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Caucasus Report: August 29, 2003

29 August 2003, Volume 6, Number 31

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTIES AGREE ON TACTICS, BUT NOT ON JOINT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE. Following Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's 4 August appointment of his son Ilham as prime minister, popular pressure on the Azerbaijani opposition to field a single candidate to challenge whichever of the two Alievs runs as the candidate of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party in the 15 October presidential elections has increased. But talks in London on 23-24 August between the leaders of Azerbaijan's four main opposition parties -- Isa Gambar (Musavat Party), Etibar Mamedov (Azerbaijan National Independence Party, or AMIP), Ali Kerimli (Azerbaijan Popular Front Party [AHCP] reformist wing) and Rasul Guliev (Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, or ADR)-- failed to yield a consensus on backing a single presidential candidate, although the four men did sign three separate agreements on pre- and post-election cooperation.

The idea of a single opposition presidential candidate was first floated in early 2002, when Gambar proposed selecting that candidate by means of U.S.-style primaries. But while endorsing that possibility in theory, most opposition leaders have at the same time made clear that they are not prepared to withdraw in favor of a rival. In April 2003, human rights activist Leyla Yunusova urged the opposition to select a single presidential candidate, but reactions were again cautiously noncommittal.

Two months later, in early June, Kerimli again called on fellow opposition leaders to close ranks under the slogan "One single team, one single candidate, one single platform." And at a meeting in Baku on 14 June, Gambar, Mamedov, and Kerimli agreed that their respective parties, together with Guliev's ADR, would field a joint presidential candidate, but did not say who that candidate would be (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2003). But all three men still went ahead and applied to contest the ballot, and were among the 12 presidential candidates finally registered. Guliev was denied registration on the grounds that he left Azerbaijan in 1996 and now has permanent residency in the U.S.

Ilham Aliev's appointment as prime minister lent a new urgency to the discussions on the need for a single candidate, as some grassroots opposition activists issued an ultimatum to party leaders to agree on a single presidential candidate or risk forfeiting their support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 2003). Mamedov was quoted on 6 August by as acknowledging that public pressure on the opposition to agree on a single candidate exists, and that he and his fellow opposition leaders should heed such demands.

Gambar, Kerimli, and Mamedov duly met in London on 23-24 August with Guliev to discuss various aspects of election strategy, including backing a single opposition presidential candidate. (London was chosen because Guliev faces criminal charges of embezzlement in Azerbaijan.) But no consensus on a single candidate was reached. Gambar was quoted by on 29 August as saying three of the four men were unanimous on the choice of candidate but the fourth, whose identity he declined to reveal, disagreed. That formulation implies that Gambar blames Mamedov for failing to step down in favor of Gambar, as Kerimli has repeatedly stated that he is prepared to bow out of the race if other opposition leaders agree on a single candidate. Gambar told journalists in Baku on 28 August, however, that "I have no problems with Etibar Mamedov. And I do not think he has any problems with me." Kerimli for his part has signed a cooperation agreement with Mamedov, which makes it unlikely that he would support Gambar rather than Mamedov; and Guliev has nothing to gain by vetoing an agreement reached by the other three.

Mamedov similarly told journalists on his return from London that "we were very close to determining a single candidate, but nonetheless we narrowly failed" to reach a consensus, according to on 27 August. He said that the number of opposition candidates may be cut to two in the course of the election campaign, implying that Kerimli will indeed withdraw his candidacy in Mamedov's favor.

On 27 August, reported that during the London talks, Gambar also rejected a proposal to postpone a decision on backing a single candidate until the end of September. The same online paper quoted Gambar on 29 August as saying the failure to reach agreement on a single opposition presidential candidate should not be regarded as "a tragedy." He added that "the most important thing at this stage is to create democratic conditions" in Azerbaijan. The election bloc "Our Azerbaijan," which proposed Gambar as its presidential candidate, issued a statement on 25 August reaffirming its support for him and arguing that he is the most appropriate choice for the opposition's joint candidate.

Some observers, however, question the entire rationale for fielding a single opposition candidate, at least from among the opposition leaders vying for that honor. While many have stressed that reaching agreement on a single candidate would demonstrate that the various opposition leaders are ready to abandon personal ambitions in the interests of ridding the country of a regime they perceive as incompetent and corrupt, it has been pointed out that no opposition party leader is acceptable to all voters who are not prepared to back either Heidar Aliyev or his son.

In an analysis published last November -- long before the start of the presidential election campaign -- R. Mirkadyrov, who is a political commentator for "Zerkalo," pointed out that Guliev's main support base is among voters in and from Nakhichevan, while Mamedov's is Azerbaijanis resettled from Armenia. But both those groups of voters, for reasons that are unclear and possibly irrational, tend to distrust Gambar, whose appeal is otherwise more universal.

The London talks did, however, yield agreement among the four parties on election strategy and on policy in the event that an opposition candidate becomes the next president. The four agreed on the creation of a Union for Democratic Stability, the objectives of which, Mamedov told a Baku press conference on 25 August, are to hold legal and democratic elections in Azerbaijan, to organize a national resistance movement based on the constitutional right of the population to protest, to make the existing Election Code democratic in order to restore popular trust in the ongoing presidential election campaign, and to preclude "separatist tendencies" or compromise on issues that touch on national interests.

