Opposition Police Clashes Jar Azerbaijan Election Campaign

(Eurasianet.org)–With just five weeks to go before Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections–the chances for constructive dialogue between Azerbaijan’s opposition and the government seem to be fading.

On October 1–after a breakdown in talks between the authorities and opposition leaders–about 700 protestors took to the streets of central Baku to call for a fair and transparent parliamentary vote on November 6. Truncheon-wielding riot police moved in quickly to break up the protest–the second such unauthorized gathering in a week.

Authorities have warned in recent weeks that they will use force to prevent opposition groups from staging "provocations" against the government during the final weeks of the election campaign. The city government had refused to sanction the October 1 rally in the city center–offering instead a site far from the city center.

The opposition has presented the government’s reaction to the October 1 gathering as a violation of their right to free assembly. "We will fight for citizens’ rights to assemble and to create a democratic pre-election situation," said Ali Kerimli–the leader of the opposition Popular Front. "The government’s illegal bans will not stop our battle."

Police report that they detained 34 people during the October 1 rally–although Kerimli claims as many as 200 were arrested. Riot police could be seen at times making free use of their truncheons to beat back protestors from the planned demonstration site–and several participants were reported badly injured

The October 1 protest followed an attempt by the opposition a week earlier to hold an unauthorized demonstration in Jafar Jabbarli Square. The protest was suspended after the Azadliq bloc–which includes the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan–Musavat Party and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan–agreed to resume talks with government officials under the mediation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Baku office.

Fuad Mustafayev–deputy chairman of the Popular Front–said that the decision to negotiate with the government was taken following an appeal to the bloc’s leadership from Ali Hasanov–head of the public-political department of the presidential staff. Opposition leaders said talks took place after US Ambassador Reno Harnish called President Ilham Aliyev’s chief of staff–Ramiz Mekhtiev.

Up to 100 supporters of the Azadliq bloc were reportedly detained during the September 25 protest. They were released following the start of the OSCE-mediated talks. Kerimli said that the negotiations focused on the "guaranteeing of our constitutional right to hold a meeting in the center of the city." He said Azerbaijani law states that opposition political parties do not need permission to hold rallies–but must only notify the authorities ahead of time. The government disagreed–but consented to holding to further discussions on the issue–according to Kerimli.

However–government representatives failed to show for a September 29 round of talks on potential venues for the October 1 rally. Maurizio Pavesi–head of the OSCE office in Baku–blamed the authorities for the breakdown in dialogue–adding that Hasanov had "personally told me" that he would attend the OSCE talks that day. "I am very surprised by the behavior of the government representatives," Pavesi told reporters on September 29.

"Frankly speaking–we had opportunities to find compromises. The failure of the Baku executive authorities and the ruling New Azerbaijan Party to attend the meeting shows that they have no will to continue a dialogue with the opposition," Pavesi went on to say.

The OSCE mission chief stated that while some of the routes proposed by the opposition for a demonstration in central Baku were problematic–others could have served as the topic of further discussion. An OSCE report issued September 30 complained that Azerbaijani authorities were not acting on OSCE recommendations for improving the election process.

The head of the presidential executive staff–Ramiz Mehdiyev has maintained that the government sees no need for dialogue with the opposition. In a letter forwarded to opposition leaders by the Baku mayor’s office–Mehdiyev said that the government had proposed five potential venues for a Baku demonstration. "They may choose one out of the five and hold their rally. In my view–everything is clear as for venues–and there is no need for extra conversation there," he stated.

Ali Hasanov–the presidential aide–seconded that view. He maintained that the opposition could stage demonstrations only in places assigned by the mayor’s office. "The number of such places is limited and we are not going to discuss other routes"–Hasanov said.

Meanwhile–leaders of the Azadliq bloc insist on holding rallies in the center of the city. "We were prepared for negotiations with authorities–but we will not abandon the idea to hold a rally," Kerimli said. The next demonstration has already been scheduled for October 8.

Azerbaijani Prosecutor General Zakir Garalov that authorities would act swiftly and firmly to any illegal assembly–adding that the Azadliq bloc held responsibility for keeping its supporters within the law. Hasanov–meanwhile–urged the opposition to avoid confrontation with police–noting that strict measures will be taken against "those breaking the law."

Mediators appear to be losing hope that a dialogue between authorities and opposition leaders can be resumed. "The OSCE will spare no efforts to arrange meetings. We tried to eliminate the likelihood of the 25 September confrontation in Baku once again," said Pavesi–commenting on the failed talks that preceded the October 1 protest. "Regrettably–we did not manage it and the government did not understand the problem."

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