In Azerbaijan, a 'necktie' revolt

As Nov. 6 election looms, opposition groups take inspiration from revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.

Call it the necktie revolution.

Taking inspiration from the "Orange Revolution" - the movement that galvanized Ukraine after a fraudulent election last November - members of Azerbaijan's opposition are sporting orange ties. In the offices of the Azerbaijan Popular Front party, workers in white shirts and the bright accessory buzz around in preparation for this Sunday's parliamentary poll.

"This election is taking place after the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, which showed people that if you fight to the end, you can win," says the party's leader, Ali Kerimli. "The psychological impact of these events should not be underestimated."

The fractious opposition here is more organized than in previous years. For the first time, the three main opposition parties have united as a bloc called Azadliq (Freedom), choosing the color orange and a carnation (a nod to Georgia's "rose revolution") as their symbols.

But at the same time, the government has been stepping up efforts to limit the opposition's ability to maneuver, fueling concern that the election could devolve into violence and destabilize the Azerbaijan, a country whose oil reserves and strategic location give it an importance beyond its small size.

After President Ilham Aliyev called for a free and fair election last May, more than 2,000 candidates signed on to run for the parliament's 125 seats. Last week, under Western pressure, he gave permission to foreign nongovernmental organizations to monitor the polls, and for voters' fingers to be marked with ink to prevent fraud.

But observers say that the government's actions have also been accompanied by repressive measures. "At the same time that the government is making concessions, there has been a very clear pattern of repression against the opposition that has been established earlier in the year and is increasing as we get closer to the election," says Matilda Bogner, a Baku-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, which recently released a report strongly criticizing the Azeri government's actions in the runup to the election.

In recent weeks, the government has sent in baton-wielding policemen to break up opposition rallies. Scores of opposition members have been arrested, as have some members of the government considered to be part of a "reformist" wing, who have been accused of conspiring to overthrow the current regime. Wednesday, Azeri officials who were arrested in the plot were shown on TV.

"What happened in Ukraine has really scared the government here," says a Baku-based observer with an international NGO, who asked not to be named. Still, says the observer, "There is a difference between Ukraine and Georgia and Azerbaijan, and that is that the internal security services are much stronger here."

Beyond that, Azerbaijan sits on a huge reserve of Caspian Sea oil. And as a pro-Western, secular Muslim country wedged between Iran and Russia, it is a strategic asset for the US and an investment opportunity for energy firms. Some here say that the US and European countries have been slow to censure the government as a result.

The US government will fund one of three exit polls in an effort to prevent vote rigging and to hold the government to a higher standard this time, says US Ambassador Reno Harnish III. "This country will not be a good long-term ally of the United States unless it can have a political system that is endorsed by the average Azerbaijani," he says.

Democratic rule has struggled to gain a foothold since Azerbaijan won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Internal strife and a losing war with Armenian-backed separatists led to the ouster two years later of the country's first democratically elected president. He was replaced by Heydar Aliyev, the former leader of the Communist Party. Aliyev ruled until his death in 2003, when his son, Ilham, was elected in a vote that was widely criticized by Western observers.

The country also faces severe domestic challenges. The poverty rate is 40 percent, while corruption - despite some recent improvements - is still rampant. And while the country is set to receive tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the next several years as a new pipeline starts pumping oil to the West, local observers worry that stronger oversight is needed to prevent corruption and mismanagement.

Opposition members and analysts say that parliament should provide much of that oversight. But the ruling New Azerbaijan Party controls 108 of the parliament's 125 seats, causing some to charge that the body serves as little more than a rubber stamp for the country's president.

"It's important that elections be fair and transparent for good governance to take root," says Sabit Bagirov, a former president of SOCOR, the state oil company. "Everything depends on the elections. If there were a democratic parliament that could set controls over expenditures, that would be very helpful."

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