Little to Lose: Opposition in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijani domestic politics are characterized by increasingly limited pluralism, as President Heidar Aliyev's administration exerts a dominating influence over both mass media and grassroots activity. In addition, opposition parties are hampered by their own limitations.
The referendum of August 24, 2002 labeled by opposition partisans and international observers alike as flawed has served to curtail the ability of Aliyev's domestic critics to participate in politics. It has altered the system for parliamentary elections from one of partial proportional representation (which gives some voice to the typically smaller opposition parties) to an exclusively majoritarian ("first past the post") system. This new structure provides an additional advantage to the well-financed and larger pro-government parties.
The referendum has also made it possible for the elderly Aliyev to appoint a temporary successor should he be unable to continue fulfilling his duties as president. This chosen substitute would be well positioned to win an election for the vacated post. Political analysts say this may offer Aliyev an opportunity to engineer his own political succession, installing his son, Ilham, as president after he leaves the political stage.
Ultimately, the new system may end up encouraging a greater level of protest outside the extant political framework. Some political observers believe 2003 could be a turbulent year for Azerbaijan, with presidential elections scheduled for October and social unrest on the rise.
Although a host of opposition parties are allowed to operate in Azerbaijan, few of them have any influence over policy-making. Many political observers say that opposition parties have yet to formulate a message that can attract the support of a substantial portion of the general population. Indeed, opposition parties have had problems differentiating their policy stances on many issues from those held by the Aliyev administration. On those issues where substantial differences exist, the opposition response to government policy has tended to be to organize protest actions, rather than attempting to offer proactive alternatives. In addition, opposition parties have often become entangled in intra-mural squabbles and rivalries.
Due to the government's attempts to stifle institutional opposition and the opposition's own failure to unite and strike a chord with the Azerbaijani populace, the number of spontaneous protests is likely to grow in the coming months and years. The diversion of anti-government sentiment into non-official forms of protest can already be seen in such events as the violent clashes in the village of Nardaran in June 2002 (and continuing unrest in the area), the protests of cadets at Azerbaijan's main military academy in September, and other public demonstrations. Fundamental Islamist sentiment, which offers an outlet for dissent outside of official structures, may likewise be on the rise.
Azerbaijan's political development since its independence in 1991 is inextricably linked to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The status of this Armenian-inhabited enclave inside Azerbaijani territory has long been a source of discord and tension in the region, and the violence that flared up during the late Soviet era quickly turned into full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Armenians were victorious, and now control an estimated 15 to 20 percent of Azerbaijan's Soviet-era territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict further created an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan (with many Azerbaijanis claiming the figure to be as high as one million). No peace deal has been concluded since the 1994 cease-fire, and the short-term prospects for one seem dim.
In addition to its massive social and economic effect, the war had a major impact on Azerbaijani internal politics. Popular discontent over the handling of the conflict by the government of former Communist Ayaz Mutalibov led to his ousting in the spring of 1992, when the main opposition movement, the Popular Front, took over. Further losses in the war, however, as well as serious internal problems, led to the subsequent dismissal of the Popular Front government. This paved the way for the return of Aliyev, the veteran Communist Party leader of Azerbaijan.
Aliyev succeeded in stabilizing the country, negotiating a truce in the war, and securing Azerbaijan's status as an independent state. Internally, he consolidated his hold over the country in a series of disputed elections, and his New Azerbaijan Party (NAP) now enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament.
The Azerbaijani President was not always in such a dominant position. The Popular Front, which can be regarded as the ancestor of many of today's opposition parties, played an important role in the early years of independence. It was formed in 1989 to promote perestroika in Azerbaijan, but soon became an umbrella group for a broad spectrum of groups opposed to the Communist regime. In early 1992, it led the protests against Mutalibov that forced his resignation. The movement's chairman, Abulfaz Elchibey, captured the presidency in June of that year with 60 percent of the vote. However, a series of battlefield setbacks, beginning with the controversial killing of hundreds of Azerbaijani soldiers and civilians at Khojaly in February 1992 continued to erode public confidence in Elchibey's leadership. One year after taking power, in June 1993, Elchibey was forced to step down following a military uprising and nationwide antigovernment protests. As speaker of parliament, Aliyev became acting president. Elections later that year made that status permanent, despite the widespread reporting of irregularities.
Azerbaijani political parties, according to the more critical observers, are not necessarily representative of an association of individuals who share common political values and objectives. Instead, there is a tendency for them to be patronage structures centered on powerful, charismatic politicians. In this respect, opposition parties in Azerbaijan do not differ from the ruling party. The personality- rather than platform-based style of politics means that many of those in the opposition have extremely limited organizational depth and a very narrow support base. Although approximately 40 parties exist in all, only three of the opposition groups have local branches throughout the country and a constituency numerous enough to have any influence. All three owe their existence largely to the disintegration of the Popular Front.
Popular Front: This movement, which began to take shape prior to the Soviet collapse, evolved into a large and loosely organized protest group for any organization opposed to the Communists. It was the leading political force in the period just before and after independence, but the forced resignation and internal exile of Elchibey shattered this dominance in 1993. Afterwards, the Popular Front lost many leading figures to other parties.
