Leadership Struggle Within Azerbaijani Opposition Party Nears Climax
The acrimonious exchange of accusations, now in its second month, could negatively affect public perceptions of the orientation and political agenda of the opposition Azadliq bloc of which the DPA was a founding member.
Leadership At Odds
The standoff pits the DPA's chairman, former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev, against its original founder and current first deputy chairman, Sardar Calaloglu (aka Jalaloglu, Djalaloglu). Pugnacious and charismatic, Calaloglu was one of seven prominent oppositionists arrested, tried, and imprisoned for allegedly calling for a mass insurrection in the wake of the disputed October 2003 presidential election that legalized the transfer of power from Heydar Aliyev to his son Ilham. The seven were pardoned and released in March 2005.
Quliyev left Azerbaijan in 1996 following a public dispute over policy with President Heydar Aliyev, but retained the post of party chairman, and was regarded for years as one of the "heavyweights" within the opposition. The Azerbaijani authorities accused him in 1998 of large-scale embezzlement during his tenure as head of the country's largest oil refinery, and issued warrants for his arrest.
Despite that threat, Quliyev sought to register as a candidate in the October 2003 presidential election, but was refused on the grounds that he was a permanent resident of the United States. He announced days before that ballot that he planned to return to Baku on polling day, but failed to do so.
Two years later, shortly before the November 2005 parliamentary election, Quliyev tried to return to Azerbaijan, but was detained by the Ukrainian authorities when his privately chartered plane landed in southern Ukraine to refuel. On his release, he abandoned his plans to continue to Baku, where two influential ministers were dismissed and accused of conspiring with him to overthrow the country's leadership.
The DPA participated in the November 2005 parliamentary ballot as a member of the opposition Azadliq election bloc that also included the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) and the Musavat Party, but the official election returns -- the validity of which was questioned by apparently defeated candidates and international monitors alike -- gave Azadliq only a handful of parliament mandates. And within months, the bloc split after Musavat's successful candidates decided to participate in the work of a legislature that the AHCP and DPA argued was illegitimate and should therefore be boycotted.
Followers Turn Away
It was in the wake of Azadliq's election defeat that Calaloglu first tried, albeit without success, to persuade Quliyev to relinquish the DPA chairmanship on the grounds that he had discredited himself and the party by his failure to return to Baku as he had said he would.
A steady exodus of DPA members during the summer of 2006 testified to the extent of dissatisfaction and demoralization among its members. Many of those defectors subsequently joined the Azerbaijan's Path movement headed by Ilgar Gasymov. Then, in late 2006, Calaloglu publicly floated the idea of launching a "dialogue" with the Azerbaijani leadership.
On January 27, the DPA's Supreme Mejlis (Council) convened in Baku and adopted a formal resolution affirming its intention to amend its previous "radical" tenets and embark on a "constructive dialogue" with the authorities. At the same time, the DPA dissolved all its existing leadership structures and replaced them with an Organizing Committee tasked with preparing for a party congress to take place in May 2007.
Meanwhile, Quliyev's supporters within the DPA denounced the Mejlis resolution in statements to the Azerbaijani media. Aydin Quliyev (he is not related to Rasul), one-time editor of the DPA-aligned newspaper "Hurriyet" and now editor of another newspaper, "Baki xaber," was quoted on February 3 by echo-az.com as saying that some grassroots DPA organizations are opposed to any such fundamental change in the DPA's political course.
The DPA chapter in Baku's Nasimi district issued a statement claiming that the Mejlis resolution seriously damaged the party's image, and it called for Calaloglu to be stripped of the right to represent the party within Azadliq, according to echo-az.com on February 6. Calaloglu responded by branding the branch head, Aga Abdullaoglu, as "sick," echo-az.com reported on February 7.
Then on February 7, DPA Supreme Mejlis Chairman Akif Sahbazov (aka Shahbazov) annulled the Mejlis ruling on the grounds that Rasul Quliyev did not approve it in advance, day.az reported. (Sahbazov also said that Quliyev advocates a broad discussion among all political forces, not a dialogue between the DPA on the one hand and the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party on the other. Quliyev himself was quoted on February 22 by zerkalo.az as saying that the present Azerbaijani leadership should sit down at the negotiating table with representative of the entire opposition spectrum.)
Calaloglu, however, claimed Sahbazov was not empowered to annul the Mejlis resolution, and he went on to accuse him of "political hooliganism" and of committing "a criminal error," day.az reported on February 9. The Organizing Committee met on February 11 and formally overruled Shahbazov, and then expelled him from the DPA ranks, the daily zerkalo.az reported on February 13.
