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Over the past 12 years, Azerbaijan's various fractious opposition parties have failed time and again to join forces to pose a strong, united, and cohesive alternative to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party.

Partly as a result of individual opposition party leaders' reluctance to subordinate their personal ambitions to the greater opposition cause, but also partly due to ballot stuffing and other blatant procedural violations, the opposition suffered three successive crushing defeats in the parliamentary elections of 1995, 2000, and 2005.

In 2000, official returns gave opposition candidates only 15 of the 125 parliament mandates, and in 2005, 21. By contrast, the unofficial Center for Election Monitoring reportedly calculated on the basis of its own data that the opposition Azadliq bloc alone won 40 seats.

In the wake of the disputed 2005 ballot, some opposition deputies demonstratively refused to take up their mandates in protest at perceived massive falsification. Several other nominally opposition deputies who do participate in the work of the legislature are widely regarded as in cahoots with the authorities.

Nor have opposition candidates fared any better in successive presidential ballots. Several opposition leaders boycotted the 1998 presidential election, in which official returns gave incumbent President Heydar Aliyev 76.11 percent of the vote compared to 11.6 percent for his closest challenger, Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) Chairman Etibar Mammadov.

Failing health prevented Aliyev from running for a third term, but his son Ilham won the October 2003 presidential ballot, again with 76 percent of the vote. Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar finished a distant second with 13.97 percent, followed by independent candidate Lale Sovket-Haciyeva (3.62 percent), and AMIP's Mammadov (2.92 percent). Four other candidates polled 1 percent or less.

As with previous ballots, international observers dubbed the vote as failing to meet international standards for free and fair elections. Police in Baku used violence against Musavat supporters who gathered to protest Qambar's apparent defeat, claiming that he was, in fact, the victor.

Following the 2003 presidential election, observers in Baku predicted the emergence of a new political force that they anticipated would replace an "old" opposition widely perceived to be a spent force.

One of the opposition figures touted as a possible rallying figure -- former presidential adviser Eldar Namazov -- aligned in 2005 with other opposition leaders of disparate political views, including Mammadov and exiled former President Ayaz Mutallibov, to form the Yeni Siyaset (New Politics, aka YeS) bloc. However, YeS won only two parliament mandates in the November parliamentary election, and suspended its activities in the summer of 2006.

A second election bloc, Azadliq, which united the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA), and the Musavat Party, effectively collapsed in February 2006, when Musavat defied its partners' proclaimed boycott and decided to participate in the work of the new legislature.

The collapse of Azadliq and subsequent acrimonious infighting within both Musavat and the Democratic Party was met with undisguised schadenfreude on the part of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP). Senior members of that party have dwelt at length in interviews in recent months on what they consider the opposition's weaknesses and failures.

For example, YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanli said in a November 17 interview with the website that the opposition is incapable of putting forward any convincing and palatable alternative to the policies currently being implemented by the Azerbaijani leadership, and is therefore losing popular support.

He accused unnamed opposition politicians of resorting to "populist slogans and baseless slander" in a fruitless attempt to blacken the authorities and in a competition among themselves to be acknowledged as "the most radical opposition party." But even though a political opposition is a "normal attribute" of a democratic society, Gurbanli continued, "we shall not create an opposition artificially."

Opposition politicians were dismayed and embittered by the international community's lukewarm condemnation of the rigging of the 2005 parliamentary ballot. (The OSCE Monitoring Mission noted that election officials blatantly juggled figures in favor of YAP in 43 percent of precincts where their monitors were present for the vote count.)

That Western failure to express support for the Azerbaijani opposition was all the more painful when contrasted with the West's enthusiastic support of the Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004. Democratic Party First Deputy Secretary Serdar Jalaloglu, for example, accused the West of "betraying democracy" in Azerbaijan.

That collective sense of impotence and frustration among opposition party leaders was compounded by restrictions throughout the year on the holding of opposition rallies, and most recently by the eviction on November 24, 2006, of the AHCP progressive wing and the editorial staff of the newspaper "Azadliq" (which began publication 17 years ago as the AHCP organ) from the premises in central Baku that they had occupied for the past decade.

The following day, AHCP progressive wing Chairman Ali Kerimli and Liberal Party leader Haciyeva proposed drawing international attention to the absence of normal conditions for the functioning of either opposition parties or opposition media by suspending indefinitely the activities of both, reported on December 5. Democratic Party First Deputy Chairman Jalaloglu expressed support for that proposal, but Musavat and AMIP reportedly rejected it.

Mehman Aliyev (no relation to the president), director of the news agency Turan that was evicted from the same building that housed "Azadliq" and the AHCP, argued that despite the constraints on opposition activity, the opposition should not adopt the "emotional decision" to suspend its activities.

