- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

BAKU, Azerbaijan — It’s been a hot summer in Baku, and it’s not just the weather. As temperatures in the Azerbaijani capital have soared to record highs of nearly 105 degrees, the political heat on the government of this oil-rich former Soviet republic has also been on the rise.

Nearly every weekend has seen another protest under the blazing sun, from small rallies of only a few dozen to a demonstration in early July that saw at least 10,000 persons take to the streets.

Waving Azerbaijani flags and carrying portraits of President Bush, protesters have been crying “We Want Freedom” and demanding that a parliamentary vote due in November be free of the manipulation and vote-rigging that has marked Azerbaijani elections in the past. If the elections aren’t fair, opposition members have vowed to overthrow the government in a democratic revolution.

“We have one demand: that the elections be free and fair,” said National Democratic Party leader Iskander Hamidov, who spent 10 years in prison as a dissident, as he led about 500 supporters during a recent protest. “But we know the elections will be falsified. … The authorities are pushing us toward a velvet revolution.”

Emboldened by successful revolutions in other ex-Soviet republics Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, the opposition here is gearing up to take on the government in November. And with Mr. Bush making the promotion of democracy abroad a cornerstone of his second term, the opposition is convinced the West will back them up.

“In the last 10 years, all of the elections in Azerbaijan have been falsified. The opposition won, but the international community turned a blind eye to this because of oil interests. But since Georgia and Ukraine, all that has changed,” said Razi Nurullayev, coordinator for Yox (No), an Azerbaijani youth group modeled on Ukraine’s Pora (It’s Time) and Georgia’s Kmara (Enough) — both of which played a vital role in mobilizing students for the massive street protests that led to revolutions in those countries.

Yet, observers remain skeptical about the chances of a revolution in this mainly Muslim republic of eight million wedged between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. Despite joining forces to run in the November vote, the opposition remains divided and without a single charismatic leader for supporters to rally around. And U.S. support for democracy here has long been tempered by another centerpiece of the Bush administration’s foreign policy: the drive for new, reliable energy sources.

In May, the opening ceremony was held for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, a $3.4 billion project that will enable billions of barrels of new Caspian Sea oil to be shipped from Azerbaijan, through Georgia, to a Mediterranean port in Turkey, and then on to hungry Western markets. Analysts expect that up to quarter of the world’s new oil supply will be shipped through the pipeline in 2005 and 2006.

In exchange for access to the oil, Western governments and oil companies for years supported President Heydar Aliyev, a former Communist party boss who seized power in Azerbaijan in 1993.

When Mr. Aliyev died in 2003, power was passed on to his son, Ilham, in an election widely criticized as fraudulent. Critics say Heydar Aliyev tolerated little dissent throughout his rule and that his son has been equally repressive. The government maintains strict control over the television media and harasses opposition newspapers with tax claims and libel suits. In March, investigative journalist Elmar Huseynov, a frequent and vocal critic of the government, was fatally shot outside his apartment. The government has ignored international demands for an independent investigation into the attack. Other political opponents have been jailed and tortured, including Mr. Hamidov, who had his fingers broken while detained earlier this year. Until recently, public demonstrations were strictly limited and sometimes violently suppressed. One person was killed and more than 200 injured when police clashed with thousands of protesters after Mr. Aliyev’s election in 2003.

“We live in a regime built on force and lies,” says Isa Gambar, the leader of the Musavat (Equality) party, who claims to have won the last presidential election. “In essence, it’s the same here as in Uzbekistan, except the government here is better at presenting itself to the outside world.”

Opposition leaders have been working hard to convince the U.S. and Western oil companies that a revolution would not hurt their economic interests in Azerbaijan.

“[Western companies] have invested billions of dollars, so of course they are interested in stability. But I think the international community has also understood that democracy is not only a slogan, but a guarantee of security and stability,” said Mr. Gambar.

But a Western diplomat in Baku said there remains little appetite among Azerbaijan’s foreign partners for a democratic revolution.

“The current government has been very accommodating to Western oil interests, and of course there is the fear that a revolution could destabilize the country and jeopardize that,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

For now, the United States and Europe are increasing pressure on Mr. Aliyev to show progress in the November vote. In mid-July, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on the Azerbaijani government “to hold orderly, peaceful, and free and fair parliamentary elections in November 2005 in order to ensure the long-term growth and stability of the country.” Government officials insist the vote will meet democratic standards.

“We guarantee that these elections will be free and fair. We will create transparent conditions for all internal and foreign observers,” said Ali Hasanov, the head of the social-political department in the presidential administration. Mr. Hasanov said claims of government repression are lies cooked up by the opposition so they can seize power. He admits that much work remains to be done — especially in tackling mass corruption — but said the vast majority of Azerbaijani citizens support the government.

“The situation in Azerbaijan is completely different from the situation in Georgia and Ukraine. The government here has legitimate authority,” he said.

Mr. Hasanov said the government has earned public support by using oil revenues to improve living standards. Economic growth is expected to reach 18 percent this year and millions of dollars are being spent on roads, schools and hospitals, he said. More than 200,000 jobs have been created and average salaries have risen from $65 to $130 a month in the last two years.

“The Azeri people understand that their future lies with the current president,” he said.

But on the streets of Baku, frustration is widespread. Ordinary Azerbaijanis, while careful not to loudly criticize Mr. Aliyev, openly complain that the oil boom has done little to better their lives.

“We have nothing, the people in the government keep everything for themselves and their families,” Shamal, a taxicab driver, said as he weaved his way through traffic. “Government ministers live in villas worth millions of dollars, and I can barely afford to feed my family.”

Mr. Nurullayev, the student organizer who has spent the last year meeting with protest organizers from across the former Soviet Union, said tapping into that frustration will be key if the opposition hopes to succeed in November.

“If we are able to persuade people that they are fighting for a better life and a better tomorrow, then we can win,” he said.

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