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Azerbaijan's Political Opposition Struggles to Regroup - 2004-04-15

Azerbaijan's political opposition is struggling to regroup following the government crackdown on street protests last October against what was widely perceived as fraudulent presidential elections. The opposition says the campaign of political repression is continuing.

Isa Gambar is the chairman of the opposition bloc known as Our Azerbaijan, which reportedly won more than 50 percent of the vote in last October's elections, but instead of taking power, Mr. Gambar says the bloc ended up on the government's black list and its activities have been curtailed.

Mr. Gambar said that Our Azerbaijan, along with all other opposition parties, has been prevented from organizing pickets or protest meetings against the new government of President Ilham Aliyev. In addition, he added that, the opposition's appeals for dialogue with the government have been ignored, and freedom of the press has been suppressed.

Mr. Gambar said the government even took back his party's designated office space in Baku in an attempt to silence him and his supporters.

He admits the opposition is fragmented and until it unites, is unlikely to play any role in Azerbaijan's politics. He is skeptical the fractious opposition activists will find a common platform.

Ali Karimli, the chairman of the opposition party known as the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, said his party is also ignored by the government.

Mr. Karimli adds his group regularly asks the government to meet and hold discussions on public issues, and is regularly turned down. He says there is no difference between the autocratic government of the former President Heidar Aliyev or the current one led by his son, Ilham.

The Director of the independent Institute of Peace and Democracy in Azerbaijan, Dr. Leila Yunis, said, if anything, Azerbaijan's human rights situation is deteriorating.

"More than 1500 persons [were] arrested during the first ten days after election," she said. "About 600 of them stay in prison from five to 20 days and 128 of them stayed under the criminal investigation and now we have courts [and] trials. So, if we spoke about [the] situation with human rights and democratic freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of court system, freedom of investigation - the situation became worse."

As Ms. Yunis put it, we have a new president, but the same old Soviet system, including repressions.

The Chairman of Azerbaijan's ruling party in parliament, Samad Seyidov, rejects such claims and says President Ilham Aliyev is leading the country to democracy.

"I can not say that [there are] no changes [here] because during the last four or five months, for example, he [President Aliyev] has signed two very important pardoning decrees," he said. "Not only because of the number of prisoners released after that, but from the point of view of who was released. For example, the former minister of the Interior, or a former prime minister. And he is going, I know about that, to do much more serious steps concerning political prisoners, concerning democratization of this country."

However, he said the process of democratization is slow, which accounts for the complaints from human rights campaigners.

Mr. Seyidov, in turn, accused the West of creating political tension in countries like Azerbaijan and Georgia by supporting the opposition.

"Seventy-five percent [of the vote] we had here during elections and all European organizations said no, this couldn't be, it's unbelievable," he said. "O.k., not true? 96 [percent] in Georgia is true? Only Saddam Hussein had this kind of percentage. This is double standards. [Mr.] Saakashvili presented himself as a person fighting for Western values. O.k. if you are person fighting for European values, 96 percent is o.k. for you. This is bad, very bad, not for [Mr.] Saakashvili, but for European values."

Leaders of Azerbaijan's political opposition say they will not accept President Aliyev as legitimate and vow to organize to unseat the government in the next parliamentary elections.