Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeri Opposition in Crisis

The four opposition parties are in a state of malaise, and blocked from protesting in public.
By Ilham Rzayev

Eight months after the brutal crackdown that followed last year’s presidential election, the Azerbaijani opposition is in crisis, as short of fresh ideas as it is of cash.

Seven politicians are still on trial in Baku for alleged assaults on police in the violence of October 16, when a demonstration protesting the election of Ilham Aliev as president was violently broken up. They include the general secretary of the Democratic Party Sardar Jalaloglu and several leaders of the Musavat party, whose leader Isa Gambar was the main challenger last year to Aliev.

Thirty four opposition activists remain in prison out of the 700 arrested last October, according to Eldar Zeynalov of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan.

Nowadays the four main opposition parties are unable even to protest in public.

“We have applied to the Baku mayor’s office more than 15 times since October 2003 with requests to approve a protest rally and have constantly been refused,” Aidin Guliev, one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, told IWPR. The mayor’s office said that a rally would prejudice the ongoing trial, and that the election results are not to be disputed.

Musavat and the reformist wing of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan say they have also made frequent requests to hold rallies and received the same rejection.

“Today the opposition is in a state of disarray,” commented political analyst Rasim Musabekov. “Practically deprived of its legal right to fight for power, it is now fighting to remain an opposition.

“They are not being allowed on the television channels or to hold rallies and pickets, and the four or five opposition deputies in parliament have been crushed after crude attacks on them by their pro-government colleagues.”

Following a poor performance in the parliamentary elections of 2000 – which opposition parties say was, together with last year’s elections, rigged – they have only a handful of seats in the 125-seat chamber.

Musabekov noted that since it is cut out of parliament and television, the opposition relies on three newspapers that have a print-run of just 20,000 copies between them, and its financial resources are dwindling.

The opposition say that they are being put under huge pressure by the government. “It is outright repression!” said Fuad Mustafiev, deputy leader of the Popular Front. “The country is under an unofficial state of emergency. We are not even allowed to rally. All we want is honest political competition.”

His colleague from Musavat, Sulhaddin Akper, commented that, “the peak of repression has passed but pressure on the opposition, especially in the provinces, is being maintained.”

But the government and its supporters say the opposition only has itself to blame for its weakness.

“The opposition does not play a role in the socio-political life of the country and the people do not trust it,” said Sayad Aran, one of the founders and leaders of the pro-government New Azerbaijan Party. “We are an oriental nation, and people condemn disrespect towards our elders. When Heidar Aliev was sick, the opposition leaders spoke out very rudely about him, which undermined people’s trust in them.”

Aran said that the opposition had no new ideas and claimed that their main slogans – fighting corruption and unemployment – were now being vigorously undertaken by the government.

Aran predicted that the opposition would remain marginal within Azerbaijani politics. “Their crisis will continue for a long time yet,” he said. “I don’t see that the opposition has any resources, even intellectual ones, to overcome its current condition.”

Others are not so sure and believe the forces opposed to President Ilham Aliev will make a recovery before the next parliamentary election in 2005, although probably not before the municipal elections due in November this year.

Political analyst Togrul Juvardly said that under Ilham Aliev the state apparatus and bureaucracy was acting with complete impunity towards ordinary citizens and was undermining popular support for his administration. “The opposition has one very serious resource – discontent in society,” said Juvardly.

Musabekov sees only one chance for the opposition parties to undergo a revival. “It will only be possible if there is a defection of forces from the ruling elite,” he said. “The fate of the opposition may depend on a breakaway by one part of the authorities; it is they who have money and media resources.

“It’s possible that a group that splits away from the ruling elite will either form a new real opposition, or strengthen the existing one.”

The opposition parties might be in an even worse state were it not for the protection and oversight of western embassies and international organisations, such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.

According to Ulvi Akhundli, press spokesman for the OSCE, his organisation is raising with the presidential administration the issue of their latest refusal to let an opposition rally go ahead on June 10.

Ilham Rzayev is political editor of Echo newspaper in Baku and Shahin Abbasov is the newspaper’s deputy editor.