7 November 2003, Volume 6, Number 39
IS THE AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION A SPENT FORCE? The 15 October parliamentary elections resulted in a crushing blow to Azerbaijan's main opposition party leaders. Although international observers and the U.S. government expressed concern at widespread fraud and procedural violations, they ultimately endorsed the final results made public on 21 October by the Central Election Commission showing that Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev, the son of outgoing President Heidar Aliyev, was the clear winner with 76.84 percent of the vote, and that his closest challenger, opposition Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar, polled only 13.97 percent.
The clashes in Baku on 16 October between Qambar's disappointed supporters and police provided the Azerbaijani authorities with a convenient excuse for arresting opposition supporters suspected of participation in the violence. But the arrests were not confined to Baku: over a period of several days, hundreds of opposition supporters were rounded up across the country. Regional branches of Musavat, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP) (which concluded a coalition agreement with Musavat), and the conservative wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party were all targeted.
Azerbaijani officials blamed the post-election violence squarely on Musavat, and on Qambar personally. Mubariz Gurbanli, deputy chairman of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, was quoted by zerkalo.az on 28 October as saying he has "no doubts" that Qambar, whom he characterized as "the main director and sponsor" of the post-election violence in Baku, will soon be arrested. Following the Constitutional Court's endorsement of the election results, Qambar, who has been under virtual house arrest since 16 October, no longer enjoys immunity from arrest as a presidential candidate. The Baku municipal council demanded on 24 October that Musavat vacate within one week the offices it currently occupies, and to which electricity and telephone communications have been cut.
On 29 October, Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov laid part of the blame for the post-election violence on Qambar's coalition partner, ADP Chairman Rasul Guliev. Garalov alleged that Guliev urged his supporters to do all in their power to destabilize the political situation in the wake of the ballot.
Some commentators believe that, even if he avoids arrest and trial, Qambar is severely compromised in the eyes of the electorate. Many voters reportedly believe that if the opposition had closed ranks behind a single candidate, that candidate would have stood a better chance of victory, but that Qambar sabotaged all efforts to reach consensus on a single candidate, putting personal ambition before opposition unity and refusing to withdraw from the race. Writing in the online paper zerkalo.az on 25 October, Rauf Mirkadyrov pointed out that Qambar also made "an unforgivable mistake" by repeatedly affirming that he would win the ballot whatever measures the authorities took to prevent him. Such assertions, in tandem with Qambar's repeated insistence (for example in an interview with zerkalo.az on 11 October) that Musavat would not permit the outcome of the ballot to be falsified, left Qambar "no room for retreat."
But in an interview in zerkalo.az on 28 October, Vurgun Eyyub, one of Qambar's deputies, rejected suggestions that Musavat had made any tactical errors. Eyyub said the only reason that Qambar failed to be elected president was that the outcome of the ballot was "totally falsified" even though Musavat "did everything in its power" to ensure that the "real result" was acknowledged.
Numerous political parties, including Musavat and the Our Azerbaijan bloc of 30 parties and movements that backed Qambar's candidacy, the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP), and the ADP, have released statements saying that they do not recognize the validity of the official election results or consider Ilham Aliyev the legitimate president. But other politicians, including presidential candidates Lala Shovket Gadjieva (who placed third with 3.62 percent of the vote) and Adalet Party leader Ilyas Ismailov, have refrained from doing so, and have called instead for dialogue with the authorities. Civic Solidarity Party Chairman Sabir Rustamkhanli (also a defeated presidential candidate) recognized Ilham Aliyev's election as legitimate on 23 October and was quoted by zerkalo.az the following day as appealing to the president-elect to make good on his pre-election promises to promote national reconciliation. Those three are all regarded as pro-Russian, rather than pro-Western, in orientation.
