Recent Arrests Fuel Controversy, But Bets Are Off on Outcome
By Rovshan Ismayilov: 11/01/05

With just days remaining before Azerbaijan ’s November 6 elections, the political situation in the country is clouded by controversy over the recent detention of several high-level officials, and a sudden wave of withdrawals of parliamentary candidates.

The arrests began on October 17, the day of the attempted return of exiled opposition leader Rasul Guliyev, chairman of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and a former parliamentary speaker, who has been living in exile in the United States for the past decade. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The most prominent among those detained are former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev, former Health Minister Ali Insanov and Fikret Yusifov, a former finance minister and president of the state-run company Azerkhimiya. All have been accused of conspiring to stage a coup on the day of Guliyev’s return to Baku .

Since October 18, 15 government officials have been dismissed and arrested in connection with the coup allegations. In an October 20 legislative session, Parliamentary Speaker Murtuz Aleskerov predicted that this number could increase.

On October 27, the former head of the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences, 73-year-old Eldar Salayev, a prominent scientist, was detained by the National Security Ministry and later charged with attempting to organize mass riots with the intention of seizing power by extra-constitutional means. Salayev’s lawyer, Fikrat Mirzayev, was reported as saying on ANS TV that his client is accused of having contacts with Farhad Aliyev and Insanov prior to Guliyev’s abortive return to Azerbaijan on October 17. Salayev is known to be a close friend of Guliyev; his son, Elman, is deputy chairman of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. Salayev has rejected all charges against him   The opposition, however, has picked up on Salayev’s case. Opposition newspapers make frequent reference to Salayev’s health condition, which his lawyer claims has worsened in prison. The elderly academician suffers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle, and damaged eye blood vessels.   The opposition election bloc Azadlig, which counts the Democratic Party among its members, has strongly condemned Salayev’s detention and described it as "arbitrariness, persecution and unlawfulness,” the Turan news agency reported. In an October 28 statement, the bloc claimed that authorities are trying to "exert pressure on voters, create psychosis in society and use force against those who demand a fair election.” The bloc went on to demand Salayev’s immediate release and the punishment of those responsible for ordering his arrest.

At the same time, the withdrawal of more than 450 parliamentary candidates in the weeks since the arrest Farhad Aliyev and Insanov has further spurred speculation about the motives for the arrests. Among the candidates who have dropped out of the race are doctors, hospital managers and entrepreneurs who before the scandal were considered favorites to win parliamentary seats.

“The fact that almost 500 people were forced to withdraw shows that the arrests occurred for political reasons,” commented Ali Kerimli, chairman of the Popular Front Party, said in an interview with EurasiaNet. Kerimli argued that the arrests were used to prevent various interest groups within the government from making use of official resources to back particular parliamentary candidates.

The Central Election Commission states that most of those candidates who withdrew did so voluntarily. Others had their registration canceled for supposed violations of campaign rules.

The arrests have touched more than just the accused. Rafik Aliyev, the head of the Azpetrol Oil Company and a brother of Farhad Aliyev, was arrested while boarding a flight to Istanbul from Baku . He has been accused with his brother of facilitating plans to finance Guliyev’s return to Azerbaijan . Another Aliyev brother, Alevsat , saw his candidacy canceled for allegedly bribing voters. On October 31, a court rejected Alevsat Aliyev’s appeal to reinstate his candidacy.

Other officials are taking precautionary measures. For example, the son of Baku police chief Maharram Aliyev is married to Insanov’s daughter. Not long after Insanov’s arrest, Maharram Aliyev publicly stated his loyalty to President Ilham Aliyev at a meeting of the Baku police staff. In addition, a large group of city police officers appealed to President Aliyev to recognize Maharram Aliyev’s merits as a public servant.

It is noteworthy that officers from the National Security Ministry have carried out the arrests. Dismissing allegations that many police officials sympathize with the accused, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov asserted the police’s loyalty to the government, saying that those who sympathized with the accused “does not exceed three to five.”

In a statement adopted at its final session on October 28, parliament similarly called on Azerbaijanis to unite around President Aliyev. On state television, ordinary Azerbaijanis are daily interviewed to condemn the arrested ministers for their alleged coup plot.

The government has made few details publicly available about the alleged coup. Law enforcement agencies have not filed criminal charges against Rasul Guliyev for his alleged involvement in the coup plan, nor have any suspects been named as the individuals responsible for executing the uprising.

One government source, however, took issue with the allegation that Farhad Aliyev and Insanov had cooperated to facilitate a Guliyev-inspired coup. “There was a conflict between them when they were in office. We can also see this in some constituencies where their favorites are running against each other,” the source, who asked not to be named, told EurasiaNet.

Though they stress that they have had no direct contacts with Farhad Aliyev, opposition leaders have hinted that they would welcome the ex-economic development minister, known as a reformist, into their ranks “if the “coup problem” is resolved,” in the words of Democratic Party Deputy Chairman Elman Salayev. Since his arrest, Farhad Aliyev’s membership in the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party has been revoked, as has that of ex-health minister Insanov.

Immediately after the arrest of Insanov, an ethnic Azeri born in Armenia , several groups comprising mostly Armenia-born Azerbaijanis promised to take to the streets if the former health minister is not released. On October 26, Rizvan Tagiyev, the head of one such group, blamed Insanov’s arrest on members of a rival regional clan based in the Nakhichivan Autonomous Republic , home to President Ilham Aliyev’s family. Tagiyev highlighted the work of Armenia-born Azerbaijanis in bringing Ilham Aliyev’s father, the late president Heidar Aliyev, to power in 1993, and warned that tens of thousands of community members would participate in public rallies if Insanov is not freed. 

Meanwhile, the local press has almost forgotten about Guliyev himself. The ex-parliamentary speaker returned to London after his October 20 release from detention in Simferopol , Ukraine , where he was arrested at the request of the Azerbaijani government pending extradition to Baku . He has denied any political connection with the former ministers of economic development and health. “These arrests are the result of a struggle between clans in the government,” Guliyev said in an October 25 telephone conference call from London with journalists. Guliyev has promised to try to make another attempt at returning to Azerbaijan before the November 6 election, and urged supporters not to repeat their “mistake” of October 17 and come to the airport to meet him.

But for now, the Baku taxi drivers and tea house aficionados who earlier placed bets on whether or not Guliyev would return to Azerbaijan on October 17, have given up their stakes. In this latest game of chance, they say, there are no takers.

Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

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A large mural of Rasul Guliyev, exiled leader of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, hangs in the party's Baku headquarters. Guliyev's failed attempt to return to the country has added to the pre-election tension in Azerbaijan. (Yigal Schleifer for Eurasianet)