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Tensions Rise, Abate in Azerbaijan

Thousands gather to call for the government's ouster before dispersing quietly. Officials take steps to deal with vote-counting problems.

November 10, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Twenty thousand people rallied Wednesday in Azerbaijan's capital to demand the government's resignation because of abuses in last weekend's parliamentary election. But both sides showed signs of compromise, with the rally ending peacefully and officials taking some steps to address problems with the vote-counting.

Under the glare of hundreds of helmeted riot police officers, the protesters, many waving orange flags as a symbol of peaceful revolt, gathered in Victory Square for a three-hour rally permitted by the government.

As the allotted time came to a close, top opposition leaders told the crowd to go home rather than stay in the square, an act that many protesters favored but that seemed certain to provoke police action.

Meanwhile, President Ilham Aliyev, who has been embarrassed by stinging foreign criticism of the conduct of Sunday's balloting for the nation's 125-seat unicameral parliament, fired two regional governors Wednesday who were suspected of tampering with the vote count.

The Central Election Commission, which annulled the results in two election districts Tuesday, canceled the results of a third Wednesday. The commission's actions appeared to mean that Ali Kerimli, head of the Popular Front party and a key figure in the three-party opposition Freedom bloc, would win a seat.

The U.S. government, which wishes to see stability and democracy in this oil-rich former Soviet state, has put diplomatic pressure on both sides to refrain from violence and has urged Azerbaijani authorities to rectify falsified results. The opposition has pinned its hopes on a combination of street action, court battles and international pressure.

Preliminary results released Monday had shown the ruling New Azerbaijan Party winning 63 seats, the Freedom bloc getting six and other opposition parties set to win four. Independents and minor party candidates, many of them aligned with the ruling party, were expected to take almost all of the remaining 52 seats. Although the election commission's subsequent actions appeared likely to deny the ruling party an outright majority, independents will probably still give Aliyev a pliable parliament.

The Freedom bloc contends that had the vote count been accurate, the ruling party and its allies could have been denied control of parliament.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Monday that its observers had judged the vote-counting process as "bad" or "very bad" in 43% of the polling places monitored. It also said that during the campaign there had been severe bias in state-run or pro-government media in favor of ruling party candidates.

At Wednesday's rally, the focus was on government corruption and the alleged election fraud. But anger went beyond those issues.

"The struggle is not just about free elections," said Panah Huseyn, head of the Freedom bloc's election headquarters. "They attack our souls, our brains. The result of the election is that the Azeri people are damned. They are saying, 'You are nothing! We are selecting the members of parliament that we want.' "

Speeches were punctuated by chants from the crowd: "Resign! Resign!" "Ilham Corrupt!" and "Tents to the Square!" -- the latter a suggestion that protesters should take over the square and remain there until their demands are met.

Some seemed to want to follow the model of last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when protesters camped in downtown Kiev until a repeat election brought the opposition to power. Opposition leaders appeared holding red carnations, an echo of Georgia's peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution, when protesters fed up with government corruption and economic woes stormed the parliament. The Georgian protesters were led by Mikheil Saakashvili, who carried a long-stemmed rose. He's now the president.

Near the end of Wednesday's rally, Isa Gambar, a key leader of the Freedom bloc who lost to Aliyev in disputed balloting two years ago, was introduced as "the winner of the 2003 presidential election."

A postelection demonstration that year ended with police beating protesters, killing at least one, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

"There are many differences between 2003 and 2005, but the main difference is the Azerbaijani people are not alone," Gambar said. "The international community wants victory for the Azerbaijani people. It wants democracy in Azerbaijan.... I'm telling President Bush: 'Your words have inspired us. I hope your actions will coincide with what you say.' "

A sense of electricity rose in the crowd as Gambar continued, "I heard a very good slogan here -- 'Tents to the Square!' " The crowd erupted in a chant: "Tents to the Square!" But then Gambar called them off.

"Azeri youth, you are always supporting us," he said. "I know that you will accept our decision. This is part of our strategic plan. We will tell you what to do, and you will behave.

"Our demonstration will end now. But our nation will always be in the square."

He told the crowd to come back Saturday.

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