Eurasia Daily Monitor, DC
May 5 2006


DESPITE INITIAL PROTEST, OPPOSITION LEADERS CHANGE TONE AFTER
ALIYEV'S VISIT TO WASHINGTON

By Fariz Ismailzade

Friday, May 5, 2006


Opposition parties in Azerbaijan were not happy with President Ilham
Aliyev's invitation to visit the United States and were even hostile
about the warm welcome he received from the White House. Referring to
the contested presidential election in 2003, opposition parties
criticized U.S. President George W. Bush for betraying his "freedom
agenda" and cooperating with a foreign authoritarian leader. Some
politicians even described Aliyev's invitation from Washington as the
final humiliation for the domestic opposition. They predicted that
the visit would turn the opposition away from Western liberal values.

Surprisingly, the domestic opposition's initially chilly reaction
toward the president's visit has begun to thaw and refocus. Some
senior opposition activists are trying to sugarcoat the "damage" done
to the Azerbaijani opposition's attitude toward the U.S. government
and downplay the initial criticism of the Bush administration.
Speaking to the opposition daily Yeni Musavat on May 3, Hikmet
Hajizadeh, a member of the Supreme Council of the leading opposition
party Musavat, observed, "America is busy now with the third World
War [i.e. the War on Terrorism] and just like the Second World War
brought freedom to many nations, this one can also bring freedom to
many peoples. We often seek a quick resolution of our problems, but
it is not possible. The U.S. is now trying to fight for democracy and
economic freedoms globally. No one except the U.S. is doing this and
wants to do this. Thus, we should help the U.S. in this." Hajizadeh
also heads Far Center, one of Azerbaijan's preeminent think tanks.

Another prominent opposition activist similarly commented that the
ongoing crisis around Iran was the real motivation for inviting
President Aliyev to Washington. Fuad Mustafayev, deputy chairman of
the opposition Popular Front, commented, "That is why I believe that
[the opposition's] relations with the U.S. will remain the same as
before despite this invitation. The Popular Front party has never
expected anybody from abroad to come and build democracy for us here.
It is our own duty" (Yeni Musavat, May 3).

Meanwhile, other experts clearly focused on the benefits of the
visit. According to independent political analyst Rasim Musabeyov,
"for a [country the] size of Azerbaijan, such a visit and talks with
the sole superpower in the world have extraordinary implications. It
shows the growing geopolitical role of Azerbaijan in the region"
(Echo, May 2).

Another expert suggested that the visit had actually strengthened
Aliyev's position as head of state. Echoing the opinion of some
Western analysts, Zardush Alizadeh speculated that President Aliyev
might change his mind regarding Iran should the time come for Baku to
take a stance.

Aliyev's visit to the White House brought new dimensions to
U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. Henceforth, bilateral ties will no longer
be evaluated through the prism of oil and gas alone. Now cooperation
between the two countries has shifted to address issues of
geopolitical strategy and the global fight against terrorism, both of
which are ongoing priorities for Bush and Aliyev in the region.

At the same time, opposition parties are now focusing on the Iranian
issue more and more, trying to draw Tehran into the critical
discourse regarding Aliyev's visit. On May 3, Yeni Musavat reported
that the United States is building a military base in the south of
Azerbaijan, which will host a radio-location station and air-defense
equipment. Such capabilities could be called into service should
Washington launch an attack on Iran.

Aliyev's visit raised the U.S.-Azerbaijani strategic partnership to
new, higher levels, but it still left many questions unanswered.
Pundits in Baku continue to wonder what will be Azerbaijan's role
should the U.S.-Iranian conflict intensify, and what will be the
future of the peace talks with Armenia over the disputed Karabakh
enclave. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict was expected to be on the
agenda of the Bush-Aliyev meeting, yet it still is unclear exactly
what they discussed and what will be the consequences of this
meeting.

Meanwhile, the co-chairs of the Minsk group gathered in Moscow this
week to discuss the ongoing peace process around the Karabakh
conflict. Azerbaijani politicians and experts believe that the
results of Rambouillet talks in February between the presidents of
Armenia and Azerbaijan are not as dead as they initially seemed. The
Day.az Internet news service reported, "At this stage, the U.S. is
taking a lead in the peace process."