31/10/2005 - D-7
Azerbaijan is expecting a certain amount of agitation during the general elections on 6th November next. The last few weeks of the electoral campaign have indeed been marked by a number of arrests, the dismissal of several members of the government as well as a number of political personalities as well as the aborted attempt to return by Rasoul Gouliev, leader of the Democratic Party, a part of the Opposition Block Azadlig (Freedom) that also rallies the Popular Front led by Ali Kerimli and Moussavat led by Isa Gambar.
Fifty-seven year-old Rasoul Gouliev, who has been in exile in the US since 1996 is a former president of the Milli Mejlis (Parliament) and has been accused of embezzling 120 million dollars in public funds (83 million euros) when he was the director of one of the biggest oil refineries in the country, Azarneftyag; he is officially standing in a district of the capital, Baku, in the general elections on 6th November. On 17th October last he was arrested as he travelled back to Azerbaijan at the request of Interpol at the airport of Simferopol in the Ukraine.
Twenty-six members of the Democratic party including one of its leaders, Gurban Mamedov and Rasoul Gouliev's nephew, Etibar Gouliev, were imprisoned the day before the former president of Parliament was due to arrive. In defence of these arrests Home Minister Ramil Usubov said on TV that the opposition forces were preparing violent attacks by storing up arms and rallying supporters in Baku. "The opposition is undertaking deliberate measures to worsen the country's situation. It is encouraging people to defy the law and is planning to use violence against the police and the Ministry of State Security," he maintained. The Greek and US ambassadors along with representatives of international organisations, including the Office for Democratisation and Human Rights from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) went to the airport on 17th October to meet Rasoul Gouliev.
According to political analyst Leyla Alieva the government is quite rightly frightened by the return of the leader of the Democratic Party, "Rasoul Gouliev has money and is in the opposition. The advent of individuals who are economically independent as in the Ukraine is the source of real danger for the authorities in Azerbaijan who monopolise almost of the country's main economic activities," points out Leyla Alieva who believes that the government's attitude might prove counter productive and finally play against it. Some political analysts believe that if Rasoul Gouliev fails to return to his country at the end of the week (the former president had already planned his return for the general elections on 5th November 2000 and for the presidential election on 15th October 2003), he will be discredited for ever in the eyes of public opinion and will have to end his political career. Others maintain however he is still someone with whom the authorities will have to reckon notably because of his wealth.
Rasoul Gouliev was freed by the court in Simferopol on 20th October. "There is no reason to arrest him. The documents presented by the American authorities show that the grounds for accusing Rasoul Gouliev, who enjoys the status of refugee in the USA, might be political," declared the judge, Nina Starova. The Democratic Party leader is determined to return to his country and take part in the general elections whatever the cost. "In spite of the declarations on the part of the authorities who have promised to arrest me I am determined to go back to Azerbaijan to take part in the general elections. My aim is to fight against the dictatorship, corruption and monopolies," he declared. "Personally I do not think he will come back. A second attempt makes no sense and his arrival will change nothing," maintained the analyst from the American Johns Hopkins University, Fariz Ismaïlzade, adding "I feel that he is just gaining time before the elections to show that he wanted to come back and finally that it did not work out."
Several political figures and members of government have been arrested over the last few days: the former Finance minister, Fikret Ioussifov, on 18th October, then on 20th October, the Minister for Economic Development, Farkhad Aliev (no relation of the President of the Republic in spite of his family name), the Minister for Health, Ali Isanov, and the head of the prison administration, Akif Mouradverdiev. Farkhad Aliev's brother, Rafik Aliev a director of one of the country's biggest oil companies, Azpetrol, was also arrested. Farkhad Aliev has been accused of "embezzling public funds, abuse of power, the organisation of riots and an attempt to take power in a violent manner," indicated a press release by the General Prosecutor and the Ministries for Domestic Affairs and State Security. According to the authorities Fikret Ioussifov, is supposed to have confessed, that Rasoul Gouliev telephoned him in July to say that the funding for an illegal putsch would be given to the Minister for Economic Development, i.e. Farkhad Aliev and other close colleagues of his. Last week Fikret Sadikhov, a friend of Rasoul Gouliev and president of the State Company Azerchimie, along with Nazim Ibrahimov, human resources director at the Health Ministry were arrested – the directors of the department for company development, the Company Subsidies Funds and several other managers of the regional healthcare departments were also arrested. All are accused of having participated in the conspiracy that aimed to cause a "coup d'état". In addition to this the Electoral Commission of the constituency of Djalilabad cancelled the candidature of Aliovsat Aliev's Farhad and Rafik Aliev's brother in the elections on 6th November.
