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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 June, 2005, 03:36 GMT 04:36 UK
Opposition rally in Azeri capital
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News

Protester in Baku
The streets of central Baku were filled with flags and banners
Some 20,000 people have marched in Azerbaijan's capital Baku demanding free and fair elections and calling for the president to resign.

It is the second time in the past two weeks that Azerbaijan's government has allowed the opposition to hold a rally.

It was organised by three leading opposition parties which form the the Azadlig or Freedom bloc.

And as the race for the November parliamentary poll heats up, the opposition says it will stage more.

Flowers

There was a sea of orange flags and T-shirts as thousands of demonstrators filled Baku's main square.

Police in riot gear encircled the rally and some people said they were stopped from entering the square.

All the same, young people in orange headbands gave flowers to the policemen to show their protest was peaceful.

This is what activists in Azerbaijan have learned from Ukraine's so-called orange revolution and a peaceful revolution is what many of them say they will push for if the government fails to ensure that the November poll is free and fair.

None of Azerbaijan's previous elections have been truly free. For years, this oil-rich nation has been ruled by one family.

After the late President Heydar Aliyev died, his son Ilham Aliyev came to power in elections in October 2003.

That poll was marred by irregularities and violence and since then, election observers say, Azerbaijan's already poor democratic record plummeted further.

They say violence against political activists is common and the media are not free. Poverty and corruption are major problems.

Still, many across Azerbaijan are sceptical about the opposition, if only because its leaders have failed to stand up to President Aliyev's government in the past.

At the rally on Saturday, they promised this time things would be different.

Opposition supporters say they are inspired by the democratic changes that swept Georgia and Ukraine and that they started this election campaign with a kind of enthusiasm they have never felt before.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See footage of the protests



SEE ALSO:
Azeri opposition leaders jailed
22 Oct 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Azerbaijan
01 Feb 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Azerbaijan
12 May 04 |  Country profiles


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