Cautious protest in Azerbaijan

An opposition protest of election results occurred peacefully Wednesday. Another is planned for Saturday.

Thousands of protesters marched Wednesday to demand a replay of Sunday's parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, which international observers have judged badly tainted by voter coercion and ballot-fixing.

"I want to live in a democratic country. It's our last chance," said Samir Hussein, a businessman who joined 15,000 opposition supporters who marched peacefully, as 500 or more riot police looked on, through a Baku suburb. "If we lose our chance today, we will never get freedom."

Azeri opposition leaders are hoping to harness popular outrage over the flawed election to force authorities into staging the voting again - with more democratic conditions. Roses and orange banners betrayed the source of their inspiration: the peaceful revolutions that brought democratic change to Georgia and Ukraine in the past two years, following similar official attempts to rig results.

But many analysts doubt that Azerbaijan's fragmented opposition can pull off a similar coup against the better-organized government of President Ilham Aliyev, which has a record of crushing pro-democracy rallies with force. "The opposition's script reminds of Georgia or Ukraine, but the balance of forces in Azerbaijan is very different," says Mikhail Alexandrov, an expert with the Institute of CIS Countries in Moscow.

Official results suggest the pro-Aliyev New Azerbaijan Party won 63 of the legislature's 125 seats, with most others won by progovernment independents and minor parties. But foreign observers, citing fraud and preelection irregularities, have refused to certify the polls as free or fair.

Azerbaijan's Central Electoral Commission has conceded some irregularities, and ordered elections reheld in two constituencies. "The Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe has called 43 percent of the counting 'bad or very bad,' which amounts to about 50 parliamentary seats," says Murad Gassanly, a spokesman for Azadliq, the main opposition group. "We are not going to accept symbolic concessions in a few districts. [The rally] is the beginning of a campaign to cancel the elections."

One opposition figure, Ali Karimli, was restored to his seat after disputed results in his districts were cancelled, though he says he still doesn't recognize the poll as valid.

Azerbaijan, a US ally, earns about $7 billion annually from oil exports to the West. A pipeline that opened earlier this year makes it a key player in the race for Caspian oil.

Some analysts say electoral fraud may not have been instigated by Aliyev, who has much to lose if Western governments turn against him, but by factions within his regime. Since being vaulted into power in elections deemed fraudulent in 2003, he has struggled to consolidate authority.

Last month he ordered arrests of two ministers, whom he accused of plotting a coup with an exiled opposition leader. That "significantly increased his credibility" among many Azerbaijanis, says expert Fariz Ismailzade. But charges of vote-rigging have harmed his image in the West, he adds.

"Many people in the bureaucracy became nervous about the rise in Ilham Aliyev's popularity due to his recent decisive steps against corrupt ministers," says Elshad Iskandarov, a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a losing candidate in the "New Names" electoral bloc. "The worse the situation [in regard to international perception], the better it is for them." He says there have been "deliberate attempts by certain factions to weaken Aliyev's legitimacy in the West as a result of perceptions of fraud."

Reports of fraud and the opposition challenge poses a delicate problem for the US. In Georgia last May, President Bush hailed the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions and called for an expansion of democracy throughout the former Soviet Union. That message wasn't forgotten in Baku, where protesters' placards said: "America, don't trade oil for democracy," and "President Bush, please: Help Democracy in Azerbaijan!"

"From what I hear, Azeris are disappointed in the US reaction. Taking into account the US government's stated policy in promoting democracy ... this is not an appropriate reaction," says Kanan Aliyev, a journalist.

The US has said that the "elections did not meet a number of international standards," -- softer language than what followed Georgia's polls two years ago. A source close to the US government says the US is watching closely, and will be more sympathetic to the idea after determining the results of the first demonstration.

Some say there was a good turnout despite roadblocks and the occupation of organizers' offices the day before. But "the question is whether the government will allow another rally," says Sabine Freizer, with the International Crisis Group. "The government was smart to allow this rally. It makes it public that the number who are ready to come out at this stage . . . are relatively limited."

Fred Weir contributed to this report from Moscow.

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