Monday, November 7, 2005

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Armed with tents and portable toilets, Azerbaijan’s opposition is preparing to re-create the tent city that housed tens of thousands of demonstrators in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in an attempt to overturn the disputed results of Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

“We are going for the revolutionary scenario,” said a member of the main opposition bloc Azadliq, or Freedom, who declined to be identified for fear of government retaliation.

Encouraged by the findings of international observers, who yesterday declared the election deeply flawed, the Azadliq member said the opposition had stockpiled orange tents, set aside money for food and bought portable toilets in preparation for nonstop demonstrations beginning tomorrow.

In a country with a history of violent police crackdowns on opposition rallies, the source conceded that the strategy is risky, but added, “If we can get 30,000 people on the streets, the police will find it hard to disperse us.”

Sunday’s balloting produced a crushing victory for President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party and its allies. With nearly all the votes counted yesterday, Yeni Azerbaijan and an array of pro-government independents and smaller parties had won a huge majority in the 125-seat National Assembly. Opposition candidates won only 11 seats.

Elin Suleymanov, a senior aide to Mr. Aliyev, warned yesterday that demonstrators would be allowed to protest only during strictly regulated time periods. The opposition said it has been given just three hours to demonstrate on Wednesday.

“If the opposition wants to protest, fine, but they must do so within the law,” Mr. Suleymanov said. “If they go outside the law, the police will be forced to act as they have in the past.”

Observers said attempting a Ukrainian-style revolution is a huge gamble for the Azerbaijani opposition, pointing to the authorities’ willingness to use force and few signs of Western support for a popular uprising.

International oil companies, which have invested billions in Azerbaijan to tap the vast oil reserves of the Caspian Sea, fear instability. Washington also sees the Muslim country of almost 8 million as an important ally in containing neighboring Iran.

Western governments had urged Mr. Aliyev to hold a transparent election, but in a damning report yesterday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the elections had been marred by ballot stuffing, restrictions on the right to free assembly and irregularities in the vote count.

Observers from the OSCE’s 660-member monitoring team assessed the ballot counting as bad or very bad in 43 percent of cases.

“The shortcomings that were observed, particularly during election day, have led us to conclude that the elections did not meet Azerbaijan’s international commitments on elections,” said U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat and president of the OSCE parliamentary assembly.

In a prime-time interview aired on state television last night, Mr. Aliyev said that his government would look at Western criticisms, but that violations had occurred in only a small number of districts.

Azadliq called for the results to be annulled in four-fifths of the country’s districts, citing more than 21,000 violations reported by its observers.

Isa Gambar, the leader of one of the three parties that make up the bloc, said the opposition has the “strength to overturn the results and conduct new elections.” He predicted the protest planned for tomorrow would be one of the biggest in Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet history.

Another Azadliq leader, Ali Kerimli, urged the West to support attempts to overturn the elections.

“This is a fight for the values of the civilized world,” he said. “If you are indifferent to what happened on Nov. 6 … the people of Azerbaijan will not understand and will turn their backs on democracy.”

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