Both Aliyev and Musavat argued that the opposition should instead align in a broad-based "resistance movement" that would coordinate its activities more closely, and reported on November 27 and 28, respectively. But opposition parliament deputy Panah Huseynov was quoted on December 5 by the daily "Ayna/Zerkalo" as saying mutual distrust, insincerity, and fundamental disagreements continue to preclude closer cooperation between the various opposition forces.

In early December, Jalaloglu addressed an open letter to President Aliyev, again raising the possibility, which the opposition had floated earlier, of establishing a National Forum in which political parties, NGOs, the media, trade unions, and possibly also leading government figures would participate.

Azerbaijani media construed that proposal as a direct call for dialogue between the opposition and the ruling authorities. So too did the president, who responded on December 7 that "I have said many times that we are ready for political dialogue," which would serve the country's interests.

At the same time, Aliyev slammed the opposition for acting in what he termed a "destructive" and "uncivilized" fashion and for resorting to "threats, illegal actions, and attempts to destabilize the situation," reported on December 8.

Jalaloglu then explained to journalists on December 12 that his proposal was to convene a forum that would be capable of proposing solutions to unspecified "national problems." At the same time, he stressed that the opposition is not against dialogue with the authorities and is ready to participate in such an exchange at any time. Jalaloglu went on to identify as the main obstacle to such a dialogue unnamed pro-Russian politicians in both the opposition and the government camps who, he claimed, wish not merely to prevent a rapprochement between the two sides, but to provoke a major political and economic crisis.

Whether Jalaloglu seriously believed the authorities would agree to his proposal -- or whether he counted on a refusal that the opposition could subsequently adduce to substantiate their argument that the leadership has no interest in promoting democratization -- is unclear.

Previous initiatives, such as the OSCE-mediated roundtable discussions between YAP and several opposition parties in the early summer of 2005, collapsed due to bickering over what issues should be addressed and Azadliq's failure to send representatives.

FORMER UKRAINIAN INTERIOR MINISTER LAUNCHES 'PEOPLE'S SELF-DEFENSE.' Yuriy Lutsenko, who was dismissed from his post of interior minister earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006), announced the creation of a new public movement called the People's Self-Defense in Kyiv on December 20, Ukrainian media reported. Lutsenko said the basic goal of the movement will be to counter a comeback of "Kuchmism" in Ukraine, that is, the authoritarian system of power that was characteristic of the era of President Leonid Kuchma (1994-04). "[We see] a massive comeback of the [power] system and comrades-in-arms of Mr. Kuchma," Lutsenko said, accusing the ruling coalition and the cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of the "usurpation of power." "The usurper is not an individual, as Kuchma was, but a collective -- the anti-crisis coalition," Lutsenko said. Lutsenko, who was an iconic leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, is widely seen as a staunch supporter of President Viktor Yushchenko. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT AMENDS 2007 BUDGET, BUT NOT QUITE TO PRESIDENT'S LIKING. The Verkhovna Rada on December 19 amended the 2007 budget bill that was vetoed by President Viktor Yushchenko last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006), Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko refused to sign the budget bill, demanding increases in minimum monthly wages and pensions. The amended bill reportedly does not take into account most suggestions made by Yushchenko. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, first deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat and the presidential representative in the government, said the president could veto the amended budget again. "If the budget today exceeds 160 billion hryvnyas ($32 billion) and we cannot find 800 million [hryvnyas] by redistributing expenditures from other programs that are not socially oriented at all, then the question is, what does the country work for and what does the economy work for? The president's proposals to help the least protected strata of the population were not considered. This budget should not be signed," Yatsenyuk told journalists. JM

MOLDOVAN MIGRANT WORKERS SEND HOME $1 BILLION IN 2006. Migrant workers from Moldova sent home a record $1 billion in 2006, dpa and Infotag reported on December 19. Martin Wyss, a regional director for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), said an IOM survey indicated that the average Moldovan migrant worker sent home $1,333 in 2006. Those working in the European Union sent back $1,546. Close to one-third of Moldova's working-age population is employed abroad and cash remittances account for 30 percent of the country's gross domestic product, dpa reported. The Moldovan government has estimated that 65 percent of Moldovans who work abroad do so illegally. Moldovan men work mostly in Ukraine or Russia in the construction industry or agriculture. The single largest city employing Moldovan migrant workers is Moscow, where an estimated 136,000 work. Moldovan women tend to work in Western Europe, Turkey, and Israel. They work most commonly in households, agriculture, and the sex industry. BW