Qambar, according to zerkalo.az on 25 October, clearly had more extensive financial resources available to fund his presidential campaign than did any other opposition candidate. Assuming that by 2008 Qambar is regarded as a spent force, and that those persons who backed him financially this time will seek an alternative, uncompromised, pro-Western candidate to support in the next presidential ballot, the obvious choice would seem to be Ali Kerimli, head of the progressive AHCP wing. Kerimli has the double advantage of never having contested a presidential election and lost, and having worked tirelessly to promote an agreement on a single opposition candidate for last month's ballot, withdrawing his own candidacy to that end in favor of AMIP Chairman Etibar Mammedov. Kerimli, his deputy for organization issues Gasan Kerimov told zerkalo.az on 29 October, is already looking ahead to the parliamentary elections due in November 2005 and the next presidential ballot in 2008.
Eldaniz Guliev, who heads the pro-regime Movement of Azerbaijan's Intelligentsia, argued on 24 October that the country needs a new opposition able to adapt its tactics and modus operandi to what he termed the ongoing transition from authoritarianism to democracy. But commentator I. Bayandurlu pointed out on 25 October that it is not in the authorities' interests to launch a full-scale effort to neutralize existing opposition parties and their leaders, as new political figures would inevitably emerge whom it would not be possible to discredit by blaming them for the territorial losses Azerbaijan suffered during the 1992-93 Popular Front government.
A further risk inherent in moving to crush existing opposition parties is that popular resentment of the present leadership is likely to increase unless Ilham Aliyev can swiftly deliver on his pre-election promises to raise living standards. (If construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline is completed on schedule in late 2004, the first crude will be exported only in the early summer of 2005, which means that the population is unlikely to profit financially from that project before the parliamentary ballot.) If, however, he proves unable to do so in the two years before the 2005 parliamentary ballot, voters may prove less inclined to back the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party. What remains unclear at this juncture is what long-term impact the support of Washington and Ankara for the transfer of power from Heidar to Ilham Aliyev will have on the political landscape. International commentators have registered widespread disappointment that the U.S. seemingly sacrificed its professed commitment to promoting a democratic transition of power in the interests of geo-political stability and its Caspian oil interests. Whether and in what conditions radical Islamists might capitalize on those feelings of betrayal is a matter for conjecture. (Liz Fuller)
OSCE MINSK GROUP DELAYS PLANNED VISIT TO SOUTH CAUCASUS. Visiting Yerevan on 10 September, Yurii Merzlyakov, who is the Russian co-chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group tasked with mediating a solution of the Karabakh conflict, told journalists that he and his U.S. and French co-chairs would travel to Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan shortly after the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election. The trip would take place either in late October or early November, Merzlyakov said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2003). But on 25 October, the Armenian pro-government daily "Hayastani Hanrapetutiun" quoted President Robert Kocharian as saying that the co-chairs' visit has been postponed until late November, because Azerbaijan "is not prepared" to receive them at an earlier date.
Official Azerbaijani statements in recent weeks have been at odds with comments by both Armenian officials and visiting OSCE Chairman in Office and Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on 17 October that Yerevan "will work with the newly elected Azerbaijani president on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. In an allusion to the agreement reached in Paris and Key West in March-April 2001 between President Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev's father and predecessor as president, Heidar Aliyev, Oskanian added, "We hope that [Ilham Aliyev] will be able to continue negotiations which were conducted and brought to a certain point by the previous president."
Both Oskanian and Deputy Foreign Minister Ruben Shugharian have said that they do not expect the co-chairs to unveil a totally new draft peace proposal on their next visit. Oskanian told a press conference in Yerevan on 16 September that the Armenian leadership was not at that point aware of the details of the anticipated new proposal, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. But he hinted that the new proposal would be based on the agreements reached between Kocharian and Heidar Aliyev in 2001. "The co-chairs say it will be a new version of the old proposals. So it appears there will be continuity with new emphases," Oskanian said (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 19 September 2003).
