New Order in Soviet Azerbaijan Looks Much Like the Old One

Critics of President Mutalibov say he will preserve one-party rule


MANY Soviet republics are on the path to democratization, but Azerbaijan may remain in the grip of a locally ruled dictatorship, according to opposition critics here.They say Ayaz Mutalibov, Azerbaijan's president, intends to maintain his own one-party rule in this oil-rich Muslim republic of 7 million people. (Islam in Azerbaijan, Page 3.) Bordered by Iran and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan was just a few weeks ago one of the Kremlin's most faithful allies. Now Mr. Mutalibov, the former Communist Party chief, claims he wants to turn the old order on its head. Mutalibov has joined the leaders of other republics in making politically pragmatic changes in the aftermath of last month's failed hard-line coup. He authorized the removal of the statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin from its prominent waterfront location and has made sure the blue, red, and green Azerbaijani flag flies over all government buildings. He also engineered the republic's declaration of independence and ordered the confiscation of all Communist Party property. He insists he was a closet liberal the entire time he was party boss. "I was a Communist by compulsion, but by conviction I was a democrat," Mutalibov says. But despite his recent pronouncements, he ran unopposed in Sunday's presidential election, which was denounced as undemocratic and boycotted by the Azerbaijani Popular Front, the main opposition group. Indeed many in Baku, a city of 2 million, doubt that Mutalibov has converted from communism to democracy. Popular Front officials insist he has always been a puppet of the Kremlin and is incapable of acting in a democratic fashion. "He wants to preserve the totalitarian system in Azerbaijan but use a different name - that of democracy, not communism," says Tamerlan Hamidov, a leader of the Popular Front. "After his election victory, he'll clamp down even tighter," Mr. Hamidov says. "Mutalibov is much more repressive than [Chilean leader Augusto] Pinochet was." There are indications that Mutalibov hasn't completely broken with the past. In the conference room outside his office, for example, the 55-volume complete works of Lenin, translated into Azerbaijani, remain in the bookcase, as does a biography of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first chief of the Cheka, the KGB's forerunner. His economic blueprint is far from radical, envisioning the privatization of 10 percent of industry each year over the next decade. Popular Front officials, on the other hand, want to make the transition in under a year. Mutalibov seeks to keep Azerbaijan in a loose Soviet confederation, in spite of the independence declaration. Many see the declaration as a way for Azerbaijan to protect itself from potential Russian chauvinism and exert total control over the region's vast, high-grade oil reserves. At the moment, Azerbaijan is negotiating a multibillion-dollar deal with several Western companies, including Amoco and Texaco, said presidential aide Vafa Goulizade. "We could be richer than Kuwait," says Goulizade, "But the Bolsheviks ate everything." The real litmus test of Mutalibov's intentions will be the future of the Azerbaijani Communist Party. Though the party's property has been nationalized, the organization still exists. A Central Committee plenum is scheduled for later this month to decide if the party should be officially disbanded. The president says the party will completely disappear, but the Popular Front says it will merely change its name with Mutalibov continuing to control its vast apparatus. That Mutalibov has survived this long is testament to his political skill and survival instincts. Mutalibov's tightrope walk between Moscow and nationalists began in January of last year, when the Soviet Army moved into Baku to squash ethnic strife between Azerbaijanis and neighboring Armenians. The Front appeared on the verge of ousting the Communists from power during the violence, which was sparked by disputes over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave is in Azerbaijani territory but is settled mainly by Armenians. The two republics have been warring over the territory for the better part of three years. Mutalibov formed an alliance with the military, which subsequently sided with Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. About 150 people were killed during the Army's occupation of Baku. Democracy does not have strong roots in Azerbaijan, which enjoyed a parliamentary system of government only during its brief independence from 1918-1920. The Nagorno-Karabakh question will dominate the political agenda for years to come. Even if Mutalibov wants to democratize, Nagorno-Karabakh could force him to move in other directions. The region's recent declaration of sovereignty threatens to provoke another flare-up of hostilities. "If the situation starts to go poorly, people will forget about democracy and the extremists in the Popular Front could come to power," says Yussif Samadoglu, a prominent Azerbaijani writer. "This is not the Baltics, this is a Muslim nation and anything can happen."

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