Controversy is enveloping state-controlled media outlets in Azerbaijan after the broadcast of a television program that alleges Ali Karimli, one of the government's most vocal critics, is a homosexual. Karimli supporters maintain that the broadcast is designed to discredit him as a potential presidential candidate in the autumn election.
Opposition leaders see the film as the de facto sequel to a broadcast aired earlier in April about a knife attack on Agil Khalil, a reporter for the Azadlig (Freedom) newspaper, a publication with ties to the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, the opposition party headed by Karimli.
Prior to the attack, Khalil had alleged senior city government officials were selling city-owned land privately to construction companies. In February, Khalil was badly beaten by national security officers, and, later, stabbed by unknown assailants. In early April, the state-run AzTV and the pro-government Lider TV broadcast a 30-minute tape that claimed Khalil's alleged homosexual lover stabbed the journalist in a fit of jealousy. The reporter denies the allegations, which were roundly condemned by international human rights observers.
A similar claim has now emerged against Karimli. On April 22, Lider TV broadcast a 40-minute program that presented both Karimli and Khalil as the alleged representatives of a "sexual minority."
"Agil Khalil not only shares the same personality as Ali Karimli, but he also shares the same color," the program's narrator alleges, making a reference to "goluboi" (light blue), the colloquial Russian expression for a gay man. "It looks like the inclination toward [this] sexual minority is a weakness of Ali Karimli's and his circle." The program cites a "list of people with whom Agil Khalil has friendly relationships" to substantiate its claims. The broadcast added that Kerimli supposedly "directed" Khalil's "youthful passion in the wrong direction."
Fuad Mustafayev, deputy head of the Popular Front, contends that the broadcast was defamatory and intentionally styled to inflict political damage on the opposition. To underscore the political intent of the program, Mustafayev added, it was rebroadcast a second time on April 29, Karimli's birthday.
Other Baku observers agree that the programming was politically motivated. "Once again, it shows the immorality of the authorities," charged pro-opposition political analyst Zardusht Alizade. "They are using electronic media they control to frighten and to discourage not only their political opponents, but also potential voters. It is a lesson to others."
As yet, there has been no international reaction to the broadcasts concerning Karimli. Meanwhile, representatives of President Ilham Aliyev's administration vigorously deny any coordinated effort to discredit Kerimli. "There is no black PR," insisted Ali Hasanov, a top presidential aide. "If it existed, the opposition media would be on the top of this," Hasanov told reporters on April 25. "Whether pro-government or opposition, journalists should always respect people's honor and dignity."
At first glance, there would seem to be little reason for such a vicious personal attack on Karimli. Azerbaijan's opposition, never robust, has weakened since the 2005 parliamentary elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, the consensus among observers is that Aliyev should cruise to victory in the autumn presidential vote.
Partisans of the Popular Front, arguably one of the best known and organized of Azerbaijan's opposition parties, claim that the television program is designed to encourage the party to boycott the presidential election. Under the present circumstances, opposition leaders say they feel disinclined to participate.
"There are no conditions for an election campaign; in particular, there is no real freedom of assembly, while freedom of speech is dramatically limited," the Popular Front's Mustafayev complained to EurasiaNet. "Under the current conditions, it is naìve to think about democratic elections in Azerbaijan. It is a farce, a tragicomedy and we do not want to contribute to this by our participation [in the elections]."
Former presidential advisor Eldar Namazov, now an opposition leader running for president, sees a broader purpose behind the broadcasts. "A smear campaign against opponents like this is used to prevent an outburst of people's political and social [welfare] frustrations," suggested Namazov.
To date, aside from Namazov, only one other nominee has been officially designated to contest the October 15 election. On May 5, in an unusual twist on international election practices, Defense Minister Safar Abiyev nominated Aliyev for reelection. Five opposition parties are expected to eventually nominate candidates.
An opposition party boycott, said Hasanov, would have little impact on the campaign. "The participation or non-participation in the election is the business of each party," the Trend news agency quoted Hasanov as saying on April 23. "There will be enough candidates taking part in the elections."
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.