Tensions Rise in Baku

Observers believe that Heidar Aliev's government is preparing the country for bad news

Tensions Rise in Baku

Observers believe that Heidar Aliev's government is preparing the country for bad news

Azeri opposition leaders are to stage mass demonstrations in Baku to protest against government handling of the Nagorny Karabakh peace talks.

With just a month to go before the next round of talks in Geneva, tensions have been rising across the capital, which has also seen a sharp escalation in violent crime.

However, local observers claim the strained atmosphere has been deliberately orchestrated by the authorities in a bid to prepare the population for a dramatic climb-down over Nagorny Karabakh.

The planned demonstrations are being spearheaded by the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) whose last protest march, on April 21, was forcibly dispersed by riot police.

But the DPA remains undeterred. Party leader Rasul Guliev, a former parliamentary speaker, praised the "courage and decisiveness" of the demonstrators and condemned the government backlash.

"The DPA has no intention of swerving from its course of action," Guliev told the Eni Musavat newspaper. "We have the strength to continue the struggle for civil rights and a decent standard of living."

The DPA leader concluded that the party would make no deals with the authorities and was ready to join forces with other opposition groups.

The next meeting was scheduled to take place on May 12 when the DPA was due to march with the "classical" wing of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA) - a party closely associated with another opposition heavyweight, Musavat.

PFA leader Ali Kerimov said the demonstration had been prompted by news that the government was ready to sign a capitulatory agreement with Armenia over the Nagorny Karabakh dispute.

Kerimov went on to say that, after the March peace talks in Florida's Key West, there was a real possibility of solidarity amongst the opposition factions.

Musavat leaders are also hinting that they may take part in upcoming demonstrations. Party secretary Ibragim Ibragimli said, "The resolution of the Nagorny Karabakh dispute will ultimately be forced upon the Azeri people."

He explained that recent government propaganda on diplomatic successes combined with the April 21 crackdown are clear signs that the authorities are preparing society for compromise.

This argument was reinforced by a May 5 visit to Baku by Carey Cavanaugh, the American co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group which is currently brokering the peace deal.

Armenian diplomats swiftly claimed that Cavanaugh chose to visit Azerbaijan -- rather than Armenia or Karabakh - in an attempt to put increased pressure on President Heidar Aliev.

Ibragimli commented, "Cavanaugh's visit to Baku and his secret talks with Heidar Aliev indicate that the Azeri authorities are seriously preparing for D-Day when the results of the peace talks will be made public and the extent of Azeri concessions will become clear."

Prior to the American diplomat's visit, a new peace formula was allegedly leaked to the Azeri media which claimed it would form the focus of the June 15 talks in Geneva.

Under this proposal, the Nagorny Karabakh enclave would formally remain part of Azerbaijan but would enjoy such a large degree of autonomy that it would to all intents and purposes become an independent state. The question of complete autonomy has always been rejected by Baku in the past.

In the wake of Cavanaugh's visit, the Turan news agency - traditionally considered to be the mouthpiece of the opposition - quoted an unnamed foreign diplomat as saying, "The mediators have come up with a formula that would be equivalent to cutting off Azerbaijan's hands."

Meanwhile, the authorities are clearly determined to suppress any planned opposition protests in Baku. However, President Aliev is also aware that further heavy-handed actions may give his opponents greater leverage in the upcoming peace talks.

Following the April 21 demonstrations, a US State Department spokesman commented, "We believe that the Azeri government should respect the right of its citizens to freely hold public meetings."

He added that an annual report on human rights in Azerbaijan had described the existing situation as "poor".

At the same time, Council of Europe experts have visited Baku to prepare a report on human rights abuses and political prisoners in Azerbaijan. They will present the report to the council on June 30.

Sulhaddin Akper, Musavat party secretary, said the Baku regime was attempting to plunge the city into "chaos and anxiety" by spreading rumours and disinformation.

Akper also believes that government agents have sparked off turf wars between rival crime gangs in a bid to heighten the tensions.

On May 1, two men were shot dead while sitting in their car near Baku's Fizuli Square. Most observers agree that the killings had all the hallmarks of a mafia hit.

Isakhan Ashurov, a well-known lawyer and former policeman, described the incident as an "example of anarchy and lawlessness in the capital."

He also cited another incident on April 28 when three men attacked a car belonging to the Azeri interior minister, Ramil Usubov.

The assailants - who included Samed Heidarov, a senior counter-intelligence officer - proceeded to beat up the car driver, Victor Kondaurov, until police arrived at the scene. The men then produced firearms and Kondaurov was wounded in the subsequent shooting.

The Bilik Dyunyasy news agency described the incident as "an example of the clan mentality which dominates the authorities and their complete lack of control". Ironically, it pointed out, the shooting took place on a street named in honour of Aziz Aliev, the father-in-law of the current Azeri president.

Irada Akhmetova is an independent journalist based in Baku

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