Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the Yeni Musavat newspaper, was officially charged on August 29 with illegal possession of a firearm, and conspiracy to commit a terrorist act. Arifoglu has been held in solitary confinement since August 22. He was arrested in connection with a failed August 18 attempt by an opposition political activist to hijack a plane during a domestic flight from Baku to Nakhichevan. Arifoglu and his defense team maintain that law enforcement officers planted all evidence against him.
The case has prompted an outpouring of support from opposition parties and human rights activists in Azerbaijan. Over 30 local mass-media outlets conducted a three-day strike to protest the measure. In addition, Arifoglu's arrest is drawing the increasing attention of foreign governments and international organizations. The human rights group Amnesty International has issued a statement critical of Arifoglu's arrest, describing it as an attempt to intimidate the opposition politicians. Meanwhile, the US government on August 28 called on Azerbaijan to guarantee Arifoglu's due process rights. The OSCE also has reportedly expressed concern about the case.
Expressions of concern have had no visible impact on the Aliev administration, however. The government continues to utilize the failed hijacking to pressure the opposition. Most recently, the Prosecutor's office summoned Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar and his Secretary, Arif Hajiyev, for questioning.
The questioning of the Musavat leaders occurred in advance of an OSCE/ODIHR mission to assess pre-election conditions in Azerbaijan. Coming just three months before November 5 parliamentary elections, the government's actions suggest that it is not interested in maintaining the appearance of a democratic election environment.
Why would President Aliev ignore international opinion, especially that of the United States? Part of the answer is simply that there is too much at stake in the parliamentary election to risk a democratic vote. The government is intent on maintaining its grip on power at all costs. President Aliev, who has been rumored to be in ill health, appears to want his son to succeed him as Azerbaijan's leader. For this to happen, Ilham Aliev must win a seat in parliament this fall in order to be selected as Speaker.
Azerbaijan's Constitution provides that the Speaker assumes the presidency in the event of the incumbent's incapacitation or death. Ilham's is the first name on the New Azerbaijan Party's candidate list. Ilham will also be accompanying his father to meetings in New York and Washington in September. President Aliev is due to participate in the UN Millennium Summit in New York on September 6-8. He is also expected to meet with US leaders during his visit.
Aliev seems to believe that criticism of his actions will be limited to mostly words, and not deeds. Similarly, the government seems to have calculated that on November 5, the scheduled date of Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections, international attention will be focused on the U.S. presidential election on November 7. Such a distraction would allow President Aliev to conduct his elections as he chooses.
Baku's sense of self-assurance has been reinforced by the Council of Europe's decision to accept Azerbaijan as a full member in its September meeting. The Council recommended membership despite Azerbaijan's solid history of failed elections.
The failure of OSCE/ODIHR to persuade the government to implement its recommendations for amendments to Azerbaijan's election law has also emboldened the government. When Azerbaijani election authorities reneged on a commitment to adhere to an OSCE formula to create the Central Election Commission, the move did not generate a forceful response from the international organization.
A careful student of the past, President Aliev appears to have developed an election strategy based on the assumption that the financial credits, official visits, and international honors and affiliations will continue uninterrupted and irrespective of foreign rhetoric and his conduct at home. He has calculated that a Democratic victory in Washington will continue the partnership that Azerbaijan has enjoyed with the present administration, while a Republican victory will open the doors of international hospitality even wider for him and his son. If he's right, the coming elections in both countries provide him with a win-win-win situation.
Kennan Kazimoglu is the Washington
correspondent for Azerbaijan's Turan News Agency. He is also
a regular contributor to the BBC and VOA.