Azerbaijani authorities have become seriously concerned about the success of the opposition rally held on Saturday, June 18, in Baku. More than 20,000 members of the election block “Azadliq” (Freedom), which unites the three largest opposition parties in the country — Musavat, the Popular Front, and the Democratic party, took part in the rally, demanding free and fair elections, changes in the composition of the election commissions, provision of equal conditions for all candidates during the election campaign, and an investigation of journalist Elmar Huseynov’s March 2005 murder.
The protestors carried such slogans as “Free Elections!” “Resign!” “Down with Dictatorship!” as well as portraits of U.S. President George W. Bush. The new feature of the rally was the orange color, which Azadliq has adopted as the official color of the alliance. Most of the participants wore orange T-shirts and caps and carried orange balloons, prompting the independent daily Zerkalo to write, “The ghost of the Orange Revolution is wandering in Azerbaijan” (Zerkalo, June 21).
The triumph of the opposition rally, widely covered by Russian, Georgian, Turkish, and European television outlets, seemed especially magnificent when compared with the June 15 rally of the ruling party YAP. Usually critical of street rallies, YAP superiors decided to show the opposition who has the strongest manpower and organized its own rally dedicated to “Salvation Day,” the official holiday on the Azeri calendar celebrating the day that the late President Heidar Aliev returned from Nakhchivan to Baku. More than 25,000 people showed up for the YAP rally, but the event looked pale and passionless. The opposition claimed that the majority of the participants in the YAP rally were either students or government employees who were forced to take part. Despite YAP’s considerable edge in administrative and financial resources, the ruling party lost the battle of the demonstrations. As one local analyst said to Zerkalo, “The ruling regime does not have a chance in this kind of a fight.”
It was not a coincidence that, following the demonstrations, both government officials and members of parliament bashed the opposition for creating chaos and instability in the country. Specifically, legislators from the ruling party have criticized international organizations and foreign embassies for funding the opposition. “I think that the parliament must give its opinion about the role of foreign funds in the domestic political situation,” said Ali Ahmedov, the deputy chairman of YAP. Other YAP members have criticized the opposition for bringing children to the rallies and “teaching them aggressiveness” and called for the adoption of the Law on Opposition Rallies.
Meanwhile, the opposition daily Azadliq reported on June 22 that President Ilham Aliev held a private meeting with senior governmental officials and criticized them for the humiliation related to the large opposition rally. Azadliq stated that although the president’s senior staff had tried to convince him that the YAP rally had more participants, Aliev said that he had seen everything on television. The daily also stated that the president had ordered the oligarchs to chip in large sums of money for more YAP actions in the near future.
As the election campaign gears up, the number of public rallies and the level of social tension are skyrocketing. Another powerful election alliance, YES-Yeni Siyaset (New Politics), announced on June 22 that it planned to organize public rallies and has even established a working group to prepare for them. The coalition of small opposition parties will hold its own rally on Saturday June 25. The YES and Azadliq coalitions are expected to begin negotiations on collaboration and cooperation, more bad news for the government. The opposition parties also plan to organize rallies in the regions outside of Baku. The first one of these was planned in Sumgait last week, but was postponed at the last minute due to disagreements with local authorities over the venue.
The international community is also keen to press the Aliev government to enact more reforms in the electoral process as well as to respect the right of freedom of assembly. It was mainly due to the international community’s pressures that the 19-month long unofficial ban on public rallies was lifted last week. More pressures have come this week from the U.S. Congress, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Council of Europe to change the composition of the election commission, a move the authorities have refused to undertake so far. At the moment, the government seems to be holding onto power by all means. But inspired by the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and most recently in Kyrgyzstan, the Azerbaijani opposition seems determined to fight this battle.
(Zerkalo, Echo, Azadliq, Turan, APA, Yeni Musavat, Gun, June 21-22)