MANY Soviet republics are on the path to democratization, but
Azerbaijan may remain in the grip of a locally ruled dictatorship,
according to opposition critics here.
They say Ayaz Mutalibov, Azerbaijan's president, intends to
maintain his own one-party rule in this oil-rich Muslim republic of
7 million people. (Islam in Azerbaijan, Page 3.)
Bordered by Iran and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan was just a few
weeks ago one of the Kremlin's most faithful allies. Now Mr.
Mutalibov, the former Communist Party chief, claims he wants to turn
the old order on its head.
Mutalibov has joined the leaders of other republics in making
politically pragmatic changes in the aftermath of last month's
failed hard-line coup. He authorized the removal of the statue of
Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin from its prominent waterfront
location and has made sure the blue, red, and green Azerbaijani flag
flies over all government buildings. He also engineered the
republic's declaration of independence and ordered the confiscation
of all Communist Party property. He insists he was a closet liberal
the entire time he was party boss.
"I was a Communist by compulsion, but by conviction I was a
democrat," Mutalibov says.
But despite his recent pronouncements, he ran unopposed in
Sunday's presidential election, which was denounced as undemocratic
and boycotted by the Azerbaijani Popular Front, the main opposition
group. Indeed many in Baku, a city of 2 million, doubt that
Mutalibov has converted from communism to democracy. Popular Front
officials insist he has always been a puppet of the Kremlin and is
incapable of acting in a democratic fashion.
"He wants to preserve the totalitarian system in Azerbaijan but
use a different name - that of democracy, not communism," says
Tamerlan Hamidov, a leader of the Popular Front.
"After his election victory, he'll clamp down even tighter," Mr.
Hamidov says. "Mutalibov is much more repressive than (Chilean
leader Augusto) Pinochet was."
There are indications that Mutalibov hasn't completely broken
with the past. In the conference room outside his office, for
example, the 55-volume complete works of Lenin, translated into
Azerbaijani, remain in the bookcase, as does a biography of Felix
Dzerzhinsky, the first chief of the Cheka, the KGB's forerunner.
His economic blueprint is far from radical, envisioning the
privatization of 10 percent of industry each year over the next
decade. Popular Front officials, on the other hand, want to make the
transition in under a year.
Mutalibov seeks to keep Azerbaijan in a loose Soviet
confederation, in spite of the independence declaration. …