candidate, and that the leaders of opposition parties should start travelling to rural areas and "try to mobilize the people against the authorities." Civic Solidarity Party leader Sabir Rustamkahnli, whose registration to contest the ballot the CEC rejected on 14 August, told the same meeting: "The authorities are united. But people can see that the opposition is split up into several groupings and parties, each of which wants to see only its own leader as president and no one else. We have still not managed to prove to society that we are ready to form a single team and take responsibility for the future of the country. Only once we have done so will we be able to mobilize society."

Meanwhile on 15 August, in response to a query from the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Constitutional Court annulled the controversial addition to the Election Code stipulating that in the event of the death or resignation of the incumbent president, scheduled elections must be cancelled and a new presidential ballot scheduled within three months. Observers note that the inclusion of that provision at the last minute during the third and final reading of the Election Code in June (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 June 2003) was intended as an insurance policy against the president's sudden demise. Now, however, the authorities have no interest in launching a new election campaign, especially as doing so would necessitate having to refuse registration yet again to those would-be opposition candidates they consider a threat, including former parliament speaker and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Rasul Guliev and former President Ayaz Mutalibov. (Liz Fuller)

COUNCIL OF EUROPE TO SEND FACT-FINDING TEAM TO ARMENIA. The Council of Europe announced on 14 August that it will send its first fact-finding mission to Armenia on 20 August since this year's presidential and parliamentary elections, which it criticized as deeply flawed.

A statement issued from Strasbourg said two members of the council's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) will "assess the state of Armenia's honoring of the commitments it made on joining the Council of Europe in 2001" during four days of meetings with President Robert Kocharian, senior law-enforcement and government officials, top parliamentarians, and leaders of the opposition. The PACE officials, Jerzy Jaskiernia of Poland and Rene Andre of France, will also meet representatives of civic organizations, media and national minorities, the statement said.

The visit will take place one month before the autumn session of the assembly, which is expected to hold further discussions on the Armenian authorities' handling of the 2003 elections. PACE discussed the issue at its summer session in June, threatening to strip its Armenian members of voting rights over instances of fraud reported by its election observers. The latter have proposed placing Armenia under a regime of permanent Council of Europe monitoring as a way of ensuring its compliance with the organization's democracy standards.

The Armenian authorities are trying to forestall Council of Europe sanctions by promising to reform the country's electoral legislation in cooperation with the main opposition parties. The new four-member Armenian delegation at PACE, named by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, includes a prominent opposition figure, Shavarsh Kocharian.

The findings of Jaskiernia and Andre will therefore be important for Armenia's standing in the authoritative human rights organization. (Emil Danielyan)

NEW LEADER VOWS TO REBUILD ARMENIAN COMMUNIST PARTY. The new leader of the Armenian Communist Party (HKK) pledged on 11 August to draw lessons from its disastrous showing in the May elections in which it failed to win a single seat in parliament. Ruben Tovmasian, 67, admitted the existence of major "shortcomings" inside his once influential party one day after the HKK Central Committee elected him to replace Vladimir Darpinian as its first secretary. Speaking to RFE/RL, Tovmasian said the Communists committed unspecified "blunders" during the election campaign and need to change their position on some issues. He would not say what those changes will be.

The HKK was relegated to the sidelines of Armenian political life after polling, according to official figures, only 2.5 percent of the vote in the 25 May ballot. That is far below the 5 percent threshold for entering parliament on the party list basis. The staunchly pro-Russian party, which advocates restoration of state control over the economy, had polled an average of 10 percent in the presidential and parliamentary elections of the late 1990s.

In recent years, the HKK has been seriously weakened by a serious of splits inside its leadership that spawned several splinter groups. Those tiny parties, also heavily defeated in the 25 May vote, are now ready to reunite with the HKK on equal terms. But Tovmasian ruled out any reconciliation with their leaders, indicating that he will not accept from them anything short of full repentance.

Tovmasian also insisted that his party will remain in "radical opposition" to the ruling regime. But at the same time, he said that it will not coordinate its actions with Armenia's two main opposition forces: the Artarutiun (Justice) alliance of Stepan Demirchian and the National Unity Party led by Artashes Geghamian.

Some Artarutiun leaders have previously accused the HKK leadership of secretly collaborating with the Armenian authorities. Darpinian, its former first secretary, consistently denied such allegations. (Hrach Melkumian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK: "There is no way the policy of the Minsk Group can result in a settlement of the [Karabakh] conflict." -- Azerbaijani National Security Minister Namik Abbasov, in an interview published in "Ekho" on 9 August.