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Blind Support for Aliyev a Risky Game

In their reaction to Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections, Russian officials have been some of the most vocal defenders of President Ilham Aliyev and his government.

In contrast to the vast majority of the 650 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who said the Nov. 6 elections did not meet a number of democratic standards, Russia's OSCE representative, Igor Borisov, said the violations were "of a technical nature" and "did not affect the expression of the people's will and the final political result."

President Vladimir Putin weighed in with congratulations to Aliyev ahead of Wednesday's opposition rally, with the Kremlin eager at all costs to avoid another Orange Revolution, mainly because of the encouragement that it would provide to Russia's own opposition parties ahead of elections here.

The Azeri opposition said the official results, which gave the ruling party and its allies about 100 of the 125 seats and the opposition fewer than 10, were a "disgraceful fraud" and vowed to seek a rerun of the elections. The election commission has overturned the results in one race and ordered a recount in a handful other districts, but there has been no sign that Aliyev's government is ready to make any major concessions.

While the West -- which is nervously looking to its $15 billion investments in the Azeri oil and gas industry -- doubts whether Aliyev is able to deliver democratic reform or even wants to, Aliyev's government has reason to look to Moscow rather than to Washington for support.

Thus it was a sad coincidence that as attention was focused on the elections in Azerbaijan, the Rodina party began airing a campaign ad that denigrates Azeris living in Moscow. Also, two days before the elections, central Moscow saw thousands of nationalists celebrate People's Unity Day by marching through the streets shouting racist slogans such as "We will not let Moscow be turned into Baku or Istanbul."

Rodina was initially seen as a Kremlin creation, and one wonders whether either the campaign ad or the Nov. 4 march could have seen the light of day without some official support.

With its seeming lack of concern about ethnic intolerance toward Azeris and other people from the Caucasus, and its backing for a questionable vote result in Baku, the Kremlin risks infuriating many Azeris -- and helping cement growing ties between the Azeri opposition and Washington.

Instead of pressing Aliyev harder to implement democratic reform -- surely the best way to avoid a violent confrontation -- the Kremlin may actually be increasing the chances of a Ukrainian-style revolution in Baku, either now or when Aliyev comes up for re-election in 2008.

(The Moscow Times 14.xi.05)

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