Azeri Opposition Stakes All on Cultural Icon

Filmmaker Rustam Ibrahimbeyov plans to return later in July so he can run for the presidency.

Azeri Opposition Stakes All on Cultural Icon

Filmmaker Rustam Ibrahimbeyov plans to return later in July so he can run for the presidency.

Rustam Ibrahimbeyov. (Photo: Vahid Gazi)
Rustam Ibrahimbeyov. (Photo: Vahid Gazi)

Azerbaijan’s opposition parties plan to rally behind a top filmmaker rather than a conventional politician in the presidential election this October. They are hoping Rustam Ibrahimbeyov’s reputation at home and abroad will carry him to victory against the incumbent leader, Ilham Aliyev. 

The 74-year-old Ibrahimbeyov has the backing of the National Council of Democratic Forces, an umbrella group that includes all the major opposition parties – Musavat, the Popular Front, the National Solidarity Party, the Islamic Party, the Liberals and others.

“I am not a politician. But everything that’s happening in this country has forced me to engage in civic activity,” Ibrahimbeyov said. “This is an attempt to save the country. This country is being killed.”

Ibrahimbeyov, 74, achieved fame in the Soviet Union and beyond in 1970 as author of the hit film “White Sun of the Desert”. Later collaborations with Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov included “Burnt By the Sun”, which won an Oscar for best foreign-language film. He is currently head of Azerbaijan’s Union of Cinematographers.

Ibrahimbeyov first entered the fray of public life in 2008 with an article critical of Azerbaijan’s parliament, government and intellectuals, Members of parliament demanded an apology, but Ibrahimbeyov refused. Officials responded by putting an end to his film festival and closing down his cinema.

In 2011, he founded the Intellectuals’ Forum, which brought together writers, academics, composers and rights activists. This prompted pro-government news sources into vitriolic attacks on everything from his patriotism to his mental state.

On January 19 this year, Ibrahimbeyov announced that he was creating a political movement to campaign for free and fair elections in Azerbaijan. The same day, he left the country. (See Giant of Azerbaijani Cinema Under Fire for more.)

Ibrahimbeyov has recently been travelling in Europe, Russia and North America, meeting officials and urging them to closely scrutinise the conduct of the October election.

He is also hoping they will come to his aid if he faces obstacles in getting his candidacy registered with the electoral authorities in Azerbaijan.

“Even in the event of a refusal,” he said, “there must be no other candidates from genuine democratic groups, and the National Council [of Democratic Forces] must continue its struggle against the government’s unlawful actions and force it to obey the constitution, the will of the people of Azerbaijan, and the country’s international obligations.”

The Musavat party has nominated its leader Isa Gambar to stand against Aliyev, but party leaders say he will drop out as soon as Ibrahimbeyov is confirmed as a candidate.

Gambar conceded that it was a risk to back a candidate who is not currently in Azerbaijan, but noted that Ibrahimbeyov had pledged to return home by the end of July.

Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli said Ibrahimbeyov was the ideal figure to transform Azerbaijani politics, a man who would “work to make sure his nation could enter the democratic world”.

Those backing Ibrahimbeyov point out that he is seen as politically independent and is respected both in Russia and in the United States. Since he has lived in Moscow, some hope he will win support from Azerbaijani billionaires there.

Ali Ahmedov, general secretary of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party, was dismissive of Ibrahimbeyov’s chances, given that he was still abroad.

“A candidate’s chances are decided by the extent of the public support for him. But for some reason, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov is looking for support abroad and holding meetings in various countries,” he told the APA news agency. “I don’t know how true it is that he’s meeting with international institutions, but that isn’t important. How are such meetings relevant to the presidential election?”

Ahmedov also suggested that the National Council of Democratic Forces was little more than the servant of foreign states, although he did not specify which.

“Isa Gambar and Ali Kerimli spent years in a protracted battle to be single opposition candidate, but nothing ever came of it. Now they’ve both quietly stepped aside and say they’re supporting the candidacy of a man from abroad,” he said. “It’s obvious that they are supporting Ibrahimbeyov because they have received orders to do so, and as always they are carrying out the orders they get from abroad.”

Eldar Namazov, a senior figure in the National Council of Democratic Forces, dismissed such allegations as patent falsehoods, part of what he called a “cold civil war”.

One rule that Ibrahimbeyov could fall foul of is a constitutional provision requiring election candidates to have lived in Azerbaijan for the previous ten years. Some observers think the authorities might invoke the rule to block him from standing, although Zardusht Alizade, director of the Baku School of Journalism, argues that it is not applicable.

“Over the last ten years, I have often been at events held by Ibrahimbeyov. If someone is frequently abroad, that doesn’t mean they aren’t resident in the country,” Alizade said. “That cannot be a pretext to refuse to register him as a candidate.”

Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR reporter in Baku.

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