Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 136

Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev’s successful medical recovery and discrete overtures toward the opposition seem to enhance the prospects for stability and incremental political reforms in the country. Barely one month ago, Aliev’s condition–in the wake of open-heart surgery in the United States–had generated active speculation concerning presidential succession and the post-Aliev era as a short-term prospect. In recent days, however, Aliev has reverted to a full-time work schedule: He has been conferring with foreign ambassadors and visitors, facing–sometimes feistily–the local press, presiding over cabinet sessions and at times micromanaging the government. Today Aliev is flying to Switzerland for unofficial negotiations with rival Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian.

The president and some of his officials are now showing a relatively uncustomary degree of receptivity to certain grievances of the opposition. On July 9, Baku police prevented a large group of journalists from staging a protest demonstration against recent verbal and physical attacks on several members of their profession. While the physical aggressors remain unidentified, the verbal abusers included representatives of the authorities. Aliev reacted on July 9 and 10 by publicly condemning the abuse, ordering investigations into the attacks and admonishing the police for having stopped the journalists’ march. In a statement which seemed intended equally for the opposition and for subordinate state authorities, Aliev declared that “protection of freedom of the press and of the rights of journalists represents an important obligation of the state.” On July 12, the president amnestied opposition journalist Fuad Gakhramanly, a Popular Front supporter who had been sentenced last year on sedition charges and on whose behalf the United States had interceded.

Meanwhile, state officials–preeminently Aliev’s senior foreign policy adviser Vafa Guluzade–have been giving interviews to opposition newspapers, reflecting the virtual consensus between the presidential camp and the opposition Popular Front (PFA) on a pro-Western foreign policy. Attending a conference of the PFA on its tenth anniversary, Sayed Aran–one of the leaders of Aliev’s Yeni [New] Azerbaijan Party–paid tribute to the PFA for having achieved the national independence which the present authorities seek to consolidate. Such signals from the presidential palace are causing other opposition circles–notably Musavat and the emigre former chairman of parliament Rasul Guliev–to suspect that ruling authorities and the Popular Front are negotiating toward political accommodation.

The Western orientation in foreign policy inevitably nudges the upper echelons of government toward greater receptiveness to Western advice on overdue political reform. At the urge of United States Ambassador Stanley Escudero and other Western representatives, the presidential administration and the leadership of parliament–controlled by the Yeni Azerbaijan–have recently accepted to revise objectionable draft laws on the status and operation of mass media, on local government and on municipal elections (Turan, Assa-Irada, Azadlyg, July 9-14).