- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Opposition leaders and civil liberties groups are painting a grim picture of the political situation in this oil-rich Caspian capital ahead of tomorrow’s critical parliamentary elections.

Azerbaijan is a country of widespread corruption with a history of questionable elections, where political opposition figures fear beatings and arrest.

As a largely Muslim country that boasts strong strategic ties with the United States, Azerbaijan has become the latest test case for President Bush’s policy of promoting democratic change across the region.

Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim-majority countries contributing forces to the U.S.-led mission in Iraq, and it is strategically located on the border with both Russia and Iran.

A parade of U.S. officials — including Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar and former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright — have passed through Baku in recent months, pressing the government on the need for clean elections.

The government of President Ilham Aliyev insists the vote will be fair, noting a series of reforms that have been adopted since May. Late last month, Mr. Aliyev, who succeeded his late father in a vote criticized abroad in 2003, took new steps to prevent fraudulent votes and to allow foreign-funded groups to monitor tomorrow’s vote.

“We know we are under the microscope,” said Hafiz Pashayev, Azerbaijan’s long-serving ambassador to Washington.

Mr. Bush, in a recent letter to Mr. Aliyev, praised the government’s “commitment to a free and fair election.”

“I look forward to working with you after these elections,” Mr. Bush wrote.

But the view of the election from the opposition, as well as from leading human rights groups, has been much more negative.

Opposition figures warn that another round of fraudulent elections could push Azerbaijanis away from Western democracy toward Islamic nationalism, a view shared by many outside observers.

Azerbaijan’s authoritarian system has spawned unemployment, poverty and abuse of power, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party Deputy Chairman Fuad Mustafayev said, problems that cannot be addressed without fair elections.

He cited the authorities’ continuing control over election commissions and voter lists. He said those lists omit opposition supporters’ names but include deceased Azeris, evidence of lack of official interest in fair elections.

Government officials said polls show Mr. Aliyev’s party will win a clear majority in any fair election, and say they are anxious to avoid the violence that marred the days after the president’s own election in 2003.

But Ali Kerimli of the main Freedom opposition bloc told reporters in Baku yesterday that protests are already planned if the government tries to rig the vote.

“If there are massive falsifications, we will call on the people to fight, within the bounds of the constitution,” Mr. Kerimli said.

Police have clashed with demonstrators in recent weeks and Mr. Mustafayev said that during a recent rally, more than 1,000 protesters were beaten and almost 500 were detained.

The government last month prevented opposition Azerbaijan Democratic Party Chairman Rasul Guliyev from returning to the country from exile in the United States.

Earlier that day, police were much in evidence on the road to the airport and taxis were stopped outside the airport, forcing passengers to walk or take a bus the rest of the way.

Military vehicles, police and armed soldiers, some with dogs, were patrolling the grounds of the airport itself.

Mr. Mustafayev called government tactics a deliberate use of “special cruelty and brutality” against protesters, and he called Mr. Aliyev’s May executive order calling for improved election practices a “fig leaf.”

Another opposition figure, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar, said questionable elections would push Azeris to look for alternatives to the government’s pro-Western policies.

Having lived through Soviet Communist rule, Azeris, who are overwhelmingly Muslim and 65 percent Shi’ite, could turn toward radical fundamentalism, he said.

An estimated several hundred Azeris at an Oct. 16 rally for Mr. Gambar, staged away from the city center, were enthusiastic and demonstrative, but peaceful. Sympathetic Western observers said the crowd was peppered with undercover police agents.

International observers have expressed growing concerns about the vote.

The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe office here last month cited the “increasing number of violent incidents, the use of excessive and unjustified force against demonstrators, as well as questionable detentions and mass arrests.”

OSCE Ambassador Maurizio Pavesi said these developments were “not in line with international election standards” or Mr. Aliyev’s May 11 election decree.

The press watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has called on Mr. Aliyev to protect journalists after 14 reporters were beaten by police during attacks on demonstrators.

“The situation is rapidly deteriorating,” the organization said. “Six journalists have been physically attacked in the past six months and another died as a result of his injuries.”

And New York-based Human Rights Watch last week issued its own scathing critique of the pre-election climate, saying in a 30-page report that mass arrests, restrictions on campaigning and press controls “have undermined the credibility of the vote.”

“People cannot vote freely in an election when the authorities are beating up opposition supporters and preventing candidates from campaigning,” said Holly Cartner, the group’s Europe and Central Asia director.

“Azerbaijan’s history of election fraud and abuse is threatening to repeat itself.”

David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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