TOL: High Hopes

by Ali Valiyev

Transitions on Line
Feb 18 2009
Czech Rep.

A beleaguered but united opposition insists it can thwart the Azeri
president’s bid to kill term limits.

BAKU | In the past several years in Azerbaijan, hundreds of opposition
figures have been arrested, along with critical journalists, academics,
and even government ministers. Human rights groups say the government
has detained dozens of political prisoners. And state-controlled
TV channels have either ignored these incidents or sympathetically
reported the authorities’ version of events.

Even young activists on bicycles have been detained by police after
staging demonstrations urging motorists to consider alternate forms
of transportation.

Yet members of a new alliance that opposes the government of President
Ilham Aliev think they have a chance to foil Aliev’s bid, next month,
to eradicate presidential term limits.

"I think that we will be able to defend our position because our
position is supported by the majority of people," said Isa Gambar,
chairman of the Musavat Party, which is part of the alliance. "An
already-dissatisfied society is very concerned about the Aliev regime’s
attempts to prolong its grip on power."

The new coalition, called the Movement for Karabakh and Republic,
aims to defeat an 18 March referendum that would lift a two-term limit
on the presidency, effectively allowing Aliev to stand for president
again after his second term expires in 2013.

Aliev has said the changes are aimed at boosting democracy.

"You will not find any member of the European Union whose leader
cannot be elected as many times as the people want him to be in this
position. Is it democratic? Yes. So the same should be applied to
Azerbaijan," Aliev said in an interview with Reuters on 30 January.

"It is democratic, so if the people support this or that leader,
they have the right to elect him. So I think lifting the restrictions
[on the number of presidential terms] is more democratic than having
these restrictions," he said, speaking in English.

But critics say the goal is to keep Aliev in power indefinitely and
"legalize the monarchy."

Aliev took over from his father, Heidar Aliev, in an election in 2003
that European observers said did not meet democratic standards.


The Movement for Karabakh and Republic brings together almost all
of the country’s major opposition parties and groups, including the
Musavat Party, the Popular Front Party, the National Unity movement,
the Democratic Party, the Public Forum for Azerbaijan, the Umid
(Hope) Party, the Citizen and Development Party, and several dozen
nongovernmental organizations. It has established an advocacy group
to campaign against the proposed changes.

Musavat and the Popular Front have also formed a separate advocacy
group, the Republicans.

The Central Electoral Commission registered both opposition groups on
11 February, entitling them to public money to finance their campaigns
and free airtime on public television.

Ali Karimli, the leader of the Popular Front Party, said the Movement
for Karabakh and Republic is the largest opposition alliance Azerbaijan
has seen in recent years. He believes that the alliance has brought
new hope to Azeris.

"If this unity continues, we can achieve serious results," Karimli
said. "The referendum can mark the beginning of the end of the current

The government predicted that the weakened and fragmented opposition
would not be able to unite again, but it proved wrong, Karimli said.

Major opposition parties have been under increasing pressure in the
past few years. The People’s Front and Musavat have been forced out
of their offices in central Baku, as have been several newspapers
connected to the opposition. Opposition leaders have largely been
denied access to the broadcast media, which are tightly controlled
by the authorities.

Musavat Party leader Gambar said the growing pressure on the
opposition is a sign of the government’s fears in the face of
widespread discontent.

"They are in great fear and are seriously worried," Gambar said.

Mehman Aliev, director of the major independent news agency Turan,
said opposition groups are capable of putting their differences aside
and uniting. He said a united opposition can be successful no matter
how limited its financial resources might be.

The opposition united ahead of the country’s 2005 parliamentary
elections but the alliance fell apart soon afterward as parties
differed over how to react to results that independent observers said
were marred by massive irregularities and fraud.

"The main task for the opposition will be getting its messages across
to the public, which lacks sources of objective information," Mehman
Aliev said.


But a senior member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, Mubariz
Gurbanli, has said that any suggestion of a united opposition is
"ridiculous." He also scoffed at the name of the opposition alliance.

"By choosing such a name, the opposition wants to demonstrate to the
public that it really exists. But in reality, it doesn’t, and the
idea of a united opposition is laughable," he said.

Rauf Mirgadirov, a columnist with the independent Russian-language
daily newspaper Zerkalo, sees little reason for the opposition to
be optimistic.

"I don’t think that anything serious will be accomplished," he
said. "Because the resources of the opposition – human, information,
and also financial resources – are extremely limited."

"Although there are a lot of discontented voters, the active electorate
is much smaller than those in previous elections," Mirgadirov
said. "This is because of the fact that in the past 10 to 15 years
people have lost their trust in democratic means of struggle," he said.

The ruling party says Aliev enjoys massive popular support because
of his government’s economic achievements. Aliev received over 85
percent of the vote in October’s presidential election, widely viewed
as flawed, and a majority of respondents in opinion polls consistently
give him high marks. He has presided over sharp economic growth in
the past five years. The oil-fuelled economy grew by 25 percent in
2006, 35 percent in 2007, and 11 percent in 2008 despite the global
financial crisis.

Arzu Malikli, a Baku woman who works as a baby-sitter, said her life
has improved during Aliev’s tenure and that she would like him to be
president for life.

Another Baku resident, Samir Mammadov, who works for a law-enforcement
agency, said he has no grievances with the government and that Aliev
is the best person to lead Azerbaijan at the moment.


The opposition is also hoping for U.S. support after the Bush
administration’s gentle treatment of Aliev, who sent Azeri troops to
Iraq and who has tried to balance his country’s relationships with
the United States and Russia.

"A new important center of power has emerged recently. This is the new
U.S. president, Barack Obama," Gambar said. "During his inauguration
ceremony, Obama addressed governments that hold on to power through
corruption. He said that they had no future or past. From this
viewpoint, it’s clear who is going to become history."

Gambar also warned of threats posed to the "free world" by
authoritarian regimes.

"We understand that sometimes there is a need for realpolitik. But I
think that the authoritarian regimes, led by the Putin-Medvedev regime
in Russia, have gone so far that they now pose a serious threat not
only to democratic ideals but also to the pragmatic interests of the
free world and the entire world as a whole," he said.

Ali Valiyev is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist in Baku.

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