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Caucasus Report: October 12, 2000

12 October 2000, Volume 3, Number 40

Azerbaijani Leadership Makes Tactical Concessions. On 5 October, Azerbaijan's Prosecutor-General approved the release from pre-trial detention of "Yeni Musavat" editor Rauf Arifoglu. The opposition journalist had been arrested in late August and charged with terrorism, involvement in an aircraft hijack, illegal possession of arms and planning a coup d'etat (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 36, 7 September 2000). Then on 8 October, the Azerbaijani Central Electoral Commission complied with a request made two days earlier by President Heidar Aliyev to reverse its rulings barring all but five of the 13 parties that applied to contest the 5 November parliamentary poll under the party list system from doing so, in order to "provide all levels of the population with the opportunity to express their political views."

Politicians and observers in Baku have suggested that these reversals were in part a response to pressure from the U.S. State Department and in part out of concern not to jeopardize Azerbaijan's acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe, which is largely contingent on an end to harassment of the media and on the 5 November poll being recognized as free, fair and democratic. On 5 October, the U.S. State Department had deplored the ban on several opposition parties from contesting the 25 mandates to be allocated under the proportional system, and called on the Azerbaijani authorities specifically to allow the opposition Musavat Party and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan to contest the party list mandates.

Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar characterized both Aliev's appeal to the CEC and that body's subsequent decision as politically motivated, while Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) chairman Etibar Mamedov suggested that the CEC's volte-face demonstrates that the commission is not an independent agency and does not obey the law. Possibly in order to avoid laying itself open to such accusations, the commission had on 7 October rejected Aliev's request, arguing that no constitutional grounds existed for lifting its ban, and proposing that President Aliyev raise the issue in the outgoing parliament. But meeting again one day later, the commission finally complied with Aliev's request. The head of the Azerbaijani NGO "For A Civil Society" similarly argued that neither the law nor the constitution give the CEC the right to comply with Aliev's request, irrespective of the motives behind it.

How widely held that opinion is remains unclear. But the CEC's albeit apparently reluctant compliance with Aliev's directive is unlikely to augment public confidence in its handling of the election process, which is already minimal. In mid-September, "Zerkalo" published the results of two surveys conducted among 50 political observers, journalists and politicians, one earlier that month and one in February of this year. Those polls showed that while in February, only 8.1 percent of respondents thought that the November parliamentary poll would be less free and fair than that in 1995, by September the percentage who shared that view had risen to 27.3 percent. And while in February 75.8 percent said they thought the opposition parties should participate in the ballot, that figure had fallen to 51.2 percent by September. By the same token, the number who advocated an opposition boycott of the poll to protest unfair conditions more than doubled over the same time period from 16.3 percent in February to 36.3 percent in September.

Nor are suspicions that the outcome of the poll is being determined in advance confined to the opposition. Echoing claims made days earlier by Azerbaijan Popular Front Party member Fazil Gazanfaroglu, former Baku Mayor and Yeni Azerbaycan member Rafael Allakhverdiev told "Zerkalo" in early October that the heads of local elections commissions have already received instructions from a member of the presidential administration as to which candidates should be "elected."

In and of itself, the decision to allow all 13 political parties to register to contest the party list seats is unlikely to have a major impact on the outcome of the poll. First, only 25 of the total 125 seats are to be distributed under the proportional system. Second, those 25 mandates will be divided only among those parties that surmount the minimum threshold of 8 percent of the vote. Observers consider that in addition to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, the AHCP and the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party, all of which are already formally registered, only Musavat and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan have any chance of winning parliament representation under the proportional system. (After the AHCP split in August, the CEC registered the list submitted by the "reformers" wing of that party to contest the party list seats. The "conservatives" within the AHCP are registering to run in single-mandate constituencies.) The CEC's decision does mean, however, that Musavat party chairman Gambar, who since the death in late August of former AHCP chairman Abulfaz Elchibey has become the most respected and influential opposition political leader and who heads Musavat's party list, will almost certainly win a seat in the new legislature.

Some 1,008 candidates have applied to register to contest the remaining 99 parliamentary mandates in single-mandate constituencies, of whom the CEC had formally registered 365 as of 9 October. (No voting is being held in the constituency of Khankendi, better known as Stepanakert, in Nagorno-Karabakh.) Of that number, 122 are independents, 126 represent Yeni Azerbaycan, 34 the Azerbaijan Popular Front conservative wing, 24 AMIP, and 17 Musavat. The Social Prosperity and Ana Vatan parties each have four candidates, the Vahdat and Democratic parties three, the Democratic Entrepreneurs' Party and Democratic Azerbaijan bloc two, and the Civil Solidarity Party, the National Congress Party, the United Communist Party, the Yurddash Party and the Independent Azerbaijan Party one candidate each.

Almost every day, Azerbaijani opposition and independent news outlets report incidents in which prospective opposition candidates in single-mandate constituencies have been refused registration by local electoral commissions. But even prior to the 5-6 October demonstration of people's power in Belgrade that brought down President Slobodan Milosevic, Azerbaijani voters were protesting such refusals. In Tovuz last week, additional police were brought in from neighboring raions to disperse a crowd of 1,500 people angered by the local electoral commission's refusal to register a Musavat party candidate.

