Debate within the Azerbaijani Opposition.

Isa Gambar, Leader of Musavat Party in Azerbaijan. Some say he won the election in 2003.

With Azerbaijan’s 2013 Presidential elections around the corner, political activists in the country are beginning to question the tactics and plans not of the government but of the opposition. For many political activists, the government’s plan is well known, and given its track record a transparent and fair transfer of power seems highly unlikely. Karina Gould follows the debate and reports for CEW.

Incumbent President, Ilham Aliyev, has been in power since 2003, and his father, Heydar Aliyev, was Azerbaijan’s President before him. Democracy advocates in Azerbaijan understand how their political system works, what they’re trying to reform now are the methods of the opposition, a movement some younger activists feel is outdated and in need of reform.

The opposition, under the umbrella of the Public Chamber (PC) publicly declared its intent to boycott the presidential elections unless certain changes were made to the Electoral Code of Azerbaijan this autumn. So far, those changes remain on the desks of the PC, yet no boycott has been confirmed, and even if there was a boycott, would it exert enough pressure on the government to make a difference?

Some political pundits in Azerbaijan are beginning to question the wisdom of this hope and the tactics of the opposition, arguing they are tried and tired – maybe the Azerbaijani opposition needs a breath of fresh air, they say. Emin Milli, a political blogger who was jailed in 2009, describes the leaders of the opposition in Azerbaijan in a blogpost as “those individual politicians in opposition who choose being eternal leaders in waiting .” Milli was referring to Ali Kerimli and Isa Gambar, the leaders of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and the Musavat Party, respectively, the two most prominent opposition parties in Azerbaijan. Milli wonders in his post whether opposition leaders seriously believe that the West supports them as potential governing parties. The dissident blogger argues that Western governments, interested in preserving oil and gas supplies and investments in Azerbaijan, use the opposition to legitimise Aliyev’s government through falsified elections; elections in which the opposition readily participates. It’s time for a change of leadership asserts Milli in his blogpost, one in which leaders are willing to take greater risks for the future of Azerbaijan.

Shahla Sultanova wrote last week on that Milli’s criticism reflects a “generational gap” between the old guard of the opposition, which cut its teeth in Soviet Azerbaijan, and the new, younger generation of political activists who found their political feet in the age of the internet. The point is that the opposition movement which has been around for twenty years in Azerbaijan has been unable to unseat the YAP, even in 2003 when it was clear to most Azerbaijanis that Isa Gambar had actually won the elections. Instead of taking to the streets and defending his position, Milli accuses Gambar of listening to Western diplomats and staying in his office, waiting out the storm. While young opposition leaders such Milli or internet activist Bakhityar Haliyev, appreciate the trails leaders such as Kerimli and Gambar blazed over the past two decades, they also recognise that young Azerbaijanis need new sources of inspiration and motivation not currently found in the opposition leadership.

Dissatisfaction within the opposition has resulted in calls from these younger activists for the opposition to start setting the agenda with the government, be more proactive by proposing its own plans and to reach out and interact with the people. Aziz Shahhuseynov, commented to Sultanova, that instead of an “opposition of ‘rejection, condemning everything the government does,” he would like to see “an opposition of proposals, with its own programme.” Haliyev would like to see the opposition interact with everyday people, especially outside of the capital, Baku. “It’s enough to visit crowded places and talk to people,” said Toghrul Juvarli who writes for the Turan news agency.

Both Kerimli and Gambar welcomed the input from the young political activists, however, they also maintained that their failure is not simply rectified by changing tactics, means of communication or decision-making procedures. “Government pressure, the non-democratic environment in the country and financial difficulties” are all obstacles that contribute to weakness of the opposition in Azerbaijan, stated Kerimli. Gambar also asserted that the country’s mainstream opposition does not need to be “shown the door” as insinuated by Milli when he called for the “purification” of the democratic movement in Azerbaijan, but rather “renewed.”

Hopefully, Azerbaijan’s restless young democracy advocates can find a way to breathe new life into the opposition movement, contributing their communications-technology expertise and resources to what could be a strengthened opposition force ahead of the 2013 Presidential elections. Hopefully, the experienced opposition politicians will not simply welcome their words, but also take their advice to heart and to action.

Report prepared for CEW by Karina Gould