War Dims Political Victory Of Azerbaijan Popular Front

Leaders seek mandate for reforms amid continuing conflict, communist threat

THE haggard-looking deputies at the late-night session of Azerbaijan's parliament could muster only a smattering of applause when the election results were announced.

Even Isa Gambarov, the moderate Popular Front leader just elected acting parliament chairman, wasn't in a mood to celebrate. In a short and somber acceptance speech, Mr. Gambarov promised to do his best and asked for the support of all Azeris. There were no triumphant words about the coming to power of the Popular Front, an umbrella group of anticommunist parties.

The scene at parliament last week reflected the mood in this Transcaucasian republic. Most Azeris have been shocked by recent battlefield setbacks that have given Armenian fighters total control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan.

The Popular Front culminated its four-year struggle for power May 15, leading a popular uprising that ousted President Ayaz Mutalibov, a former Communist Party boss. But an ongoing domestic political crisis and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh have prevented the Popular Front from savoring its political victory.

Front leaders say they eventually want to launch wide-ranging democratic reforms. But Gambarov's more immediate task is shepherding the fragile Azeri government through to the scheduled June 7 presidential elections, which Popular Front leader Abulfaz Elchibey is expected to win. Although the Front is currently the most influential power in Azeri politics, former Communists still wield significant influence.

"The Front's strategy is to hold on until June 7, when it should get a popular mandate to make changes," says a foreign political observer based in Baku.

Front leaders say a democratic system is essential if Azerbaijan is to truly assert its independence, as well as mount an effective war effort against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. So far, the Popular Front's actions have been true to its leaders' words. There has been no purge of the old Communist leadership. Instead, the Front appears intent on building a coalition involving all political forces in Azerbaijan.

"We don't want to change one totalitarian system for another," says Front leader Niazi Ibragimov. "We can enjoy prosperity only if we have a capable government that includes qualified people - even communists."

Building a democracy under wartime conditions will be difficult, but not impossible, Gambarov and others insist. But the Front faces several obstacles to its programs in addition to the Karabakh war.

First, the Front faces threats from within. Comprising various democratic and nationalist groups, the Front's wide spectrum of political philosophies was bound together largely by a common anticommunist stance. Now that the Communists are gone, internal differences may grow and lead to a split. Mr. Elchibey already is expected to face opposition in the presidential election from Etibar Mamedov, who split from the Popular Front saying it was too passive.

Gambarov insists the Karabakh crisis has forged "full unity" among Front leaders. Nevertheless, personal feuds simmer beneath the surface between Gambarov and hard-line nationalist Rahim Gaziyev, for instance, foreign observers say. If Azerbaijan continues to do badly on the battlefield, those disputes could resurface over how to conduct the war, they add.

In addition, Azerbaijan's communists may threaten the Front's plans. Some remain worried that Mr. Mutalibov may mount an armed effort to regain power, although this seems unlikely, diplomats in Baku say. Of greater concern to Front leaders is the possible return of Geidar Aliyev, the former Brezhnev-era Politburo member who now heads the parliament in the embattled Azerbaijani enclave of Nakichevan.

Mr. Aliyev, who claims he supports democracy, says he has no aspirations to become president of Azerbaijan, which he ruled as Communist Party first secretary from 1969 until 1982.

However, local Front leaders in Nakichevan - which is wedged between Armenia, Iran, and Turkey - say Aliyev is playing a waiting game, hoping the Front will collapse, paving the way for his return to power.

Azeris appear obsessed by external threats. Most insist Russia and Armenia are conspiring to undermine Azerbaijan's efforts to free itself from Moscow's influence. Diplomats say they see no evidence that Russia is actively meddling in Azerbaijan's affairs. But many Front leaders worry that Moscow may attempt to destabilize the situation by manipulating the sizable Russian-speaking population in Baku.

"We'll do everything to keep the Russians living in Baku passive," says Front leader Ibragimov.

Ultimately, the success of the Popular Front's democratization program will probably depend on developments in the Karabakh war, foreign observers say, adding that the Front needs peace.

Gambarov and others say they would like to open peace talks as soon as possible. But the Front leadership has set stringent conditions for negotiations, including the withdrawal of all Armenian combatants from Karabakh.

Indeed, there are few indications there will be a quick end to the fighting, which spread to Nakichevan last week. And although the Nakichevan conflict has reportedly diminished, the situation remains explosive. Turkey has warned of possible intervention in the conflict.

"They want to build a democracy," the foreign observer says of the Popular Front. "It remains to be seen if circumstances will allow them to do it."

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