On June 4, the Azerbaijani opposition achieved its greatest victory in the past 19 months. The ban on organizing and holding public rallies in the country was finally broken when Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov agreed to authorize a request for street demonstration organized by a coalition of three major opposition parties: Musavat (Equality), the Democratic Party, and the Popular Front.
More than 10,000 people showed up to participate in the protest rally, shouting slogans for free and fair elections, changing the election code, freedom of the press in the country, and investigating and punishing whomever murdered journalist Elmar Huseynov in March (see EDM, March 10). The Liberal, Umid (Hope), and other minor opposition parties also joined the event, coincidentally held near a movie theater named “Gelebe,” which means “Victory.” Opposition described the event as “their first victory” hinting at the second one to come in November 2005, when the parliamentary elections will be held.
Speaking at the rally, Ali Kerimli, chairman of the Popular Front, said, “Our fight is not for the seats in the parliament. Our fight is for the kind of parliament that would represent the interests of people. We are fighting for the democratic composition of the parliament.”
The rally, although calm and orderly itself, followed a brutal crackdown against the same opposition parties on May 21, when they attempted to organize a street rally. Police severely beat and arrested dozens of opposition activists and journalists, provoking condemnations from the U.S. State Department, OSCE, and Council of Europe. The Azerbaijani authorities claimed that the May 21 rally had been suppressed in order to preserve public order during the opening ceremonies of the vital Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline on May 25 and the related arrival of many high-level foreign dignitaries.
Yet, the opposition parties seemed very determined to hold rallies at any cost. One high-ranking opposition activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Jamestown, “This time we decided to use a completely different tactic. We agreed that if the police run toward us again, we would not fight or run away. We will simply sit down and stay on the ground silently. Let them [the police] do whatever they want to us.” The authorities, however, found out about this strategy and were forced to allow the rally to avert such an embarrassing spectacle, the opposition believes. The authorities subsequently offered to allow the opposition to hold their rally on the outskirts of Baku, but when the opposition leaders refused and insisted on the downtown area, a compromise agreement was reached for the site near movie theater.
The 19-month long prohibition of public rallies was revoked due to the intensified pressures from both the opposition and the international community. Speaking several weeks ago, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish said that he believed the “right for freedom of assembly should be observed.” The OSCE and Council of Europe have similarly, on numerous occasions, advocated for the restoration of the right to free assembly.
The Azerbaijani authorities, in their turn, have argued that the opposition parties pose a threat to public order and political stability in the country. They point to the post-election violence that took place following the disputed presidential elections on October 15-16, 2003, and remind that rallies can get out of control. During the 2003 demonstrations, one person was killed and hundreds were wounded when police and opposition protestors clashed in downtown Baku.
Now, with the successful rally on June 4, the opposition seems revitalized once again. “The authorities have backed down!” declared the opposition press. “We have managed to restore our constitutional right for assembly!” Arif Hajili, deputy chairman of the opposition party Musavat predicted, “The next rally, scheduled for June 18, will be even larger.” The government is yet to authorize that rally, but all signs indicate that the ruling regime has softened its stance on this issue. Back in May, Ali Hasanov, chief of the political department of the presidential administration, told ANS-TV that starting from June, “Public rallies and other election campaign activities will be allowed.” This was followed by President Ilham Aliev’s decree on improving the electoral process in the country by several means, including permission by the local authorities for all candidates to freely hold public demonstrations.
Some international organizations, however, still believe that not enough is being done to ensure free and fair elections. Opposition groups, meanwhile, are preparing for their “biggest battle,” promising a tense autumn in Azerbaijani politics.
(Yeni Musavat, Turan, APA, ANS-TV, Echo, Zerkalo, June 4-6)