Azerbaijani Opposition Comes Under Fire

Khadija Ismayilova 9/06/05

EurasiaNet, NY
Sept 6 2005

With two months of campaigning remaining before Azerbaijan’s
parliamentary election, President Ilham Aliyev’s administration
appears to be on a collision course with the country’s leading
opposition parties.

The country’s opposition has come under increasing pressure in recent
weeks. Several opposition and youth group activists have been arrested
— some of them accused of planning action aimed at undermining
political stability. Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by the Popular Front
Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) against the Ministry of National Security
for allegedly attempting to orchestrate the ouster of party leader
Ali Kerimli suggests that what is already a contentious campaign
atmosphere could become explosive.

At an August 22 news conference, Ramiz Tagiyev, a former political
prisoner and advisor to Kerimli, alleged that Security Ministry
agents offered him $1,000 to foment discord within Kerimli’s PFPA. If
party infighting culminated in Kerimli’s ouster as leader, Security
Ministry officials indicated that they would pay him a bonus,
Tagiyev said at the news conference. “I was promised full support,
money for recruiting people inside the party and all benefits, after
the successful completion of the operation,” he said.

According to Tagiyev, ministry agents told him that the August 3
arrest of Ruslan Bashirli, leader of Yeni Fikir, a youth group with
ties to the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), was among the
“provocations” planned against the opposition party. [For background
see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Bashirli was imprisoned on charges
of attempting to stage a coup with the help of the Armenian special
services. After Bashirli’s arrest, violent pickets took place for
several days outside of PFPA headquarters. Baku police have since
faced criticism for doing little to prevent the attacks.

Tagiyev’s accusations do not target the government alone. The
PFPA advisor claims that Igbal Agazade, leader of the opposition
Umid Party, invited him to meet with two Security Ministry agents,
identified as Ilgar Agayev and Elchin Guliyev, to discuss the plan.
Agazade, released from prison in 2005 for allegedly helping to incite
the riots that followed President Aliyev’s October 2003 election,
has since denied any collaboration with the Security Ministry,
attributing the accusation down to a PFPA bias against his party.
[For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Appearing at the news conference with Tagiyev, Kerimli stated that
he had been informed about the actions planned against the PFPA, and
had, therefore, told party members not to respond to the attacks on
PFPA headquarters that followed Bashirli’s arrest. “It is a flagrant
illegality and violation of the law by the country’s special services,”
Kerimli said. “Instead of fighting threats to national security,
the ministry is involved in a dirty struggle against the nation.”

Commenting on the charges, ministry spokesperson Arif Babayev called
Tagiyev’s allegations “nonsense.” The fact that the Tagiyev-Kerimli
news conference coincided with a visit to Azerbaijan by Parliamentary
Assembly of the Council of Europe President Rene van der Linden was
not accidental, Babayev argued. “They [the opposition] always prepare
some ‘provocations’ for such guests,” Babayev said. The PFPA has since
filed a lawsuit against the ministry in Sabayil District Court in Baku.

Some human rights activists support Tagiyev’s charge that the
government is attempting to interfere in the election process.
Isakhan Ashurov, chairman of the Independent Lawyers League and a
member of the opposition Musavat Party, told EurasiaNet that Elchin
Guliyev came to his office in June 2005 to arrest Pirali Orujev,
a Musavat activist on charges of allegedly planning a terrorist act
against Bakhram Shukurov, an appeals court judge and president of
the pro-government Azad Azerbaijan television station.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) strongly
condemned the attacks on the PFPA headquarters, which took place amid a
breakdown in OSCE-sponsored talks between the government and opposition
parties on ways to foster a peaceful campaign environment. Like the
Council of Europe, the OSCE has strongly pressured President Aliyev
to hold free and fair parliamentary elections, scheduled for November
6. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

At a September 1 news conference in Baku, Special Representative of the
Council of Europe to Azerbaijan Mats Lindberg expressed optimism for a
free and fair vote, noting that, aside from delays in issuing identity
cards and voter cards, the registration of candidates appeared to be
going largely according to plan. “No one has been denied registration,
and it seems that this process will finish according to schedule,”
Lindberg said, the news agency Bilik Dunyasi reported.

Nonetheless, opposition members and activists continue to be targeted
for harassment and arrest. In recent weeks, scores of young members of
the PFPA, Musavat and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan have been arrested
for dissemination of leaflets urging people to check that their names
are correctly listed on official voter lists. Individual activists
in the regions, particularly the autonomous republic of Nakhichivan,
have been arrested on a variety of minor charges, and in May 2005,
Almaz Guliyeva, a British national and the niece of exiled Democratic
Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Rasul Guliyev, was arrested at the Baku
airport under suspicion of carrying a gun.

Of late, opposition rallies have been held with little interference
by authorities. Attendance at the latest demonstration, on August
27, was estimated at about 15,000, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS
reported. “The last opposition rally gathered even more people than
the opposition had in their rally before the [Ruslan] Bashirli case,”
noted Hikmet Hajizade, head of the Far-Center: [For additional
information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The recent arrest of Merab Jibutia, a Georgian citizen identified
by the Azerbaijani government as one of the alleged Armenian agents
working with Bashirli, has further aroused PFPA suspicions. On
August 26, Azerbaijani border guards arrested Jibutia crossing
into Azerbaijan from Georgia, allegedly to “meet with Bashirli
and clarify the situation,” according to a statement issued by the
prosecutor-general’s office.

Fuad Mustafayev, deputy chairman of the Popular Front, argued that the
prosecutor’s statement was flawed: “Why would a person declared by the
Azerbaijani government to be an Armenian spy come to Azerbaijan? Where
would he meet Bashirli? In jail? The authorities have stirred up
trouble, and now . . . are sinking into the lie more and more.”

International organizations have not responded to charges of government
provocation against the opposition. Rather, their focus remains on
encouraging authorities to hold an above-board vote. Said Lindberg:
“We very much hope and expect that the [November parliamentary]
election will be free and fair and that the presidential instruction
in this regard will be implemented in full.”

Editor’s Note: Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance journalist based
in Baku.