Emboldened Opposition Vows To Press Ahead With Political Reform Campaign
Five years of frustration fueled the April 29 confrontation in Baku between opposition supporters and authorities. Now, as the dust settles from the street clashes, leading opponents of President Heidar Aliev are vowing to press on with a campaign to open Azerbaijan's political system.
The Azerbaijani parliament adopted a resolution May 2 condemning the unrest, describing the protest as an attempt to damage Azerbaijan's image. Meanwhile, the main opposition Democratic Bloc assailed authorities for using excessive force against demonstrators.
Opposition discontent has simmered since Azerbaijan's 1995 parliamentary elections. That vote, as well as subsequent elections for President in 1998, and for municipal representatives in 1999, was considered by many international observers to have been rigged. Organizers of the April 29 protest were aiming to prevent vote rigging in parliamentary elections to be held later this year.
The protest strategy began taking shape immediately after the municipal elections of November 1999. Key democratically oriented parties - Musavat, the Popular Front Party, the Party of National Independence and the Democratic Party set aside philosophical differences and agreed on a concrete, unified program for fair elections. Among the objectives that the alliance is striving to achieve are:
The reorganization of the Central Election Commission, and local election commissions, to facilitate greater opposition participation in election oversight. The implementation of comprehensive election monitoring. The guarantee of equal campaign conditions for all parliamentary candidates, including access to state television. The release of all political prisoners. The new alliance resolved to conduct nationwide demonstrations to advance their cause. Authorities employed a wide variety of bureaucratic weapons in the attempt to frustrate the opposition. Nevertheless, the alliance has held firm.
Three hours before the April 29 demonstration, police blocked all roads to the rally venue, Fizuli Square. At 4 p.m., up to 8,000 demonstrators started moving towards the Square, walking in four columns. In the vicinity of the Square, club-wielding police officers and plain-clothes security officials attempted to stop the advancing demonstrators. At one point, Musavat leader Isa Gambar told supporters: "This manifestation is only the beginning of our fair struggle for electing a government that is responsive to the people, and no one can stop us". Police tried to arrest Gambar, but demonstrators offered stiff resistance and did not let that happen.
The objective of the police was to squeeze the demonstrators out of the rally zone, which turned out to be too difficult a task in the densely built part of the city. Demonstrators would disperse and then gather again, singing the national anthem, chanting slogans in support of free and fair elections and civil rights.
Much to the surprise of policemen, demonstrators gathered in an adjacent square, in front of the "Republican" concert hall, where the rally lasted for another hour and a half. According to various sources, over 165 opposition supporters and over 30 law enforcement officials sustained injuries during the street clashes. In addition, 46 demonstrators, including secretary of the Musavat Party Arif Hajiyev, chairman of the People's Party Panah Husseinov, chairman of Ahrar Party Vagif Hajibayli and other rally organizers, were detained and sentenced to up to 15 days in prison.
The impact of the rally, which paralyzed the center of the capital, was a lot greater than it would have been if the authorities had allowed for the manifestation to be held in peace. All through the action, the confrontation was televised live by the private ANS channel. Reports on the manifestation were also televised by Russian and Turkish central television channels. Only after the organizers called for an end did demonstrators disperse at 6.30 p.m.
Immediately after the rally, the Democratic Bloc announced that it would push ahead with protest actions. The alliance also demanded the release of arrested demonstrators. The Democratic Bloc took the additional step of issuing an international appeal, calling on the Azerbaijani government to fulfil its human rights obligations.
At a May 1 news conference, Gambar declared; "the April 29 rally is a moral victory for democracy." Asked if the alliance's action might provoke a government crackdown, Gambar answered that "no one can divert us from the course we have taken."
The April 29 demonstration could prove to be the start of a prolonged political struggle, some opposition supporters suggest. They add that the manifestation revealed law enforcement agencies to be far from omnipotent, thereby undermining the "stability" established by Aliev's regime.
Hikmet Hadjy-zadeh is the Vice-President of FAR CENTER in Baku, Azerbaijan.