Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibrahimbayov says two things are certain about his electoral race against Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, whose family has run the oil-rich Caspian state for more than four decades.
The first is that the challenger will win more votes in the October contest. The second is that the incumbent will falsify the tally. “What happens next will depend on the will of the people,” Ibrahimbayov, 74, said in an interview two days after uniting Azeri opposition groups behind his candidacy.
Ibrahimbayov said he flew to Washington and Moscow last month to brief U.S. and Russian officials about rising tensions in Azerbaijan and secure their support for a democratic election. He said he’ll meet with EU officials in Brussels on July 7, declining to be more specific about the talks.
Since succeeding his father in disputed elections a decade ago, Aliyev, buoyed by $40 billion of investment from BP Plc and its partners, has tripled oil output and the size of the economy. That’s allowed him to steer the country of 9.3 million mainly Shiite Muslims on a pro-Western course and deepen ties with regional powers Turkey and Israel while keeping former imperial masters Iran and Russia at bay. It’s also allowed him to stymie all but a handful of protests since the Arab Spring swept away regimes across the Middle East.
Now, though, with oil production falling and the popularity of social networks weakening state control of the media, Aliyev is facing the biggest challenge of his career.
“It’s impossible to live like this any longer,” Ibrahimbayov said by phone yesterday from Moscow, where he frequently works and has dual citizenship. “It is the longest dictatorship and authoritarian rule in the world.”
Azeri oil output, which accounts for more than half of government revenue, fell to 43 million tons (861,000 barrels a day) last year from a peak of 51 million tons in 2010 and Fitch Ratings forecasts the decline will continue “relatively steeply” over the next decade. More than a million Azeris are now on Facebook Inc., which has become the main tool for organizing mass demonstrations against the government.
President Aliyev, 51, railed against the opposition in a meeting with police commanders this week, accusing them of seeking support from foreigners. He also praised police for preventing an “Orange revolution” after the disputed parliamentary election in 2005 and vowed to respond “fittingly” to any further unrest.
“They cannot appreciate Azerbaijan’s independence,” Aliyev said, according to a transcript posted on his website. “They have a slave psychology, always seeking an elder brother to support them.”
Ibrahimbayov, also known as Ibragimbekov, the Russian transliteration of his name, co-wrote with Nikita Mikhalkov the 1994 film “Burnt by the Sun,” which won an Academy Award for best foreign-language film. In May, he led the effort to forge a united front among Azerbaijan’s fractured opposition parties and groups, including Musavat, People’s Front and Open Society, in an alliance called the National Council of Democratic Forces that he currently leads.
“It is a sign of the maturing of the opposition that it’s able to keep a unified position and back a common candidate,” Sabine Freizer, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council research group, said by e-mail yesterday. “For over a decade, the Azeri opposition tried but failed to reach such an agreement.
The alliance’s platform calls for a ‘‘peaceful transition to democracy’’ within two years of its candidate’s victory. That would include holding a referendum on changing the constitution to give parliament more power and the president less, and holding fresh elections. Ibrahimbayov has vowed to step down in 2015 if the coalition wins.
‘‘We want to change the situation peacefully and through elections,’’ Ibrahimbayov said. ‘‘The experiences of Egypt, Syria and other countries show that civil war would be the most dangerous thing that could happen.’’
Ibrahimbayov said the government has rigged every election since Aliyev’s father, former Communist boss Heydar Aliyev, returned to power following a coup in 1993 and has plundered the country’s oil wealth. Aliyev’s government has repeatedly denied allegations of vote-rigging, saying all elections in the past two decades have been free and fair.
‘‘It will be very difficult prevent the single candidate of the united opposition from standing in this year’s election as the government will have to take into account the views of Azeri society and the international community,” Eldar Namazov, secretary of the opposition alliance, said in an interview in Baku late yesterday.
The U.S. ambassador in Baku, Richard Morningstar, said the Obama administration will continue pushing the Azeri government to hold an honest vote.
“We want very much for this to be a free and fair election,” Morningstar told reporters in Baku yesterday.
Ibrahimbayov said he hopes that the Azeri people will be able to experience the transition of the Arab Spring without the violence, and that the U.S., EU and Russia will help ensure that the will of the Azeri people is respected.
“I want them to support not us, but democracy itself,” Ibrahimbayov said. “I think the U.S. understands that the situation in Azerbaijan is difficult and needs to be changed. The Azeri people know their country is heading toward death.”