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

Heads Roll in Azerbaijan

Failed comeback by leading opposition politician Rasul Guliyev ends with several government ministers sacked.
By Rufat Abbasov

The long-planned return of a leading opposition figure to Azerbaijan ended when Rasul Guliyev was temporarily detained in Ukraine this week. But in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, it sparked a round of dismissals of government ministers, at least one of whom is accused of conspiring with Guliyev to overthrow the government.

At the time this report was published on October 20, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev had sacked economic development minister Farhad Aliev, health minister Ali Insanov, education minister Misir Mardanov, and social security minister Ali Nagiyev. A statement released the same day by the prosecution service and the interior and national security ministers accusing Guliyev of planning to use his arrival in the capital Baku as the centrepiece in a campaign of mass disturbances leading to a coup d’etat.

The statement said Farhad Aliev and his brother Rafig had recently met a go-between sent by Guliyev, former finance minister Fikret Yusifov, to discuss funding for the planned revolution. Yusifov was arrested on October 16, and Rafig Aliev, owner of the major oil products firm Azpetrol, was detained three days later, at the same time his brother was dismissed.

The government statement did not refer to the role allegedly played by the other ministers, who were sacked on October 20, and no reason for their dismissal has yet been given.

Guliyev, 57, one of the leaders of the country’s so-called radical opposition, was expected to return home from nine years in exile in the United States on the afternoon of October 17.

He had registered as a candidate in the country’s November 6 parliamentary elections, despite the fact that he is wanted in Azerbaijan on charges of embezzlement.

Opposition members said that tens of thousands of people would turn out to greet him, and some observers anticipated large-scale disturbances.

Interior Minister Ramil Usubov announced that Guliyev would be arrested the moment he arrived.

Guliyev told IWPR by telephone before taking off from a specially-chartered flight from London, “In spite of the statements by the authorities that they will arrest me, I am determined to return to Azerbaijan to participate in the elections.

“My goal is to fight dictatorship, corruption and monopolies in Azerbaijan.”

But before Guliyev got to Baku, Ukrainian Interpol officers, acting on an Azerbaijani arrest warrant, detained him in the Crimean city of Simferopol.

Officials from Guliyev’s Azerbaijan Democratic Party, ADP, said their leader made an attempt to land at Baku’s Heidar Aliev International Airport, but was refused permission. However, Jahangir Askerov, head of Azerbaijan’s state airline Azal, insisted that Guliyev never asked to land, saying he changed his mind and flew to Simferopol instead.

Even before his plane was expected to touch down, tensions rose considerably in the capital Baku. In a testament to the opposition leader’s potential to stir things up, the authorities took unprecedented measures to maintain order, and detained 26 ADP members and associates, including former finance minister Yusifov.

Massive numbers of police in full riot gear were stationed throughout the city centre, especially around Azadlig Square, the symbolic gathering point for political protests over the years.

Numerous checkpoints blocked traffic on the road to the airport, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Air travellers arriving in Baku found themselves with no taxis to take them into town, while journalists and diplomats wishing to witness the historic event were turned back.

Interior minister Usubov said in a television interview that ahead of Guliyev’s return, the opposition was preparing for violence by stockpiling weapons and bringing extra numbers of supporters in from the regions.

“The opposition is intentionally taking measures to aggravate the situation in the country,” said Usubov. “They are provoking people to break the law and are making plans to use violence against the police and the security ministries.”

Opposition officials said the government’s claims were false and that the authorities had detained more than 1,000 Azadlig members to prevent them demonstrating. But an interior ministry spokesperson said only 30 to 35 people had been arrested for breach of the peace.

With Guliyev in custody, Azerbaijan dispatched a delegation with paperwork it hoped would secure his extradition. But on October 20, a judge in Simferopol ruled that the case for sending the politician back to Azerbaijan had not been adequately made, and ordered his immediate release.

Guliyev has been a thorn in the side of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime precisely because he was once a part of it. Though many observers question his democratic credentials, none dispute his obvious desire to remove the Aliev political dynasty.

He was a close ally of Ilham Aliev’s father Heidar, the now-deceased strongman. Like the Alievs, he is a native of Nakhichivan, a region cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan and known for its strong clan ties.

Guliyev rose through the country’s petroleum industry in the Eighties, eventually to run one of the country’s main oil refining plants. In 1993, he became speaker of the Milli Mejlis or parliament.

He resigned under unclear circumstances in 1996 and soon left the country, reportedly for medical treatment. Once in America, however, he began to denounce the Aliev government and lobby US lawmakers to take a harder stance against Azerbaijan on democracy issues.

The Azerbaijani authorities for their part accused Guliyev of embezzling over 100 million US dollars while in office, and launched criminal proceedings against him in 1998.

Political observer Leyla Alieva says the regime takes Guliyev seriously as a political opponent, and with some justification.

“Guliyev is a man with money who is in the opposition,” she explained. “The emergence of independent economic figures, as was the case in Ukraine, represents a real threat to the Azerbaijani authorities who hold most of the country’s principal business activities in their own hands.”

For the moment, it is unclear what Azadlig (Freedom), the electoral bloc that includes the ADP and other opposition parties, will do next.

Tensions between government and opposition have grown in recent weeks, and the authorities have used force to break up opposition demonstrations over the past three weekends.

International observers also expressed concern at the government’s actions toward Guliyev.

Council of Europe rapporteur Andreas Gross, who deals with human rights issues in Azerbaijan, said on a recent trip to Baku that he did not understand how the Azerbaijani authorities could register Guliyev as a candidate and at the same time prevent him from participating in the election.

“I think that if the ADP leader is accused of embezzlement, then others should be detained as well, since this applies to many high officials,” Gross told the independent television channel ANS. “Rasul Guliyev should not be arrested simply because he holds different views.”

This is not the first time Guliyev has announced his return to Azerbaijan. The most recent such occasion was just before the 2003 presidential election in which Ilham Aliev succeeded his father, who died shortly afterwards.

Some experts believed that if Guliyev failed to return to Azerbaijan this time round, he would be discredited in the eyes of the public and his political career would be over.

Others argue that the former parliamentary speaker will always be a force to be reckoned with, given his reported wealth and his importance to the opposition movement as a symbol of resistance from abroad.

Indeed, some believe his arrest and the government’s obvious nervousness about the case may help Guliyev in the long run.

"The authorities' overreaction to Guliyev’s return may prove to be counter-productive and not in their interests,” said Leyla Alieva, speaking before the ministerial sackings. “Even as things stand, they sense things are not going in their favour.”

“[The government] has given him a free advertisement,” said Baku resident Geray Alyshev, reflecting the views of many locals. “From morning to night, all that the television channels talked about was Rasul Guliyev.”

Rufat Abbasov is an independent journalist working in Baku.