Meanwhile, on February 10 Rasul Quliyev imposed a veto on the Mejlis resolution and issued an edict stripping Calaloglu and several other senior DPA functionaries of their posts, echo-az.com reported on February 13.
Quliyev also named Sahbazov as the DPA's representative within the Azadliq bloc. But Calaloglu claimed that neither ruling had any juridical force. He argued that a veto can be issued only up to three days after the adoption of a Mejlis resolution, and that in the run-up to the anticipated May congress, supreme power within the party is invested in the Organizing Committee.
Calaloglu further claimed that 58 of the 80 Mejlis members support the idea of dialogue with the authorities and reject a call by Quliyev to convene an emergency Mejlis session to reconsider the controversial January 27 resolution.
The remaining members of Azadliq were at a loss how to respond to the virtual open warfare between the two DPA factions. The online daily echo-az.com on February 13 quoted an unnamed source within Azadliq as saying the bloc would side with Calaloglu on the grounds that Rasul Quliyev is unable to return to Azerbaijan and assume the party's leadership.
Azadliq's leaders duly met for over six hours on February 13, hearing separate accounts of the dispute first from Sahbazov and then from Calaloglu, but failed to reach a decision. Instead, Ali Kerimli of the AHCP stressed that stressed that "we are for a united, opposition DPA within the Azadliq bloc," day.az reported.
On February 14, however, Azadliq formally recognized Calaloglu as the DPA's representative within the bloc. At the same time, Azadliq issued an appeal to the DPA to refrain from further infighting, day.az reported. It also noted that the cooperation agreement signed among Azadliq members does not permit the DPA to pursue any policy at odds with that of the bloc as a whole, zerkalo.az noted on February 15. On February 15, a disappointed Aydin Quliyev deplored Azadliq's endorsement of Calaloglu as the worst possible outcome.
Bring On The Lawsuits
Azadliq's appeal for reconciliation fell on deaf ears, however. The DPA filed suit against Aydin Quliyev and Sahbazov for making unauthorized statements to the media in the name of the DPA, and Calaloglu brought a separate libel case against Aydin Quliyev, day.az reported on February 16.
On February 14, Sahbazov announced that the Mejlis -- or at least those of its members who support Rasul Quliyev -- would meet on February 18 to discuss Rasul Quliyev's decisions, a move that Calaloglu immediately condemned as violating both the law on political parties and the DPA statutes, zerkalo.az reported on February 15.
The Organizing Committee warned Mejlis members they would be expelled from the DPA if they attended that emergency session. Some Mejlis members nonetheless duly gathered on February 18 at the headquarters of the conservative wing of the AHCP, where they discussed the situation.
It would seem that someone present promptly delivered an account of the proceedings to Calaloglu, as in February 19 the DPA Control-Revision Committee and the Organizing Committee met and formally removed Rasul Quliyev from the post of DPA chairman for engaging in "intrigues," abusing his authority, and for passing "insulting" comments about other, unnamed party figures, zerkalo.az and echo-az.com reported on February 20. Calaloglu then filed a formal request with the Justice Ministry to acknowledge him as the legal head of the DPA.
In a telephone interview with the online daily zerkalo.az, summarized in its February 22 issue, Rasul Quliyev dismissed talk of a "split" within the DPA and argued that only a full-fledged party congress is empowered to expel him from the party ranks. But the same day, Calaloglu appealed to a Baku district court to recognize the legality of the January 27 Mejlis session.
Regardless of the legal technicalities -- meaning which faction violated or acted in accordance with the party statutes at which juncture -- the events of the past six weeks look suspiciously like a naked power grab on the part of Calaloglu and his supporters.
As such, they only serve to substantiate the widely held perception that Azerbaijani oppositionists are prepared to sacrifice political principles and opposition solidarity to promote their own personal interests. What is more, many commentators are inclined to believe that Calaloglu is not acting on his own initiative, but at the behest of a faction within the Azerbaijani leadership that seeks to use him as a Trojan horse in the run-up to the presidential ballot due in October 2008 to strip the opposition of what minimal credibility it still enjoys among the electorate.
At the same time, by agreeing to Calaloglu's proposed "dialogue" the Azerbaijani leadership would be better placed to dismiss complaints that the largely extraparliamentary opposition is being sidelined and excluded from the political process.
That possibility creates a painful dilemma for the DPA's longtime associates within the Azadliq bloc: even if Calaloglu is being manipulated by a person or group within the Azerbaijani leadership, they cannot disassociate themselves from him without that move being construed as a simultaneous rejection of the broad political dialogue he espouses.