Also signed were two additional protocols. The first affirms the four men's joint support for whichever of the three leaders registered as election candidates advances to a putative second round, the second constitutes a framework program of measures to be implemented in the event that one of the three is elected president. The measures include democratization of Azerbaijan's constitution and laws, economic and social reform, and the formation of a broad-based government. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER DENIES DISCORD WITH COALITION PARTNERS. Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian denied on 29 August that his vocal interference in the Armenian government's activities does not sit well with the two parties making up the ruling coalition together with his Orinats Yerkir Party.

Baghdasarian insisted that he did nothing wrong when calling for a halt to the privatization of public hospitals (see "RFE/RL Newsline,"19, 21, and 22 August 2003) and did not claim credit for the parliament majority's plans to explore the possibility of compensating Soviet-era savings, devaluated by hyper-inflation in the early 1990s, and other decisions.

"The chairman of the National Assembly, like any other citizen of the Republic of Armenia, has the right to express his opinion," Baghdasarian told RFE/RL after a meeting with members of the National Academy of Sciences. He claimed that all of his statements were agreed with the coalition partners beforehand.

However, some leaders of the governing Republican Party (HHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), the third member of the coalition, privately accuse the 34-year-old speaker of scoring political points through populism. Dashnak leaders, for example, claim that the coalition decided to suspend the sale of state-owned medical facilities before Baghdasarian's extraordinary statement on the issue.

One leading HHD member, Armen Rustamian, told RFE/RL that leaders of the three governing parties should stick to the terms of their power-sharing agreement, in a thinly veiled rebuke to Baghdasarian. But Rustamian avoided openly criticizing him. He also claimed that the speaker's behavior would not be discussed at a meeting of the coalition's "coordinating council" which was due to take place later in the day.

The council comprises two representatives from each of the three parties. The HHK is represented by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian. Rustamian said he and another HHD member of the body will push for a decision authorizing emergency cabinet meetings on issues raised by one of the coalition partners. He said they will also demand discussions on the thorny subject of Turkish-Armenian relations.

The issue is potentially a divisive one, with the HHD making an improvement in relations with Turkey conditional on Ankara's recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide. The Republicans and Orinats Yerkir, by contrast, favor a softer line on Ankara and stand for the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border. Baghdasarian enraged the Dashnaks recently when he called for the creation of a "friendship group" of Turkish and Armenian parliamentarians.

The Orinats Yerkir leader underscored his active posture when he demanded that Armenia's prosecutor-general investigate alleged embezzlement of public funds, illegal privatization and other instances of corruption in the central Gegharkunik region which have been reported by parliament's Audit Chamber. The region has been governed by an Orinats Yerkir member, Stepan Barseghian, since June.

The move followed Baghdasarian's pledge to increase the chamber's hitherto insignificant role. He told members of the body last month to inspect various government agencies more frequently and thoroughly. (Ruzanna Stepanian and Armen Zakarian)

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL DEFENDS JAIL TERMS FOR LIBEL. Speaking at a 27 August media forum in Yerevan, Mikael Grigorian, a top aide to the chief of the Armenian Police Service, expressed strong opposition to the idea, which is advocated by local media watchdogs and international organizations, of decriminalizing libel offenses in Armenia. An article of the new Criminal Code makes defamation of character a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

That clause has been criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a "serious threat to freedom of expression." In a letter to parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian last June, the OSCE called for its abolition, saying that libel should regulated by civil, not criminal, law. Baghdasarian promised to amend the code in line with the European standards, but indicated subsequently that the controversial provision should not necessarily be scrapped.

Grigorian is one of the main authors of the Criminal Code, and his remarks suggest that the Armenian authorities are unlikely to agree to decriminalize libel. Responding to critics' concerns, he said: "The code does not restrict freedom of speech. On the contrary, it provides for the realization of that constitutional right."

A representative of international media watchdog Article 19, Julia Apostle, claimed the opposite, saying that the code is open to government abuse and can be used against journalists critical of the ruling regime. "If a judge abuses this provision, he can be punished," Grigorian countered. "Any irresponsible person, whether he is a judge or journalist, must be held accountable for his actions."

The Armenian libel legislation, a holdover from the Soviet era, stipulates that defamation does not have to be malicious and deliberate to be deemed a crime. But no Armenian journalist has so far been sent to jail for their reporting. (Karine Kalantarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The Kremlin made a huge mistake in supporting [Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji] Kadyrov, huge, one of the biggest mistakes of the modern presidency." -- Union of Rightist Forces leader Boris Nemtsov, quoted by "The Washington Post" on 25 August.

"The next parliament will be worse than the current [one]. The parliament of 1995 was better than that of 1999, and I am afraid the future parliament will be even worse. I have information that representatives of the criminal world plan to run for parliament this time." -- Georgian parliament deputy Elena Tevdoradze, quoted by "Rezonansi" on 27 August.