Azerbaijan: Could Putin Use Azerbaijani Opposition Leader as Bargaining Chip for Energy Deal?
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin came to Baku on August 13 to negotiate energy matters with oil and gas-rich Azerbaijan, which competes with Moscow as an energy supplier to Europe. Among the selling points that Putin brings to the negotiations table is his unique ability to influence Azerbaijan's upcoming presidential campaign.
Internationally acclaimed screenwriter Rustam Ibraghimbekov, the proposed candidate of the National Council, a coalition of Azerbaijan's main opposition members, remains a Putin-signature away from being allowed to run against longtime President Ilham Aliyev in the October 9 vote. To be eligible to run, though, Ibraghimbekov, a dual Azerbaijani-Russian citizen, first needs Putin to sign off on his request to renounce his Russian citizenship.
And the clock already has started ticking. Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission will be accepting registration documents from proposed presidential candidates from August 20 through September 9.
Last week, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said that the process of de-naturalization may take up to a year. “The procedure of renouncing citizenship is considered completed after the applicant receives a note through a diplomatic or consular office,” Peskov told Azerbaijan's APA news service.
Putin has not yet commented on Ibraghimbekov’s appeal, but, conceivably, he could mention it during his one day of talks with President Aliyev. Joining Putin in Baku are the chief executive officers of Russia’s largest oil corporations -- Vagit Alekperov of privately held LUKoil and Igor Sechin of state-owned Rosneft.
The ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, however, claimed that Putin and Aliyev will not be discussing Ibraghimbekov during the talks. “The case of Rustam Ibragimbekov is a trifle that can only concern the immigration service,” said Siyavush Novruzov, deputy secretary of the party. “All the talk about the heads of the two states discussing his case is laughable,” he was quoted by APA as saying.
On August 12, the National Council reaffirmed their collective support for the filmmaker’s candidacy and vowed to do everything they can to make sure the authorities allow him to register as a candidate.
But, echoing comments made by Ibraghimbekov himself, one of the group's senior members, Popular Front Chairperson Ali Kerimli, emphasized to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that the country's "democratic forces" will need to have a backup in mind if Ibraghimbekov's candidacy falls through.
The National Council plans to hold a demonstration in Baku on August 18 to rally support for Ibraghimbekov, who is in Moscow trying to sort out his citizenship situation.
For all his celebrity power, Ibragimbekov may not be able to defeat President Aliyev and his well-oiled establishment, but, at the very least, he may well cause lots of headaches for Azerbaijan's ruling elite.