15,000 Azeris Rally as Pressure Builds
BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Thousands of angry demonstrators
crammed a square in Baku to protest alleged vote fraud in this
weekend's parliamentary elections, while Azeri President Ilham
Aliyev fired two regional governors for interfering with the
The governors of the Surakhani and Sabirabad
regions, Natiq Mehdiyev and Ashraf Mammadov, were fired amid
Western criticism of the balloting, Aliyev's office said Wednesday.
They were the first officials to be punished for their role
in the elections.
Earlier Wednesday, the Central Elections Commission
had awarded a parliamentary seat in Surakhani to an opposition
leader, Ali Kerimli, after a recount forced by allegations of
official interference in the original count.
The protesters had answered a call by the Azadliq
opposition movement to go into the streets to defend their right
to free and fair elections.
The march was the first test of the opposition's
ability to mobilize supporters following the elections, and
the movement hoped it would generate unstoppable momentum. About
15,000 people took part in the 3-kilometer march, short of the
30,000 to 50,000 the opposition had hoped to assemble.
President Vladimir Putin congratulated Aliyev
on successful parliamentary elections, the Kremlin said Wednesday,
increasing Russian support for the vote.
Putin told Aliyev by telephone that Sunday's
elections would consolidate democracy and strengthen stability
in Azerbaijan, his spokesman Alexei Gromov said.
Azeri prosecutors said Wednesday that four
election officials had been detained on suspicion of falsifying
balloting results and abuse of office, including the election
commission chiefs in the regions of Bina and Sumgait. Prosecutors
also said they would investigate accusations that 10 precinct
commission heads in the Surakhani district allowed vote fraud.
At the Baku rally, Sardar Jalaloglu, a top
official in the Democratic Party, said the opposition would
give the government a chance to correct its mistakes.
"If the people's will is not fulfilled
... we will go into the streets with a total demand" for
the government's resignation, he told the cheering crowd consisting
almost completely of men.
The rally, which authorities limited to three
hours, was seen as an important gauge of how the political climate
is likely to develop in the oil-rich nation. Authorities were
keen to demonstrate how few supporters the opposition can marshal,
and also how well it can maintain the peace.
Opposition leaders asked the crowd to disperse
on schedule, and the protesters did nothing to provoke a violent