Whether the Yugoslav example, in conjunction with the realization that Azerbaijan's leadership is both vulnerable to international pressure and prepared to violate the law in responding to that pressure, will result in a massive "protest vote" against Yeni Azerbaycan remains to be seen. If it does not, the multiplicity of opposition parties and candidates competing to win the protest vote of an alienated and impoverished electorate, and the 8 percent minimum threshold, seem likely to limit the opposition representation in the new legislature. (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijani Opposition Alignment Close To Split. The Democratic Congress formed in April 1994, which comprises 10 Azerbaijani opposition parties (not including AMIP), is on the verge of collapse. At their weekly meeting in Baku on 11 October, representatives of those 10 parties spent four hours arguing over which of the two wings of the now divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party should be recognized as the "legitimate" party of that name. The AHCP split in August into a "reformist" wing, headed by the party's first deputy chairman Ali Kerimov, and the "conservatives" led by deputy chairman Mirmahmud Fattaev and Fazil Gazanfaroglu (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 34, 24 August 2000).

According to Turan, five of the 10 parties (including Musavat) threw their support behind the conservatives, whom Musavat Party chairman Isa Gambar characterized as "more attached to the ideas of [recently deceased AHCP chairman] Abulfaz Elchibey," while four backed the reformist AHCP faction. Kerimov slammed that decision as a deliberate attempt to weaken the AHCP, and said the AHCP (meaning his wing thereof) will quit the Democratic Congress. The congress is to come to a formal decision before its next session (scheduled for 18 October) on which AHCP faction to recognize. (Liz Fuller)

Tensions Emerge Between Azerbaijani Presidential Administration, Ruling Party. Speaking at an election campaign meeting on 6 October, former Baku City Mayor Rafael Allakhverdiev voiced three serious criticisms of the Azerbaijani presidential apparatus. First, he accused one of its members of issuing instructions to local election commission staff concerning which would-be candidates should be registered to contest the 5 November parliamentary polls well as specifying which of those should be "elected" (see above). Second, he accused the presidential administration of seeking to determine which members of the Yeni Azerbaycan should figure in what order in the list of the party's candidates to contest the poll under the proportional system. Third, he accused presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, together with Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, of "discrediting" President Aliev's policies.

Allakhverdiev, who is one of Yeni Azerbaycan's five deputy chairmen, stressed that he supports wholeheartedly the decision that President Aliev's son Ilham should head the party list. (He noted that he and other deputy chairmen spent two hours persuading a reluctant Ilham to agree to do so). But Allahkhverdiev at the same time made clear that he disagreed with some names on the party list, half of which he said belong to people whom he does not know. He referred to the tensions within Yeni Azerbaycan between the "old guard" and the party's younger members (who are regarded as the nucleus of Ilham Aliev's power base), implying that the presidential apparatus has either taken upon itself, or is acting on instructions from the president, to engineer the election to the new legislature of a handpicked team that would support Ilham.

Observers believe that Ilham will be elected the new parliament speaker. Under the Azerbaijani constitution, it is the parliament speaker, not the premier, upon whom power devolves should the president die or become incapacitated.

Yeni Azerbaycan's deputy executive secretary, Siyavush Novruzov, was quoted by "Azadlyg" on 10 October as saying that nominations for party list candidates were discussed at a meeting of the party's political council, of which Allakhverdiev is a member, in the presence of the president, and that on that occasion the former mayor voiced no objections to those nominations. Yeni Azerbaycan executive secretary Ali Ahmedov, for his part, characterized Allakhverdiev's criticisms as reflecting inner-party pluralism and democracy. (Liz Fuller)

When Armenian Politicians' Popularity Peaked. The Armenian Academy of Sciences' Center for Sociological Studies has released a summary of over 40 opinion polls it conducted during the 1990s, Noyan Tapan reported on 9 October. Those findings indicate at what point during that period leading politicians were at the peak of their popularity.

Of those figures who have played an active role in politics throughout all or most of that decade, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who was elected chairman of Armenia's first post-Communist parliament in August 1990 and president 13 months later, enjoyed his greatest popularity in 1990-1992.

Vano Siradeghian, Ter-Petrossian's now disgraced close associate, who held the posts of interior minister and Yerevan mayor, was at the peak of his popularity in 1997- early 1998.

Gagik Harutiunian, who served in the early 1990s as vice president before being appointed chairman of the Constitutional Court, has "consistently enjoyed public sympathy," according to the survey.

U.S.-born Raffi Hovhannissian, who served from 1992-1994 as foreign minister, was at his most popular in 1995-1996, after resigning and establishing his own Yerevan think-tank.

Many were afraid of Vazgen Sargsian, who served as defense minister and then as premier, but at the same time they respected and trusted him. And from 1998 (after Ter-Petrossian's ouster) until his murder last October it was Sargsian, not President Robert Kocharian, who was widely considered the most influential politician in Armenia. Kocharian currently has the highest rating among Armenian politicians.

Former Communist Party of Armenia First Secretary Karen Demirchian, who returned to politics after Ter-Petrossian's ouster in early 1998, enjoyed his greatest popularity not in March-April 1998, when as presidential challenger he forced Kocharian into a runoff, but in 1999. In the spring of that year, Demirchian formed an election alliance with Vazgen Sargsian which won the majority of seats in the new legislature, of which he was elected speaker. Like Sargsian, Demirchian was a victim of the 27 October parliament shootings. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Nobody is as interested as I am in Samvel Babayan's innocence. Everything will be uncovered during the trial and I am sure that we are able to hold a fair trial." -- Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent on 9 October.

"I am tired of expressing my attitude towards such statements. In this statement each sentence, comma, and full-stop is a lie." -- Former Azerbaijani parliament speaker Rasul Guliev, commenting on official charges that he planned to stage a coup d'etat in March of this year (quoted by Turan on 10 October).