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Color Them Determined in Azerbaijan

In the former Soviet republic, the opposition presses for an honest vote count in today's election by evoking neighbors' uprisings.

November 06, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

SABIRABAD, Azerbaijan — Cotton farmer Mammedali Abdullayev has never heard of the Orange Revolution that brought down the government of another former Soviet state last year. But the father of seven had an orange flag in his hand at a recent opposition rally here, and he was waving it like someone who wouldn't mind a regime change.

"I'm working so hard, but I don't get anything. I want to see change," he said, explaining why he joined the rally last Sunday for opposition Freedom bloc candidates in Azerbaijan's bitterly contested parliamentary elections.

Marking his determination, the 44-year-old Abdullayev was brandishing the orange flag as "a symbol of our revolution."

Although Abdullayev knew nothing of the color's association with the peaceful revolt that brought Ukraine's opposition to power after massive protests against electoral fraud, leaders of the opposition here certainly do.

Those leaders, and many of their supporters, have taken heart from the recent string of pro-democracy upheavals in former Soviet states: Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan this year. The Freedom, or Azadlig, opposition bloc is trying to use the threat of a similar uprising in Azerbaijan to push for an honest vote count in today's balloting -- or perhaps to press for the government's fall after official results come in, if the opposition believes victory has been stolen.

Authorities have said that any unauthorized postelection protests will be crushed.

Peace and stability in Azerbaijan is of particular concern to the United States: This country of 8.4 million is the starting point for a nearly completed pipeline that will deliver oil from the Caspian Sea region through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea.

The $3.4-billion pipeline is expected to carry 1 million barrels of oil a day by 2008, making Azerbaijan a key player in efforts by the West to reduce its dependence on oil supplies from Arab states.

The predominantly Muslim country's largely secular politics and a rapidly expanding economy make it a key test case in Bush administration intentions to expand democracy in the Islamic world. Both the government of President Ilham Aliyev, 44, and the opposition are fundamentally pro-Western.

But tensions climbed last month when Aliyev dismissed two government ministers whom authorities then swiftly arrested, along with at least six other people, for allegedly plotting a coup in cooperation with the opposition. Opposition leaders denied any coup plot and insisted that their actions would adhere to the constitution.

"The Ukrainian people struggled peacefully for months, and after that the people won," Isa Gambar, one of the Freedom bloc's leaders, told the crowd of about 15,000 that gathered last Sunday in this provincial town 70 miles southwest of Baku, the capital. "People ask, will we have the Ukrainian scenario, the Georgian scenario or the Kyrgyz scenario? We'll have one scenario: the Azerbaijan scenario. Azerbaijan will have its own model."

The opposition's core campaign message is that it will fight government corruption and use oil revenues to raise living standards. It also says a fair parliamentary vote would put the country on the path toward genuine democracy.

Aliyev became president in 2003, replacing his father, the late Heydar A. Aliyev, in an election that drew sharp criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, for ballot-stuffing and a falsified vote count. Although Aliyev won in a landslide by the official count, an exit poll by pro-democracy organizations showed Gambar got 46% and Aliyev 24%, which would have forced a runoff. The election results sparked protests in which security forces beat at least one person to death, the New York-based Human Rights Watch reported.

This year, the U.S. government is backing an exit poll that will be closely watched by Western governments and the opposition as an indication of whether the official results are fraudulent. If the exit poll is far more favorable to the opposition than the official results, and if the OSCE finds that the balloting was not fairly conducted, the opposition plans to take to the streets.

"If we see the election results are totally falsified -- I'm emphasizing totally -- then we will call our supporters for peaceful demonstrations," Gambar said in an interview. "It's very difficult to say now how these peaceful demonstrations will end, because the government has such malice they will answer our peaceful demonstrations with violence. And the government is preparing now not for elections but for a military operation."

The Freedom bloc predicts that with a fair vote count, it would win 75 seats in the 125-seat unicameral parliament. But Ali Ahmedov, executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, said that claim was wildly unrealistic, and that he was sure his party would take a majority of seats.

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