The start of 2007 has brought new opportunities for Azerbaijan’s opposition parties to revive their activism. The decision of the State Tariff Council to increase prices for gasoline, electricity, and other utilities in January has sparked dissatisfaction from large segments of the population, creating an opportunity the opposition parties did not want to miss. Both the Azadliq bloc, comprised of the Popular Front, Democratic, and Liberal parties, and the Musavat party decided to stage protest rallies. Yet, once again, differences on tactical approaches have prevented them from uniting behind a common, strong slogan.
Subsequently, the Musavat party held its rally in the suburbs of Baku last Friday, January 26, in a venue called the “Ukrainian Circle,” which is one of the few places the authorities allow rallies. Close to 2,000 opposition activists participated in the event, a number astonishingly lower than the purported membership of the party and hardly reflecting the widespread public dissatisfaction with the price hikes.
The Azadliq bloc rejected the idea of holding the rally at Ukrainian Circle, arguing that it was too far away. “A long time ago, the Azerbaijani opposition agreed to hold rallies in Motodrom [another suburb of Baku] and since then the authorities have always demanded that we go to that place. The same will happen if we accept the Ukrainian Circle.” Instead, Azadliq activists protested in the city center, only to have their rallies quickly broken up by the local police. Only a hundred or so activists have joined the action.
Some independent analysts and politicians have noted the small number of participants in these rallies, considering it a surprise that despite widespread displeasure with the price increases, the public refused to join the opposition protest rallies. Asim Mollazadeh, a former member of the Popular Front party and now chairman of the newly created Democratic Reforms Party, relates this syndrome to the distrust the public has regarding the opposition parties. “The Musavat rally was nothing more than a PR event.” Mollazadeh added that the roundtable discussion, organized by his party was more useful and effective than the Musavat rally.
Indeed, while it is clear that the opposition parties experience a number of logistical problems such a lack of offices and regular pressure from the local authorities, it is also the fact that their credibility with the public is at an all-time low. Fifteen years of bickering and internal fighting, disunity, and a lack of creativity has led the opposition parties to the brink of collapse and stagnation, a situation from which it will be very difficult to recover
The opposition’s poor public image and credibility may explain why the Democratic Party (ADP), always known for its radical position and uncompromising stance toward the authorities, made a sensational move two weeks ago. Following the 9th session of the party’s Supreme Council, ADP officials announced that the party is reversing its political orientation and starting a new phase in its relations with the authorities, one that will be based on constructivism and participation. Sardar Jalal-oglu, deputy chairman of the party, explained this decision as a response to the need to “move out of the current situation.” He added that, sooner or later, other opposition parties would also come to this conclusion.
ADP’s decision not only confused its allies in the Azadliq bloc, but also the general public. While the latter threatened to expel the party from the bloc, a threat that never materialized, other political parties welcomed the idea. Even YAP, the ruling party, in the words of its executive secretary Ali Ahmadov, has applauded the decision of ADP, while at the same time expressing confusion about how ADP will still function within the Azadliq bloc.
Other opposition parties also seem to be continually searching to find their proper niche. According to local media, two minor opposition parties, Adalat and Great Revival, may be planning to unite. And the Azerbaijan’s Way party, known for its pro-Russian orientation because its founder, Ilgar Gasimov, had worked in the Russian Ministry of Justice, has managed to expand by attracting disgruntled members of the Popular Front and ADP. Gasimov has promised that his party will stage its own rallies once he comes back from Russia, where he is recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident.
While Azerbaijan’s opposition parties continue to search for ways to be politically relevant, the increasing government revenue from oil sales is making it much harder for them to succeed. The real chance to bring new ideas and attract new members belongs to the Islamic opposition, which the authorities should be carefully watching.
(Day.az, ANS TV, Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Echo, Zerkalo, January 29-February 2)