These recent arrests bear witness to the great rivalries between those in power; Farhad and Rafik Aliev are the members of the second most influential family in Azerbaijan after that of the President of the Republic, Ilham Aliev. The latter might use these elections to rid himself of the part of the old political community that surrounds him and appoint new people who are more concerned with the reform of society and even in opening up to democratisation.
The demonstration organised on 9th October last in Baku by the Opposition Block Azadlig in support of the organisation of free and clear general elections led to violent clashes between demonstrators and the police. According to the Popular Front led by Ali Kerimli, 27 people were injured including ten journalists and two opposition candidates, 52 others were arrested. According to the police 28 people were arrested and 11 policemen injured. Ramiz Nadjafli, editor in chief of the weekly Boz Gurd, was beaten until he was unconscious and Idrak Abbasov, correspondent for the daily Ayna-Zerkalo, had to be taken to hospital. This demonstration was the third unauthorised one to be organised in Baku in less than three weeks (the two previous ones took place on 25th September and 1st October).
On 23rd October another demonstration rallied three hundred people in the capital according to the Azadlig Block (150 according to the police); demonstrators demanded the resignation of the President of the Republic, Ilham Aliev and the holding of free elections. Fifty demonstrators (15 according to the police) were arrested before being freed again. Finally last week around 16,000 people took part in three demonstrations according to the Block Azadlig in the regions of Hadjigaboul, Neftchala and Ali-Bayramli in the east of the country. The Opposition Block planned to conclude its electoral campaign with the organisation of a concert on 4th November in the capital's stadium.
Just a few days before the elections the USA has expressed great concern. "We are worried about the measures taken by the government this week, notably the arrests en masse, the detention of certain candidates, the restriction of access to the media for the candidates of the opposition and the deployment of the security services," indicated a press release from the American State Department. However the organisation for the defence of human rights Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights the fears on the part of some of the population that the USA will privilege its oil investments instead of Human Rights; Azerbaijan is in effect the starting point of a pipeline that is 1,760 Km long and which crosses Georgia, enabling the transport of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. "It is time for the West to adopt a position founded more on principles," declared the Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli. For her part Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations protested against the violation of political freedom during the electoral campaign in Azerbaijan. The Commissioner said that she was "extremely disturbed and worried" by the development of the situation in the Caucasian Republic. "A climate such as this is a threat to truly democratic elections," she stressed. Finally Maurizio Pavesi, head of the mission in Baku for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has expressed his concern about the "increase in violence, the use of force against demonstrators and arbitrary arrests."
The Azerbaijan authorities greatly fear that there will be a repetition of a scenario as in Georgia or the Ukraine on 6th November. The divisions within the opposition forces – the Azadlig Block says that it is in favour of more radical reform than the New Political Block (YES) - might increase if Rasoul Gouliev returns and the number of Western interests in this part of the world make it highly unlikely that a peaceful, democratic revolution will take place on 6th November. The Opposition Block Azadlig and the Milli Birlik Movement (National Unity) recently attempted to draw closer to one another by signing a co-operation agreement on 12th October. The parties promised to rally their forces to "ensure free and democratic elections, the elimination of fraud, the reciprocal support of candidates and the adoption of a common position with regard to the results once these have been announced."
Just days before the election 1,822 candidates are still standing. In addition to this the Electoral Commission declared on 26th October that it agreed to the use of indelible ink for the election, a decision that the experts qualify as positive and yet they regret its tardy adoption.