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Reformist Ministers Ousted in Azerbaijan

Several are fired, and one is accused of funding the opposition in preparation for a coup. Moves may stir unrest before elections.

October 21, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Political turmoil erupted Thursday in the oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan as government hard-liners won the ouster of several reformist ministers and the arrest of at least one of them for allegedly plotting a coup.

The arrest late Wednesday evening of Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev and the reported detention Thursday of Health Minister Ali Insanov appeared to increase the likelihood of violent clashes between the opposition and police ahead of parliamentary elections set for Nov. 6.

Several other ministers and top officials also were fired.

Stability in Azerbaijan is of particular concern to the United States because the former Soviet republic is the starting point for a nearly completed pipeline to 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.

A joint statement released by Azerbaijan's prosecutor general and the National Security and Interior ministries accused Aliyev of funneling money to the country's opposition in preparation for a coup.

The charge was based largely on testimony attributed to Fikret Yusifov, a former finance minister who was arrested Sunday for allegedly helping to fund illegal protests.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti and other media quoted anonymous law enforcement sources that said Insanov, the health minister, was detained Thursday. It was unclear whether he or any of the other ousted ministers were charged with plotting a coup.

Isa Gambar, a leader of the three-party Azadlig (Freedom) opposition bloc, said in a telephone interview that Aliyev had not funded the opposition.

"And even if he did help the opposition, there is nothing illegal in it," he said. "I absolutely don't buy that stuff about a coup."

The United States and the European Union have put strong pressure on Azerbaijan to hold fair elections after international observers sharply criticized past balloting. Opposition parties have pledged to stage postelection protests if they believe there is wide-scale fraud. The government has said it will crush any violent or unauthorized demonstrations.

"This aggravates the situation even worse on the eve of the election," Leyla Yunusova, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a think tank in the capital, Baku, said in a telephone interview. "We are de facto living in a state of emergency now. It is clear that in such an atmosphere free and fair elections will be hardly possible."

Both the government and the opposition are pro-Western, although President Ilham Aliyev has recently shown growing irritation at the pressure over democratization.

Farhad Aliyev and his brother Rafig, who heads the Azpetrol oil firm and also was arrested Wednesday, are not related to the president.

Analysts have said for months that the government was riven by divisions between reformists who favor a democratic evolution and free and fair parliamentary balloting and hard-liners determined to hold on to power through authoritarian means. Until Thursday, the president was seen as straddling the two camps.

In an interview Tuesday, the president denied any such divisions.

Other high-ranking members of the government believed to have reformist leanings were also ousted Thursday. Labor and Social Security Minister Ali Nagiyev, Education Minister Misir Mardanov and presidential administration business manager Akif Muradverdiyev were dismissed, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

"I think President Aliyev lost his nerve," Zafar Guliyev, a political analyst for the Turan news agency, said in a telephone interview from Baku. "The split in the government has already reached such dimensions that President Aliyev could no longer count on many in his government to support him in the difficult and tense postelection period. President Aliyev is very much afraid of the scenario in which the angered people will take to the streets after the vote and his own ministers will betray him and side with the protesters."

Meanwhile, Rasul Guliyev, an exiled opposition leader arrested Monday in Ukraine on an Interpol warrant, was released on the grounds that Azerbaijan's long-standing corruption charges against him were politically motivated. Gambar, of the Azadlig bloc, was in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on Thursday evening to meet with Guliyev to discuss the opposition's next steps.

The chain of events leading to the arrests and dismissals began when Rasul Guliyev, who has been living in the United States after receiving political asylum, declared that he would fly in to Baku on Monday. He ended up landing in Ukraine instead for reasons that are unclear.

Authorities had pledged to arrest Guliyev upon arrival, and opposition leaders had called for his supporters to rally at the airport to prevent his detention. Authorities deployed hundreds of riot police to block demonstrators from reaching the airport. Police also made a series of preemptive arrests Sunday, including that of Yusifov, the former finance minister.

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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