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Azerbaijani Opposition 'Betrayed' by Europe

Why is the Council of Europe urging Azerbaijan's opposition parties to abandon their boycott of the newly elected parliament?
By Kemal Ali

Azerbaijan's beleaguered political opposition is being forced to swallow the bitter pill of defeat.


Apparently outwitted by President Heidar Aliev's ruling party, the mutinous opposition has now been betrayed by its erstwhile ally, the Council of Europe. And its faith in Western democratic values has suffered a resounding blow.


In the wake of November's controversial elections, the opposition parties announced a unanimous boycott of Milli Medjlis, the Azerbaijani parliament, on the grounds that their candidates had been unfairly excluded from the electoral race and voting laws had been blatantly infringed.


They hoped this move would persuade the Council of Europe to bring pressure on President Aliev and force him to declare the election results null and void.


Last month, however, representatives from the Council of Europe and the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) urged the opposition to abandon the boycott and acknowledge the legitimacy of the newly elected parliament. For the opposition parties, it was the ultimate betrayal.


In the event, President Aliev proved himself to be a master of diplomacy and intrigue. In response to Council of Europe protests, he overturned the election results in 11 voting districts across Azerbaijan. He also announced that a number of highly placed officials had been charged with intimidating local electoral commissions.


In fact, independent observers had reported violations in a further 88 districts and, according to Azerbaijani law, if the results are overturned in 25 districts or more, the government is forced to call new elections.


But Aliev's magnanimous gesture achieved the desired result: it served to mollify the Council of Europe and to ensure that his party, Eni Azerbaijan, retained its parliamentary majority.


Aliev also agreed to bring forward the second round of voting from January 4 to January 7 in order to ensure that Western monitors would be able to attend - evidently, a further sign of his commitment to fair and democratic elections.


The Europeans were quick to respond to Aliev's show of good will.


During a meeting with top government officials in Baku, Andreas Gross, head of the OSCE mission, praised the measures taken by the Azerbaijani authorities to address the violations reported in November's elections. (Just weeks earlier, Gross had branded the voting results a "complete fabrication".)


The OSCE delegation also met with the leaders of the Musavat and Popular Front parties and pressed them to accept the Eni Azerbaijan victory.


Meanwhile, the ambassadors of several European countries gave interviews to local newspapers in which they urged the opposition to take part in the January elections.


In addition, a Council of Europe commission which visited Baku in December noted a new readiness on the part of the ruling authorities to champion the cause of human rights.


Naturally, the Council of Europe's change of heart has inspired a new optimism in Azerbaijan's ruling cabal. On December 19, parliamentary chairman Murtuz Aleskerov commented, "We have done everything that was asked of us to ensure that Azerbaijan is accepted into the Council of Europe."


And Ali Gasanov, head of the socio-political department on the president's staff, stated publicly that, if Azerbajian were not accepted into the Council of Europe, it would be the opposition's fault.


Azerbaijan's ongoing bid to join the Council of Europe will be formally reviewed on January 17. But, smarting from last year's humiliation when neighbouring Armenia was granted a seat on the council and Azerbaijan was rebuffed, Baku has taken a defiant stance over the whole membership issue.


Last November, Aliev reportedly told the British ambassador, "The Council of Europe needs Azerbaijan far more than Azerbaijan needs the Council of Europe."


And following a recent visit to Strasbourg, Azerbaijani human rights campaigner Eldar Zeynalov reported that council members were genuinely concerned the former Soviet republic would refuse outright to join their ranks.


It is clear that this issue lies at the heart of the Council's recent volte-face over Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections.


Currently, only a small minority of ministers actually opposes Azerbaijan's membership bid but this number is likely to grow if the opposition continues to boycott the Milli Medjlis parliament. The lack of a democratic opposition in Azerbaijan's primary legislative body means the bid will encounter fierce resistance from the Council of Europe's human rights lobby.


OSCE chief Andreas Gross commented that, without any real opposition, the Azerbaijani parliament would "lack the mantle of legitimacy".


And his colleague, Gerhard Studmann, added, "We should be sure that the Azerbaijani delegation to PACE represents the entire electorate and not just a third of the people."


Meanwhile, the future looks bleak for the opposition. Already, some of its stalwarts are breaking ranks and jumping ship to the ruling party. The poet and writer Vagif Samedoglu, who was dismissed from Musavat for refusing to join the party boycott, has accepted his parliamentary seat. In December, he joined the official Azerbaijani delegation to Strasbourg - a reward, no doubt, for his sudden change of heart.


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