That may explain be why, following deliberations among its members on February 21, Azadliq issued a statement again calling for the two rival DPA factions to seek a "compromise" that would avert the anticipated split of the DPA into two separate political entities. Should that not prove possible, the statement continued, Azadliq would continue to cooperate with both DPA factions. But on March 6, one week after Rasul Quliyev wrote to the leaders of other Azadliq member parties, reportedly condemning Calaloglu, those leaders resolved to "suspend" cooperation with the DPA on the grounds that the DPA has violated the article of Azadliq's statutes under which all the bloc's members pledge to coordinate their activities.
Meanwhile, other, smaller and less influential opposition parties make no secret of their hopes of exploiting the disarray within the DPA and its impact on Azadliq in order to present themselves as the true, unsullied face of the opposition. Mirmahmud Miralioglu, who heads the conservative AHCP wing, was quoted on February 24 by day.az as saying that "within the next few days," unnamed opposition parties will begin discussing a draft plan to create a new "unified and strong" opposition center.
On March 1, he said 14 parties have approached him and signaled their interest in joining such an alignment, day.az reported. Azerbaijan's Path leader Gasymov claimed on February 23 that the ongoing crisis within the DPA has triggered a new exodus from that party, with "very many" of its former members joining Azerbaijan's Path.
In the final analysis, Rasul Quliyev's defiant statements may prove to be little more than a tactic to save face and delay the inevitable: as long ago as February 3, Aydin Quliyev told day.az that "we have already applied to the Justice Ministry" to register a new movement named "For Democracy." He said the founding congress of that movement would take place in an unspecified European country in late February or early March, and that Rasul Quliyev himself would be present.
Armenian Parliamentary Ballot A New Twist On Deja Vu
Now, as then, policy differences between the various parties are largely irrelevant, with the main issue being whether the vote itself will prove free and fair. But in contrast to 2003, far more depends this time around on both the conduct and the outcome of the vote.
Continued receipt of funds under the U.S. Millennium Challenge program and medium-term cooperation with the EU are both contingent on the voting being perceived as free and fair. In addition, the political landscape has changed in recent years, reflecting the emergence of powerful new players, the shift of one former influential politician to the opposition, and the opposition's seeming inability to close ranks.
Finally, the outcome of the ballot -- specifically which party gains a majority in the new legislature and who becomes prime minister -- will to a large extent shape the outcome of the presidential ballot in early 2008, in which incumbent President Robert Kocharian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.
For months, opposition politicians have been predicting that, like earlier ballots, the May 12 election will be criticized by international monitors as not meeting generally accepted standards for a free, fair, and democratic vote.
Two factors have served to fuel those misgivings. The first is the spectacular rise in popularity of a new party, Bargavach Hayastan (BH, Prosperous Armenia) formed just over one year ago by Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman with close personal ties to Kocharian.
BH claims to have signed up 370,000 members, which is tantamount to over 10 percent of the country's total 3.22 million population. Its critics allege that its success is largely the result of the charitable activities undertaken by an eponymous foundation also headed by Tsarukian. A poll of 1,200 respondents conducted by the Armenian Sociological Association in November 2006 found that Tsarukian was by far the most popular person in Armenia.
The second is President Kocharian's listing during a December 15 television interview of those parties that he believes will dominate the next parliament; namely the HHK, BH (on the basis of what he termed its "simple and understandable slogans"), and the HHK's two current coalition partners, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) and the United Labor Party (MAK) headed by businessman Gurgen Arsenian.
President Kocharian affirmed in his televised New Year's address to the nation that "I am sure that [the elections] will be up to the mark," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 3. "Free and fair elections should be a priority for each of us," he added. Defense Minister Sergzh Sarkisian for his part similarly pledged on February 4 that both he personally and the Armenian authorities as a whole will make every effort to ensure that the elections are democratic, fair, and transparent, regnum.ru reported.
But few opposition politicians place any trust in such assertions, and some even suspect that the international community does not consider it imperative that the election is fair.
Artur Baghdasarian, who quit as parliament speaker in May 2006 after a public disagreement with Kocharian over whether Armenia should aspire to NATO membership, described the election campaign in an editorial published last month in the "The Wall Street Journal" as "a crossroads," and argued that Armenia needs "a strong and legitimate government supported by the people" in order to implement the reforms on which political and economic progress is contingent.
He called on the international community to support the OSCE election monitoring mission and thus undercut "those abroad who might turn a blind eye" to vote-rigging in the name of preserving stability.
On March 5, Lieutenant General Manvel Grigorian, who heads Yerkrapah, the largest union of veterans of the Karabakh war, was even more outspoken, estimating the chances of election fraud as "100 percent," given that "there are lots of professionals around," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He vowed to "make every effort" to minimize falsification in those single-mandate constituencies where the Yerkrapah will field candidates.
