Azerbaijani Opposition's Spring Awakening

An unsanctioned rally held by Azerbaijan's largest opposition parties in central Baku has put them on a collision course with the government

Azerbaijani Opposition's Spring Awakening

An unsanctioned rally held by Azerbaijan's largest opposition parties in central Baku has put them on a collision course with the government

Signalling the start of what may turn out to be a very long presidential election campaign, the Azerbaijan opposition went ahead with an unauthorised demonstration on March 23, provoking a heavy police backlash.

The rally in Fizuli Square in the centre of Baku was the largest of three organised by different parts of the Azerbaijani opposition within the space of a week, underlining that there are still serious splits within the country's anti-government forces.

One of the organisers of the demonstration, Ahmed Oruj, said that between eight and ten thousand people attended, while Baku police chief Yashar Aliev put the figure at only one thousand.

The security force presence certainly almost equalled the number of demonstrators. The authorities sent in around 1,000 policemen, equipped with truncheons, shields and flak jackets. Around 20 trucks full of interior ministry troops also waited not far away. In clashes between the two sides, the police said 15 of its men were injured and opposition leaders said hundreds of protestors were hurt.

Some of the unhappiest people were local Baku residents, who were unable to go to and from their own homes for several hours.

March traditionally marks the start of a new political season in Azerbaijan. The radical opposition coalition, the United Opposition Movement, began their campaign with a press conference on March 22. They announced that, in defiance of the government's demands that they could only meet far from the city centre, they would hold their rally the next day in central Baku in front of the National Democratic Theatre.

The new coalition was formed in January by three parties, which are arguably some of the most powerful political movements in Azerbaijan: Musavat, the conservative wing of the Popular Front and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.

At the rally, the opposition parties put forward a string of tough demands, ranging from the resignation of President Heidar Aliev and his team to a full amnesty for political prisoners and the lifting of a ban on rallies in Baku's largest public space, Freedom Square.

A parliamentary deputy from the governing party New Azerbaijan, Mubariz Gurbanly, said the rally had been deliberately provocative. "They wanted to create a confrontation at all costs and then, exploiting this confrontation, to spread slander against the Azerbaijani authorities amongst international organisations," he said. "It's possible that they wanted in this way to demonstrate their existence or to spend the money they have received from somewhere on destabilising the situation in the country."

Isa Gambar, the leader of the largest opposition party, Musavat, rejected these charges. "We do not accept an artificial division of demonstrations into sanctioned and unsanctioned," he said, arguing that their right to protest was enshrined in the constitution. "We have put forward the demand for the current leadership to resign because we are sure that every year that Azerbaijan remains under Heidar Aliev's leadership is a lost year. The sooner this regime leaves, the better it will be for the people."

Rustam Seidov, a political analyst with Novoye Vremya newspaper, wondered if the authorities had cracked down on the rally in order to discourage other spontaneous demonstrations by the population on socio-economic grounds - a strategy he called the "precautionary suppression of an impoverished people".

The new turbulence in the Azerbaijani political landscape is occurring more than a year and a half before the next presidential elections, for which the New Azerbaijan party has already put forward the 78-year old President Aliev as its candidate for a third term.

But much of the current strife is inside the ranks of the opposition itself, which is divided and racked by internal competition. A group of moderate opposition parties, led by the reformist wing of the Popular Front and the Party of National Independence, have signed a tentative cooperation pact, but their rivals accuse them of collusion with the government. Another pro-Russian opposition party backs former Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov, now resident in Moscow, but keeps its distance from the others.

Both these groupings agreed to government proposals to hold rallies far from the city centre on March 16 and 17 in front of the Gelebe Cinema. Both rallies were small, held with official permission and under the slogans "Bread, Jobs, Karabakh!" - and both passed off with almost no media coverage.

The most powerful bloc, also the most divided, contains two heavyweights, Gambar and former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev, both of whom have serious ambitions to be Azerbaijan's next president.

Meeting after the rally, the United Opposition Movement leaders decided to escalate their new campaign and call their next demonstration for April 27 at Freedom Square.

Political analyst Seidov predicted two possible outcomes. Either Gambar backs down from holding next month's rally - as he did on a similar occasion in the autumn of 2000 - which would lower the credit of the opposition. Or there will be a violent confrontation at the event, which the authorities will use to intimidate the Azerbaijani population.

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's Associate Editor in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Karabakh, Azerbaijan
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