Exiled Political Leaderâs Return Raises Tensions in Azerbaijan
Plans by Rasul Guliyev, leader of Azerbaijan' s opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, to end his nine-year exile and return to Azerbaijan to take part in the country's parliamentary elections are spurring political turbulence. The authorities have warned that Guliyev, who faces criminal charges, will be arrested upon arrival. Opposition members have predicted that if Guliyev is detained, thousands of protestors will take to the streets in Baku.
The former parliamentary speaker, who has resided in New York since leaving Azerbaijan in 1996 after a falling-out with then President Heydar Aliyev, has announced that he will return to Baku on October 17 at 4:00 pm on a "special " British Airways flight from London.
"I urge the Azerbaijani authorities to avoid any oppression (of civil rights) and I call on the nation to stage civil unrest against violations of human rights," Rasul Guliyev said in an October 11 telephone conference call scheduled by the Committee for the Protection of Guliyev's Rights. In an interview with the Azeri service of the BBC that same day, Guliyev said that he does not fear arrest. "I come to fight for victory in the parliamentary elections. My goal is to fight dictatorship, corruption and monopolies in Azerbaijan."
Guliyev's Democratic Party claims that more than 500,000 people from opposition parties, veterans, groups and NGOs will meet the exiled opposition leader at Baku's Heydar Aliyev Airport on Monday to ensure his safety. Rauf Arifoglu, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, has stated that any attempt by the authorities to prevent Guliyev's arrival will only make "the revolution" occur sooner. Pro-opposition newspapers have taken up the cry, with stories headlined "The Revolution is Scheduled for Monday."
Internal Affairs Minister Ramil Usubov told journalists on October 12, however, that the authorities plan to keep the situation under tight control, and will not allow free entry to Baku's airport for any activist demonstration.
Sources in Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies confirm that the scenario for Guliyev's arrest has been well prepared. "From the early morning, police forces will take control over a certain territory of the airport in order to prevent any massive demonstrations in the facility," said one source who asked not to be named. " As soon as Guliyev will leave the plane, criminal investigation officers will present the warrant for arrest and take him. "
Guliyev faces criminal charges, filed after he left Azerbaijan nine years ago, for allegedly stealing $107 million in state property.
The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, one of the members of the tripartite opposition bloc Azadlig, Azerbaijan's largest opposition alliance, has claimed, however, that support for Guliyev to not be arrested runs throughout pro-government structures as well as the opposition. DPA Deputy Chairman Sardar Jalaloglu says that the party has received letters of support from about 500 candidates for parliament, including members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP), and claims that a highly ranked official from the Cabinet of Ministers will be at the airport to welcome Guliyev.
"Under the law, every Azerbaijani citizen has freedom of movement and every single police action preventing people from going to the airport will be illegal," Jalaloglu said. Reporters "from leading world media outlets," some Azerbaijani parliament members, US Congress representatives, British peers and German politicians will accompany Rasul Guliyev on the flight, Jalaloglu claimed.
But law enforcement agencies state that the presence of VIP companions will not deter them from arresting the ex-parliamentary speaker. "We will act according to Azerbaijani laws" a source in the Interior Ministry, who requested anonymity, said.
According to the same source, the ministry and the General Prosecutor's office will release a special address to the nation on the eve of Guliyev's arrival. On October 13, the heads of both government bodies urged people not to provoke the situation and warned that police would prevent any outbreaks of disorder.
Nonetheless, key details about Rasul Guliyev's return to Baku remain unclear. British Airways has already denied that it will be providing a special plane to fly Guliyev to Baku on October 17. Azerbaijan Airlines the state-run company which manages the Baku airport, reported that its only October 17 flight from London to Baku is planned to arrive at 11:30pm.
Responding to these statements, the DPA's Jalaloglu, refused to specify which plane will be used by Guliyev, saying only that the flight will be specially chartered. If authorities will prevent the plane from landing, he said, Guliyev will choose another route, but still intends to return to Baku on October 17.
Not all Azerbaijanis, however, are convinced that events will unfold as described. Ordinary Bakuvians in tea-houses are placing bets on whether or not the ex-parliamentary speaker will return. "It is the seventh time that I have heard about his returning and he never took a flight (to Baku)," said Faraj A., a taxi driver. I don't believe it." The individual against whom Faraj is betting, however, says that he is positive that Guliyev will return, be arrested and released in a couple of days.
Some experts also doubt how keen Guliyev is to return under threat of arrest. The ex-parliamentary speaker also planned to return for the 2000 parliamentary elections and the 2003 presidential elections. Although a candidate for parliament, Guliyev has been deprived of the usual immunity from prosecution given to parliamentary candidates. [See the EurasiaNet archive].
"The chances for Guliyev's return are two to one. The same chance is for his arrest," said Rasim Musabekov, an independent political analyst who is running for parliament as a member of the opposition Musavat Party.
Nonetheless, opposition experts and some political analysts consider Guliyev's return will be a turning point in the country's political situation. They believe that it could inspire pro-opposition Azerbaijanis for a more determined struggle against the government and split the ruling elite.
"The arrest of Rasul Guliyev is a position which the authorities have supported since his exile. And if they will give up this position, it will be a small victory which will predetermine the bigger victories," said Zardusht Alizade, an independent analyst.
Alizade states that, as a native of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, also home to President Ilham Aliyev's family, Guliyev is the only politician who could split the ruling team and create a situation where a Georgian or Ukrainian-style popular uprising could occur. "He is from the Nakhchivan tribe, and has extensive ties and financial resources."
Representatives of the ruling party, however, have a different assessment of the impact of Guliyev's presence in Azerbaijan. "Do not make a mountain out of a molehill," said YAP Executive Secretary Ali Ahmadov. "Nothing will happen in the country because of Rasul Guliyev. Nothing will happen because two-three people will be charged for crimes," Ahmadov said.
Ahmadov's deputy, Mubariz Gurbanly, called Rasul Guliyev's return "a voluntary extradition."
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party appears to be counting on the US, which granted Guliyev political asylum, to prevent the opposition member's detention.
Commenting on the issue during an October 12 briefing, U.S. State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli urged the Azerbaijani government to respect the rule of law and the rights of individuals charged with crimes.
The DPA's Sardar Jalaloglu has interpreted that statement to mean that the US government will not allow Guliyev's arrest. Jalaloglu pointed to the case of Saday Nazarov, an advisor to former Prime Minister Suret Huseynov who left Azerbaijan after Huseynov was charged with plotting to overthrow the government in 1994, as the reason why. "When Saday Nazarov, who received asylum in the Czech Republic came back to the country and was arrested, the Czech authorities demanded his release and the authorities had to follow international law."
However, Alevsat Aliyev, head of the Center for Legal Assistance to Migrants (CLAM), said that international law does not require the US government to demand Guliyev's release. "The 1951 convention on the status of migrants reads that the hosting country cannot extradite the asylum holder. If the person returned to the country on his own, it is not the host country's responsibility." Another loophole for Guliyev may exist, however, he argued. "Guliyev is charged for the misappropriation of USSR property. One cannot be charged for a crime against a non-existing country."
Such predictions, however, appear unlikely to sway the general prosecutor's office. Said Zakir Garalov in an October 14 press conference: "We have carried out the Guliyev investigation for many long years, and the court,s decision will be fulfilled. " Claims that the US will support Guliyev are mere "political speculation," Turan news agency reported Garalov as saying. "Azerbaijan is an independent state and the law enforcement agencies will do their work on their own."
Latest from Azerbaijan
We would like to hear your opinion about the new site. Tell us what you like, and what you don't like in an email and send it to: email@example.com