The Armenian press is, moreover, replete with speculation about imputed agreements already reached within the upper echelons of the present leadership on the allocation of the proportional vote.
This time, a larger number of parliament mandates than ever before will be allocated under the proportional system: 90 of the total 131. By contrast, in 2003 the ratio was 75:56 and in 1999, the reverse, with 56 seats allocated under the proportional system and 75 in single-mandate constituencies.
"Hayk" predicted on February 9 that BH will "win" 38 percent of the vote, the HHK 31 percent, the HHD 9 percent, and the opposition 8 percent. (Kocharian is said to be disappointed already in Arsenian's MAK.)
That scenario reflects the widely held conviction that the main competition will be not between pro-government forces and the opposition, but between two pro-Kocharian groupings, Tsarukian's BH and the HHK, within which Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian is poised to eclipse Markarian as the most powerful figure. Most pundits anticipate that, should the HHK emerge as the election winner, Sarkisian would become prime minister, with Markarian given the post of parliament speaker.
Faced with the twin challenges posed by BH's capacity -- courtesy of Tsarukian's virtually unlimited financial resources -- to buy votes, and the imputed determination of the Armenian leadership to ensure victory for a party or parties loyal to the present leadership, the logical course of action would seem to have been for disparate opposition parties to subsume their differences and rivalries and align, if not in a united front, then in two or three blocs. (There is a precedent for doing so: several opposition parties aligned to back Manukian's presidential bid in September 1996.)
One major putative alliance would have brought together Stepan Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia (HZhK), Manukian's National Democratic Union (AZhM), the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, and the Hanrapetutiun (Republic) Party headed by another former premier, Aram Sargsian. (Earlier speculation that Sargsian would join forces with Artashes Geghamian's National Accord Party proved misplaced.)
Some in the opposition question whether the international community values free and fair elections more than stability.
However, on February 28 the leaders of those parties publicly admitted their failure to overcome their differences, without specifying the sticking points. Suren Sureniants of Hanrapetutiun told RFE/RL, without elaborating, on February 27 that the disagreements were not ideological, but tactical, while Sargsian implied to RFE/RL's Armenian Service the following day that he suspected some of his potential allies of colluding with the authorities.
Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir was said at one point to be considering an alliance with Dashink, which is headed by the former commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces, General Samvel Babayan, but those expectations too proved misplaced.
Moreover, not only did Armenia's most prominent opposition parties fail to cement a broad election alliance: the "tactical" differences that emerged between them dealt the coup de grace to the Artarutiun alliance of 12 opposition parties formed in the wake of the 2003 presidential elections, and which won 23 mandates in the parliamentary election later that same year.
The leaders of its constituent parties pronounced Artarutiun defunct on March 2, but again declined to offer any explanation, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. According to some media reports, the remaining parties objected to Demirchian's insistence that his HZhK should nominate at least half the candidates on the bloc's joint list and that the bloc back him as its sole candidate in the 2008 presidential ballot.
Consequently, a total of 27 separate political parties plus one bloc have formally announced their intention to compete for the 90 parliament mandates to be distributed under the proportional system.
The sole major party that did not do so is Manukian's AZhM. Manukian, who is 61, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on March 5 that since "mechanisms for concealing vote falsification have become quite sophisticated," even a broad-based opposition alliance would have been hard-pressed to win a majority in the new parliament. In those circumstances, he continued, "being a deputy of this and the next parliament is neither honorable, nor does it make any sense." At the same time, he insisted that "we are not quitting politics," and he made clear that he intends to nominate his candidacy in next year's presidential ballot.
The one election bloc that will seek registration brings together two small parties sympathetic to former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, Democratic Homeland (headed by Petros Makeyan) and Mikael Hairapetian's Conservative Party.
The former Ayl@ntranq (Alternative) now goes by the English name Impeachment and seeks to impeach President Kocharian (on what grounds is unclear: according to Article 57 of the constitution, the president can be impeached only for "high treason" or unspecified "grave crimes.) Ayl@ntranq is reportedly attracting younger voters and defectors from both Zharangutiun and Manukian's AZhM.
The various party lists number 1,497 candidates, with the HHK and BH each naming 112 candidates, the HHD 117, Orinats Yerkir 131, the HZhK 69, and Zharangutiun 56. A total of 173 candidates have been nominated to contest the remaining 41 parliament mandates, Noyan Tapan reported on March 5.
Of the 131 outgoing parliament deputies, 80 percent have nominated themselves for the May 12 ballot either under the proportional or majoritarian system, or both, according to Noyan Tapan on March 7.