On March 21, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliev signed an amnesty decree, releasing 115 prisoners. The decreed, timed to coincide with the Novruz spring holiday, freed many individuals that the Council of Europe, local, and international human rights organizations considered to be “political prisoners” (ANS TV, March 21).
Aliev’s decree also applied to the so-called “October prisoners,” the opposition leaders arrested in connection with the post-election violence on October 16, 2003, following the controversial presidential elections in the country. Thus, seven opposition leaders — Musavat deputy chairmen Rauf Arifoglu, Arif Hacili, and Ibrahim Ibrahimli; People’s Party chairman Pahan Huseyn; Umid party chairman Igbal Agazadeh; Democratic Party Secretary-General Sardar Jalaloglu; and Karabakh War Veterans Union chairman Etimad Asadov– were freed after nearly 18 months of incarceration (Xaql Qazeti, March 22). The amnesty also freed Rahim Gaziev, the former defense minister imprisoned in the mid-1990s.
The move was widely expected due to pressure from the Council of Europe, which had threatened to include Azerbaijan’s commitments before this organization into the agenda for the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The PACE monitor on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Malcolm Bruce, had traveled to Baku one week prior to the decree to discuss the topic with the political leadership of the country. It is not a coincidence that the chairman of the Popular Front, Ali Kerimli, remarked, “The release of the prisoners was done under pressure from international organizations” (Azadliq, March 23).
The U.S. State Department, British and U.S. embassies in Baku, the Council of Europe, and other diplomatic and international missions have welcomed the decree, calling it an important step towards establishing a dialogue between the political forces in the country. The speaker of parliament, Murtuz Aleskerov, stated that the “decree has closed the issue of political prisoners for good.” Subsequently, the discussion of Azerbaijan’s problem of political prisoners was removed from the PACE agenda.
Following their release, the seven opposition leaders held a press conference in Baku declaring that they would continue their political activity and stand in the upcoming parliamentary elections (Yeni Musavat, March 23).
Meanwhile, the leading opposition parties in the country — Musavat, Democratic, and Popular Front — for the first time in the recent history of Azerbaijan have managed to set aside their differences and form a unified coalition for the parliamentary elections, scheduled for November of this year. The coalition agreement was formally signed on March 18, although the informal negotiations started two months ago and the preliminary pact was nailed down in February.
“Many people believe that this coalition would have been more effective in 2003, but is was established only now. It was created according to public demand,” Sardar Jalaloglu of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party declared at the March 22 press conference. Indeed, many analysts believe that the lack of unity and a clear, coordinated post-election strategy among the opposition parties were the primary reasons for their miserable defeat in the presidential elections in October 2003 and subsequent violence in the streets of Baku.
The amendments made in the election code of Azerbaijan during the 2002 referendum have eliminated the parliamentary elections through party lists, leaving single-mandate districts as the only way to secure a seat. This change has played into the hands of the opposition parties, as they do not feel a need to compete at the national level anymore. Instead, the three parties have initiated a plan to share all the 125 parliamentary seats among themselves and pool their resources to support a single candidate from each of the constituencies.
The release of the political prisoners and the unification of the major opposition parties significantly increase the competitiveness of the Azerbaijani opposition, which has been weakened since the last presidential elections. The revolutionary events in Georgia and Ukraine also boost the hopes and expectations of the opposition members.
At the same time, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party held its third party congress on Sunday, March 27, electing President Ilham Aliev as its new chairman. The position had been vacant since the death of the former president, Heidar Aliev, in December 2003. The weekly news program on ANS television that day claimed that the move was done in order to unify the party prior to the parliamentary elections and to avoid competition among rival groups within the party for the chairmanship. Despite high expectations, the congress did not make substantial changes to the structure of the party. Neither did it bring many young people into leadership positions, as Zerkalo had speculated on March 24.
Both sides are making serious preparations ahead of what should be a heated race. The international community continues to press the Azerbaijani leadership over the improvement of the electoral law and the implementation of the Public TV law, which will improve the campaign process during the elections. As the U.S. ambassador in Baku, Reno Harnish, recently commented, the “parliamentary elections will be decisive for the future of Azerbaijan” (Azadliq, March 16).