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Azerbaijan: Popular Front Escapes Ban
In what appears to be an eleventh-hour climbdown, President Heidar Aliev has revoked a registration ban imposed against a leading Azerbaijani opposition party.
The decision, on January 22, to recognise the reformist wing of the Popular Front is a rare political reverse for the Azerbaijani leader - at the beginning of a year when he has declared he will stand for re-election as president.
However, it has saved his government from a potentially bruising encounter with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which was set to discuss the registration issue at its upcoming session next week.
The drama began nine days earlier when the country's justice ministry revoked the registration papers of the party, led by Ali Kerimli.
Instead, the authorities recognised a pro-government splinter group known as the Group of Gudrat Gasanguliev - or the "Three Gs Party" - as the official Popular Front.
The Azerbaijani opposition, in a rare show of unity, strongly condemned the move and were soon backed by international organisations and diplomats. The Baku office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe made its views plain when it continued to invite members of Kerimli's party to meetings and functions.
Azerbaijan's Popular Front was the standard-bearer of the republic's campaign for independence from the Soviet Union. Founded in 1989 as a broad-based movement, it came to power in 1992, when its leader Abulfaz Elchibey was elected president.
When Elchibey fell from power a year later, the party moved into opposition. It split in two after the former president died in 2000, with the young Kerimli leading a reformist wing while Mirmakhmud Fattayev became the head of a more conservative party.
Kerimli's party won four seats in that year's parliamentary elections. While Fattayev won a seat, he refused to take it up in protest at alleged vote-rigging at the polls.
A year later Gudrat Gasanguliev emerged as leader of a third group, with a markedly pro-government character, which also called itself the Popular Front.
And to make things even more complicated, a fourth grouping - led by former dissident Faraj Kuliev - formed early last year, also calling itself the Popular Front and also seeking dialogue with the authorities.
Many analysts saw the emergence of these new small factions as part of a government-inspired plan to undermine Kerimli's party and split the opposition.
So the president's decision to revoke the ban came as a pleasant surprise, with Kerimli's deputy leader Asim Mollazade describing it as a "restoration of justice".
Senior presidential official Ali Hasanov told the Echo newspaper that "the president took account of the protest which the justice ministry's decision had triggered in society". However, the main reason for the apparent U-turn may lie outside Azerbaijan, not within it.
Guillermo Martinez Cassan, one of the Council of Europe's rapporteurs in Azerbaijan, had signalled that the council was going to take up the issue in Strasbourg next week. He met with Ilham Aliev - the president's son and a member of Azerbaijan's delegation to the council - and also with Kerimli himself.
Cassan made it clear that he saw the non-registration of Kerimli's party as an attempt to stifle one of Azerbaijan's leading opposition parties.
The biggest loser from the president's intervention was Gudarat Gasanguliev, who blamed "certain foreign states and national traitors who support their interests" for the decision. As a result, he has missed the chance to have his party officially labelled as the Popular Front, and also lost his seat on the Central Electoral Commission.
Political analyst Zardusht Alizade called Aliev's decision to overrule the justice ministry a "clever trick" orchestrated by the president and the ministry to impress the West with his democratic credentials.
Fellow analyst Rustam Seidov was more sceptical - seeing it as a symptom of Aliev's advancing age and weakening political powers.
The Azerbaijani president will be 80 years old in May and has suffered from various health problems. Nevertheless, he has declared that he intends to run for another five-year term this autumn.
Mamed Suleimanov is a journalist with Novoye Vremya newspaper in Baku
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