On 2 October, Oskanian told RFE/RL that the co-chairs' visit to the region is intended to determine the limits to the concessions each side is willing to make, and only after doing so will the Minsk Group formulate its new proposal. Visiting Baku on 31 October to attend a meeting of foreign ministers of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, Shugharian similarly told journalists that the new proposals involved primarily "some terminological modifications" within the previous concept. Merzlyakov for his part told journalists in Yerevan on 10 September: "I am not prepared now to disclose the essence of those proposals. You can call them new or modified," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported.
De Hoop Scheffer, who visited Yerevan, Stepanakert, and Baku in late October, appeared to place the onus of reaching a settlement on the conflict sides themselves. Noyan Tapan quoted him as saying in Yerevan on 21 October that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan "should be bold and try to get the [peace] process off the ground again." In an interview with the Armenian agency Mediamax, de Hoop Scheffer said: "What is essential today is responsibility on both sides that would make it possible to continue moving forward, the readiness to make concessions, and, in a sense, the skillful directing of affairs of state which is essential in order to secure the best conditions for one's country and the region in the long term."
In his talks with de Hoop Scheffer on 22 October, however, President-elect Aliyev implied that it is the responsibility of the international community to present "new proposals based on international law." "We want the conflict to be resolved in a fair way and believe the [Minsk] Group should step up its work in that direction," ITAR-TASS quoted him as saying. "I hope that new proposals will ensure compliance with international norms and allow us to achieve a settlement," Aliyev added.
Two days later, echoing repeated complaints by his father and other senior Azerbaijani officials, Ilham Aliyev criticized the Minsk Group's failure to propose an approach to resolving the conflict that would be acceptable to Azerbaijan. "Neither bilateral negotiations [with Armenia] nor the activities of the OSCE Minsk Group have produced any results," Interfax quoted President-elect Aliyev as saying on 24 October during a meeting with a senior Turkish general. He suggested that "new approaches" should be looked for.
Meeting on 30 October with visiting EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Heikki Talvitie (who served as co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group in 1996), President-elect Aliyev expressed the hope that the European Union will play a more prominent role in seeking to resolve the Karabakh conflict, Turan reported. Insofar as one of the aspects of Talvitie's mandate is to promote economic and security cooperation between the three South Caucasus states, President-elect Aliyev may have hinted that if this is what the EU wants, it should take steps to resolve the Karabakh conflict, as Baku will not agree to any such cooperation with Armenia until such a solution is reached.
In a commentary published on 29 October in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Russian diplomat Vladimir Kazimirov (also a former Minsk Group co-chairman) observed that the differences between Yerevan and Baku are not confined to the content of the final peace deal, but extend to its format. He pointed out that the talks between Presidents Kocharian and Aliyev were aimed at a "packet" solution of the conflict that would resolve simultaneously all contentious issues, including the final status of the currently unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. In addition, Kazimirov wrote, the Armenian vision of such a "packet" solution included the dropping of Azerbaijan's claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, which would either become an independent entity or a part of the Republic of Armenia. In return for that concession from Baku, Armenian troops would be withdrawn from the districts of Azerbaijan they have occupied since 1993.
Kazimirov argued that Heidar Aliyev might have been able to convince the Azerbaijani people that such a compromise was inevitable, but that it would be unrealistic to expect President-elect Aliyev to do so. (In his inaugural oath on 31 October, Ilham Aliyev formally pledged to preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.) Moreover, according to Kazimirov, Baku has now reverted to insisting on a "phased" solution to the conflict, one in which the two stages are "immediately" and "at some unspecified future date." (Liz Fuller)
QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "What is most important is not the number of parliamentary seats won or lost, but the legitimacy of the elections in the eyes of the voters and the European public as a whole. Georgia needs and deserves free and fair elections." --Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer, quoted by Caucasus Press on 31 October.
"The 2003 Parliamentary Elections provide Georgia and the wider international community with much food for thought and lessons to be heeded if Georgian democracy is to be consolidated." -- Interim report on the elections by the British NGO Links, released on 3 November.
"Georgia cannot withstand another civil war." -- Revival Union leader Tsotne Bakuria, quoted by Caucasus Press on 5 November.