Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 154

Azerbaijani opposition movement leaders under pressure

On August 4 and 5, Azerbaijani television channels screened a videotape of a meeting held on July 29 in Tbilisi between Ruslan Bashirli, leader of the Baku-based Yeni Fikir (New Thinking) youth association, and two Georgians who claimed to represent a youth group supporting regime change in Azerbaijan and offered clandestine assistance to that end.

Yeni Fikir itself seeks to spearhead an “orange-revolution”-type movement in Azerbaijan and has clad its followers in orange shirts, preparatory to street demonstrations in connection with the upcoming parliamentary elections. The group is affiliated with (though not a part of) the People’s Front of Azerbaijan Party (PFAP). Yeni Fikir activist Osman Alimuradov, who accompanied Bashirli to Tbilisi, promptly reported to the Azerbaijani authorities and turned over the videotape, which he said had been made by the Tbilisi hosts who retained a copy. Bashirli was detained on August 4 on criminal charges of conspiring to overthrow the constitutional order.

Bashirli, who is 27 years old, has been interrogated by a Baku court in the presence of his lawyer, Elchin Gambarov. The lawyer as well as PFAP leader Ali Kerimli, Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar, and others seek to mobilize political support for Bashirli. Official media, using the case to discredit PFAP, accuse Bashirli and other opposition members of working with Armenia’s intelligence services, but they adduce no evidence other than the Armenian names of some of Bashirli’s alleged contacts in Tbilisi. Bashirli’s defenders suggest that the videotape was doctored.

Beyond the welter of far-fetched mutual accusations in the media, however, Bashirli and his defenders have admitted to the accuracy of at least some of the content of the videotape. Thus, they concede that Bashirli has accepted a $2,000 donation — the receipt for which he is seen signing and heard confirming on the videotape — and a promise for a further $20,000 donation later this month. By way of mitigating circumstances, they cite Bashirli’s assertion — on tape and again to the court — that he would use the initial donation to buy technical equipment for Yeni Fikir and to cover expenses for his wedding party.

Kerimli told a news conference that the case is a provocation by the authorities “aiming to discredit Yeni Fikir, [out of] fear that the movement will grow in the run-up to the election.” Bashirli “should be held responsible morally, not criminally. He makes incorrect and inappropriate statements that the United States is preparing a revolution in Azerbaijan … He wants to present himself as a more important figure [than he is] in order to impress his interlocutors. All this is of course regrettable and makes him responsible before his comrades-in-arms,” Kerimli stated. He cautioned PFAP members to refrain from attending dubious meetings or drinking alcohol, and generally to control their emotions (ANS TV, Turan, August 5).

For his part, Gambarov told a news conference that the donation was part of a grant received via Georgian non-governmental groups. Bashirli was to have spent part on it on his wedding party planned for August 10 (ANS TV, August 6; Turan, August 6, 8). Yeni Fikir’s vice-chairmen, Said Nuriev and Fikret Faramazoglu, while defending Bashirli, told their press conference that their leader was “drunk and bragging” (AFP, August 5). In fact, drink was a topic of discussion several times on the videotape — an element seized on by the authorities to discredit an opponent in this Muslim nation.

On the tape, Bashirli is seen and heard saying that the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) is instructing Yeni Fikir about organizing mass protest rallies and “preparing for revolution.” In Washington, NDI’s Eurasia regional director, Nelson Ledsky, responded in a statement that NDI does not support any party or individual candidate in the parliamentary elections. NDI’s Baku office in turn responded that allegations that NDI is funding a revolution are untrue, as NDI cooperates with all political parties to promote free and fair elections (Turan, August 5, 6).

The flap over Yeni Fikir and Bashirli, while overblown, seems to demonstrate the immaturity and volatility of some of the opposition circles.