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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 November 2005, 21:37 GMT
Azeri faith in opposition falters
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Baku

Azerbaijani police watch protesters
Riot police have kept a close eye on opposition protests
The parliamentary election in Azerbaijan was strikingly similar to the rigged votes that sparked mass protests and brought regime change in Georgia and Ukraine.

The international observers reported that many ballot boxes were stuffed, many voters were intimidated and that the count was largely fraudulent.

The government announced victory and the opposition said the vote was totally falsified.

But as the world watched to see if the wave of peaceful revolutions would reach Azerbaijan, life simply went on as normal.

Instead, the opposition waved orange flags on the edge of the city in a square surrounded by crumbling apartment blocks and construction sites.

The West could lose Azerbaijan completely
Vafa Guluzade
former adviser to Heydar Aliev
It was a strange choice for a pro-democracy demonstration but, freedom of assembly is limited in Azerbaijan and protests are only allowed on the outskirts and for limited time.

"This is not Georgia, this is not Ukraine," says Murad Gassanly, spokesperson for the united Azadliq, or Freedom Block.

"Police would simply beat people and we need to avoid confrontation. But it does not mean we are giving up, and we will continue staging protest rallies."

And so many wonder whether Azerbaijan may be living through a revolution of its own kind.

Disillusionment

The opposition says it is careful to avoid what happened after a widely condemned election in 2003, when Ilham Aliyev replaced his father, Soviet-era strongman Heydar Aliyev, as president.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev leaves a polling station
President Aliyev insists that the poll was free and fair

In rallies that followed the vote, police beat demonstrators and hundreds of people were thrown in jail.

Azadliq Block is also trying hard to prove to the West, and to the government, that their intentions are peaceful, and that they have widespread popular support.

But whether they do is not clear. Media here is largely controlled by the state, polls are unreliable and, despite widespread discontent with the government, few see an alternative in the opposition that has never been able to push for change in the past.

As 59-year-old Almaz Khanoum watched thousands wave orange flags below her balcony, she shook her head in disapproval:

"We've seen these people promise us things before. We all know the election was rigged. But what will they do if they come to power? I think they'll just start stealing the same way that the government is stealing now."

Others say they are simply too scared to show their support.

Last week, in response to the opposition rally, government brought together almost twice as many people to celebrate its victory in the polls. It took place in the same square, but looked very different.

As demonstrators marched quietly, I was approached by one student who asked not to give his name.

"It's not our will to be here," he told me, "I was told I'd be kicked out from university if I did not come."

And still there are signs that the opposition has managed to gain some leverage.

While president Aliyev says an Orange Revolution is not a possibility in Azerbaijan, his government seems pressured into making concessions.

Officials have launched investigations into election fraud and are also recounting results in some districts. But the opposition says these steps will not make a real difference and are taken only to appease Washington

Appeal of Islam

Some foreign diplomats in Baku suggest that Washington, which has heavily invested in oil and stability in Azerbaijan, is pushing for a compromise that would give more seats to the opposition.

The Azadliq Block has so far rejected any deal with the government.

"It's up to the people of Azerbaijan to decide" who represents them, says Murad Gassanly.

As the Freedom Block calls for a new election, many remember how, just a few months ago, President Bush addressed crowds in neighbouring Georgia to praise its Rose Revolution.

He promised to help those who have been inspired by the Georgian example.

Opposition supporters here took this promise very seriously.

"Help us, Mr Bush" read some slogans at last week's anti-government rally.

Vafa Guluzade, who was once an adviser to Heydar Aliev, warns that ignoring this message could seriously backfire:

"If people feel that the West does not support them the way it did in Ukraine and Georgia, they will see it as a Christian West suppressing Muslims. The West could lose Azerbaijan completely."


SEE ALSO:
Azeri ruling party 'wins' polls
07 Nov 05 |  Europe
Country profile: Azerbaijan
08 Jun 05 |  Country profiles


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