Speculation is growing over whether former parliament speaker Rasul Guliyev and former president Ayaz Mutalibov will return to Azerbaijan to run in the November parliamentary elections. Both men, now living in exile, face arrest if they return to Azerbaijan to campaign for office.
Although Guliyev and Mutalibov are both officially registered to run in the November 6 parliamentary elections, authorities have rescinded the immunity normally extended to candidates. Azerbaijani General Prosecutor Zakir Qaralov has stated that, in the event they return, both men will be arrested on criminal charges filed after their departure into exile.
Despite the danger of arrest, supporters of Guliyev and Mutalibov maintain that the two opposition leaders will return to join the election campaign. Guliyev is slated to run for parliament in Baku's 36th Khatai constituency, and Mutalibov intends to run in Baku's 17th Yasamal constituency. Guliyev faces a race against Samed Seyidov, a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, and the head of Azerbaijan's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Mutalibov could run against another high-profile opposition candidate, Lala Shovket, head of the Azerbaijan Liberal Party and a former state secretary under former president Heidar Aliyev.
One independent political analyst noted that the return of both Mutalibov and Guliyev could have a sizeable impact on Azerbaijani politics. "It is more a psychological factor than a question of Guliyev's and Mutalibov's popularity," said Rasim Musabekov. "The fact that authorities backed down from their position [on registering the two exiles as candidates] will encourage people to be more active and radical in politics."
Meanwhile, supporters of President Ilham Aliyev's administration maintain that the decision to register Guliyev and Mutalibov as candidates underscores the government's commitment to holding a free and fair parliamentary vote. "Equal conditions will be created for everybody regardless of their political views," Rustam Mikayilov, an election official in the 36th constituency, said in an August 27 interview broadcast by the pro-government ANS television station.
The government's action to register Guliyev and Mutalibov while not recognizing their immunity from prosecution appears to contravene Azerbaijani law, said Alasgar Mammadli, an independent lawyer and specialist on Azerbaijani election legislation. "The law says that a candidate may be deprived of immunity only if he is caught red-handed in the act after registration [as a candidate]," Mammadli said.
The international community has been generally circumspect on the issue. At a September 1 press conference, Mats Lindberg, the Council of Europe general secretary's special representative to Azerbaijan, stated that "[t]his issue [the participation of Guliyev and Mutalibov in the election] should be solved within the framework of the law."
US Senator Richard Lugar (Republican-Indiana), chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed that position. At a September 1 news conference, Lugar mentioned that he raised the issue during talks with Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov. "This issue should be considered comprehensively and a solution should be found," Lugar added.
Mutalibov, 67, served as Azerbaijan's first president after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has lived in Moscow since his resignation in 1992. In 1994, President Heidar Aliyev's administration brought criminal charges against Mutalibov for alleged complicity in the use of Soviet troops to suppress demonstrations in Baku in 1990. More than 100 people died during the Soviet military crackdown. Currently co-chairman of the Social Democratic Party (YeS), Mutalibov has remained politically active in exile. Political experts believe that he enjoys considerable popularity among the large Azerbaijani labor migrant community in Russia and within the Shirvan region of central Azerbaijan, an area that includes villages around Baku.
Guliyev, the 57-year-old former head of Azerbaijani's oil refineries and deputy prime minister under the late president Abulfaz Elchibey, served as the speaker of Azerbaijan's parliament from 1993 until 1996. As a result of conflicts with Heidar Aliyev, in 1996 Guliyev moved to New York City, where he serves as chairman of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and represents the radical opposition group, Azadlig. With the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan's Ali Kerimli and Musavat Party's Isa Gambar, he is one of three co-chairmen of Azadlig. Guliyev faces charges that he plundered some $107 million in state property.
Guliyev is a native of Nakhchivan, the exclave that is home to much of Azerbaijan's ruling elite. One independent political analyst, Zardusht Alizade, believes that if Guliyev returns to Azerbaijan this association could lead to a split within the ruling elite. This possibility, Alizade said, may have prompted authorities to lift Guliyev's immunity from prosecution.
"Guliyev is the only politician able to split the ruling team and create a situation where a Georgian or Ukrainian scenario [reference to the 2003 Rose Revolution and 2004 Orange Revolution, respectively] could come true in Azerbaijan," said Alizade. "He is from the Nakhchivan clique, has broad ties, and financial resources."
Other observers have downplayed such a scenario. "I think such an assumption is an exaggeration," said Musabekov, the independent analyst.
Shahin Abbasov and Khadija Ismailova are freelance journalists based in Baku.