Elchibey's return from banishment in his home province, the exclave of Nakhichivan, in October 1997 led to a split in the Popular Front. A younger group supporting liberal ideas, led by Ali Kerimli, came to dominate, while a smaller, more traditional group of nationalists remained clustered around Elchibey. (Upon Elchibey's death in August 2000, Mirmahmud Miralioglu took over the leadership of the nationalist wing.) Attempts to reunite the party have failed; in fact, in 2002 a second split appeared when a group led by Gudrat Hasanguliyev left Kerimli's wing. As its three branches and history of infighting attest, the Popular Front remains an extremely loose organization. It finds most of its support in Baku and the isolated Nakhichivan region, and presently controls six seats of a total 125 in parliament.
New Equality Party (Musavat): Musavat is the self-proclaimed successor to the pro-Turkish party of the same name that figured prominently in the first independent Azerbaijani republic (1918-1920). In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, many of the present Musavat leaders were members of the Popular Front. They split with the Popular Front in 1992, originally distinguishing themselves with an ideological mixture of nationalism, pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism, but later becoming increasingly moderate and secular in orientation. Recently Musavat, often described as the party of Azerbaijan's intelligentsia, has taken over the Popular Front's role as the most prominent opposition party. Similar to the Popular Front, there exist within the party disagreements over whether to emphasize nationalism or a more Western, liberal stance, but in this case a split has been avoided. Isa Gambar currently heads Musavat, which enjoys support in Baku and the country's central regions and currently holds two seats in parliament.
Azerbaijan National Independence Party (ANIP): The ANIP's core constituency is made up of Azerbaijanis who used to live in Armenia. Its leader, Etibar Mamedov, like Musavat's Gambar, is a former Popular Front member. Founded in September 1992 on a platform of liberal market reforms, the party blames Aliyev for the country's widespread poverty. Mamedov, who has at times cooperated with Aliyev's regime in return for influence, was nevertheless its strongest opponent in the 1998 presidential elections. The ANIP has two deputies in parliament.
Democratic Party of Azerbaijan: Exiled former Chairman of Parliament Rasul Guliyev leads the Democratic Party. An ally of Aliyev's in the mid-1990's, the two later fell out and Guliyev joined the opposition. By the late 1990's his party had attracted a large enough following to be considered one of the key opposition groupings, although its level of exposure and regional representation were not on par with the three described above. In 1998, Guliyev was charged with embezzlement and similar crimes and fled abroad. The party's electoral influence has declined since his departure, although it is still quite active on the opposition scene.
All of the above-mentioned party leaders at one time or another were members of the Popular Front and share many of the same political beliefs. Their greatest disagreement is over which of them is the best-equipped to lead a united opposition. At times all three parties and other like-minded factions have proven their ability to work together as a rule just before elections but normally such cooperation fades as soon as the event that brought them together has passed. This lack of coordination has undoubtedly hurt their electoral chances. More importantly, perhaps, the infighting has allowed Aliyev to isolate each party politically and maintain his dominance through a "divide and conquer" approach.
An organization called the Democratic Congress (DC) represents the most durable form of opposition alliance. Established in 1994, it unites a fluctuating number of parties usually around 10 of which the most influential are the Popular Front and Musavat. Even given such a longstanding multiparty organization, though, until recently true cooperation remained elusive. The DC does not present a united party list during elections, and its small Baku office seems devoted primarily to exchanging ideas and maintaining informal ties.
However, recent joint statements and rallies by key parties in response to the August referendum have some observers predicting that opposition cooperation will continue to rise in the face of increasing pressure from Aliyev's administration. The informal coalition set up to contest the referendum, which is both broader and looser than the DC, remains intact, issuing a statement on October 9 calling for the removal of Aliyev from power. Four opposition rallies followed over the course of October, with high attendance. The core group opposing the referendum, which has created an Opposition Coordinating Center, is active on other issues as well, such as the drafting of the new electoral code.
Alone or in cooperation, funding is a perennial problem for opposition parties. The NAP, as the party of power, controls a much larger war chest than these groups. There are four main sources from which the opposition attracts financial support, explained Leila Yunus of the Azerbaijani NGO Institute of Peace and Democracy: membership dues, contributions of Azerbaijani businessmen inside the country, donations from businessmen that reside abroad and the finances of party leaders themselves. Of all these sources, Azerbaijani businessmen living abroad are the most significant contributors. These businessmen often feel excluded from opportunities in many lucrative domestic sectors, which tend to be controlled by Aliyev's relatives and political allies. These businessmen hope that a change in leadership could provide them with new commercial openings.
Relations with Government
Despite such tension, the main opposition parties agree with the current government in a number of areas. They all promote a pro-Western course and champion the extraction of Azerbaijan's natural resources as a means of developing the country as a whole. Even here, however, the DC "worries about the large compromises that the government made to foreign [oil] companies." The DC shares the government's wariness of Iran, however. Both fear that Iran might try to foment an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in the country; Azerbaijan is, after all, one of the few other Islamic countries in the world with a Shia majority. Instead of defining themselves as such, however, both opposition and government see secular Turkey and the United States as the country's most important strategic allies.
Similarities aside, opposition parties tend to be considerably more nationalistic than the government, most notably on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. The DC claims that "the humiliating
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