BAKU -- Opposition leaders from Azerbaijan's Popular Front/Musavat election bloc have refused to meet with a delegation of Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) observers for next month's parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.
Opposition leaders accused the long-term observers from PACE -- in Baku for a three-day visit -- of not being "objective in assessing all previous elections in Azerbaijan."
In a statement issued on October 20, the Popular Front/Musavat blamed PACE for failing to uphold a council member state, Azerbaijan, to Council of Europe standards.
It said "PACE has been indifferent to recent antidemocratic elections and referendums in Azerbaijan, violations of freedom speech, and absence of freedom of assembly, [as well as] to the fate of political prisoners."
The statement added that PACE appointed Christopher Strasser as the "special rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan" in March 2009. But it said that Strasser has not yet visited Azerbaijan.
The head of the long-term observation mission to Azerbaijan, council deputy Paul Wille of Belgium, said at a press conference in Baku on October 21 that "it is the right of the bloc to meet or not to meet with us, however it is not [the bloc's] right to present things that are not related to reality. We do not like to be put under pressure by any political party -- whether it is the majority or the opposition."
Mission delegate Jaakko Laakso, of Finland, characterized the opposition's decision as "a unique" move. He expressed the hope that PACE observers will have a chance to meet the opposition before the elections.
In general, the PACE observers noted that the election process has been conducted in a peaceful manner, but observed a lack of any real debate in society.
"Up to now we have found a peaceful atmosphere. it was not always like that and we are happy to state this," Wille said.
He added that "we have seen good progress in the voters' lists. We are [also] happy to see that the opposition is actively taking its place in the elections. A good democracy deserves a good opposition [and] the nongovernmental organizations have also increased their role in the election process."
Observers also noted some shortcomings in the preelection environment, but hoped that they could be addressed in the next few weeks.
"We are a little less happy with the fact that there is no competition of ideas -- we are not feeling a public debate [is taking place]," Wille said. "Increased public debate in the coming weeks would be welcomed."
He also noted that observers "could see some administrative pressures and difficulties for some candidates to get registered and pressure [being put] on citizens who have signed up [in support of] a candidate."
Opposition and independent candidates have complained that the Central Election Commission, which is dominated by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, has disqualified almost two-thirds of the opposition candidates wanting to run for parliament.
While the ruling party has managed to register almost all of its 113 candidates, the Popular Front/Musavat bloc has managed to register only 38 candidates.
The elections for the 125-seat parliament, the Milli Majlis, will take place on November 7. The Central Election Commision has registered 734 candidates.
The three-day visit of PACE's long-term observation mission to Azerbaijan ended on October 22. Thirty members of the PACE mission will monitor voting on election day.