- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Standing among thousands of protesters, their heads wrapped in orange bandannas, the young activists of Azerbaijan’s Yeni Fekir (New Idea) opposition group shout themselves hoarse.

“Tents in the square,” they yell, before dropping to their knees as if to start a sit-in.

Twenty minutes later, they file out of Baku’s Victory Square, told by the leaders of Azerbaijan’s opposition that no, it is not time for the revolution to begin.

Stung by its failure to win more than a few seats in Nov. 6 parliamentary elections but emboldened by Western accusations of vote fraud, Azerbaijan’s opposition has vowed to mount a peaceful uprising modeled on last year’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia.

But more than a week into the campaign, frustration is growing and many supporters worry that the opposition is foundering.

“We are ready to stay in the square; we’re only waiting for the leaders of the opposition to give us the word,” said Ahmad Shahidov, a Yeni Fekir activist. “But they keep telling us to wait, that it still isn’t time.”

Opposition leaders are calling for patience and say they want to build up momentum for a revolution with a series of street rallies in the coming days and weeks.

“We need to be more careful than in Georgia and Ukraine because, unlike in those countries, the government of Azerbaijan is willing to use force against its people. We don’t want to see our supporters beaten and lying in the hospital,” said Murad Gassanly, a political strategist for the Azadliq (Freedom) bloc.

“We already had more people at our first protest than they did in Ukraine or Georgia, and that number is going to grow.”

The opposition’s first post-election rally, held last Wednesday, drew 15,000 supporters. A rally Sunday attracted about 20,000 protesters, still far fewer than the 50,000 the opposition thinks would be needed to put pressure on the government.

Analysts say it is unlikely that Azerbaijan’s opposition is up to the task of organizing a peaceful revolution. Unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, the opposition has no strong leader, suffers from infighting, is poorly funded and has little access to the press.

At the same time, President Ilham Aliyev, whose Yeni (New) Azerbaijan and allied parties won an overwhelming majority in the parliamentary vote, has shown he will not tolerate public dissent.

In the run-up to the vote, unsanctioned opposition rallies were repressed and several key opposition activists were jailed.

More importantly, says political analyst Fariz Ismailzade, America has shown no signs of support for a revolution.

“The U.S. does not want to risk instability in a country it considers an important ally,” said Mr. Ismailzade, a Baku-based researcher for Johns Hopkins University.

When thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Ukraine to protest fraudulent elections there, Western diplomats issued two “red lines” to President Leonid Kuchma: that the government was not to use violence, and that it should take no step to certify the election. The United States and Europe threatened to seize top officials’ assets abroad and bar them from the West if the “red lines” were crossed.

Opposition sources here say Western diplomats have ignored their requests that the same threats be made to Mr. Aliyev. Instead, said a reliable source in the opposition, U.S. diplomats are pressuring the opposition to compromise.

“We’ve been asked: ‘How many seats do you want?’” said the source, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “But they’re missing the point: It’s not about the number of seats; it’s about the fact that an entire election was stolen.”

Unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, the West would face obvious risks in supporting regime change in Azerbaijan, Mr. Ismailzade said.

The nation is an increasingly important player on the global energy market and by 2008 up to 1 million barrels of oil a day will be exported to the West through a pipeline connecting Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

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