Sumgayit: Rally in the Regions
By Jahan Aliyeva: 11/03/05

With only two days of campaigning left to go, Azerbaijan’s largest opposition bloc, Azadlig, has taken its message to the regions. In what one bloc leader described as a final rally before the November 6 vote, some 2,000 people gathered Thursday in the industrial town of Sumgayit, not far from Baku, to urge voters for a change of government.

Unlike the alliance’s recent Baku rallies, the Sumgayit demonstration was sanctioned by city authorities and peaceful. A final, unofficial protest planned by Azadlig for November 4, the last day of official campaigning was canceled earlier this week, according to bloc leaders, to avoid violence with police on Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan.

As with previous demonstrations, Baku city authorities had refused to authorize the gathering in the city center, offering instead locations further out of town. A joint concert and demonstration for the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) on November 4 in the city center, however, has been authorized.

Carrying orange flags and portraits of the three leaders of the Azadlig bloc (Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Rasul Guliyev), demonstraton participants, however, did not appear phased by the cancellation.

If the bloc considers Sunday’s vote falsified, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar said at an earlier November 3 press conference in Baku, unofficial rallies will be held on November 8, 9 and 10 in an area not far from the capital’s January 20 subway station. The plan appears designed to grab the attention of international observers, hundreds of whom will be deployed to the 125 constituencies beginning on November 4, the last day of campaigning.

“These elections are some kind of test on the road to democracy for us all, for international organizations, the government and us [Azadlig]," Gambar commented.

Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli, another Azadlig leader, struck a more militant note, however. “We will make those who will try to steal our victory feel sorry,” Kerimli told demonstrators. “We will definitely win on November 6 and I am congratulating all of you in advance,”

While Azadlig has often indicated that it sees the so-called “color revolutions” of Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 as a positive model, Gambar downplayed predictions that the bloc is planning a similar popular revolt in Azerbaijan.

“We are often asked whether Georgia’s or Ukraine’s version [of events] will happen in Azerbaijan, but we would say that the Azerbaijani version will happen in Azerbaijan.”

In recent weeks, events in pre-election Azerbaijan have taken some unexpected turns. Since October 17, when Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Rasul Guliyev failed to return from nine years in exile, a string of cabinet ministers and high-ranking government officials have been arrested on charges of plotting a government coup with Guliyev. In a videotaped confession broadcast on television, two of the charged, ex-Health Minister Ali Insanov, a founder of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, and former Finance Minister Fikrat Yusifov stated that they had facilitated financing for an alleged coup.

Azadlig speakers characterized the arrests as “repression,” marking in particular the recent arrest of Eldar Salayev, former head of the National Academy of Sciences and a close friend of Guliyev. Salayev’s son, Elman, serves as deputy chairman of the Democratic Party.

The site for the demonstration appeared to have been carefully chosen. Once a center of the Soviet chemical industry, the city of roughly 280,000 now suffers from high unemployment and limited prospects for an economic turnaround. Kerimli blamed “the current regime” for turning “a city of youth” into “a city of jobless and unhappy people.”

But as in Baku, the war of words over the size of the site offered by the city government showed no sign of waning. Sardar Jalaloglu, deputy chairman of the Democratic Party, claimed that Azadliq intended to hold a rally with 15,000-16,000 demonstrators in Sumgayit, but “it was not possible because the local authorities did not give us a big enough place.”

What may appear to be a question of logistics carries heavy political significance in pre-election Azerbaijan. In the end, bloc leaders said, it all comes down to square meters. “The Aliyev regime is afraid of you, dear residents of Sumgayit,” Gambar told participants, in reference to President Ilham Aliyev. “That’s why they never give us wide squares to hold normal meetings. The Azerbaijani people are ready for democratic change. This country belongs to all of us.”

Editor’s Note: Jahan Aliyeva is a freelance reporter based in Baku.

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Opposition supporters cheer and chant for the arrival of Ali Kerimli, leader of Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, and Isa Gambar, leader of Musavat Party, at a rally in Sumgait. (Sophia Mizante for EurasiaNet)