BAKU (Reuters)–Thousands took to the streets of Azerbaijan’s capital on Saturday to demand the resignation of veteran leader Haydar Aliyev–under pressure over social hardships and an unresolved conflict with neighbouring Armenia.
Police scuffled with several groups of protesters before the rally started on Baku’s outskirts–but it was otherwise peaceful despite the harsh criticism levelled at the president who has run the Caucasus nation since Soviet times.
The 10 opposition parties that organised the rally told reporters about 5,000 demonstrators had gathered–making it the year’s biggest anti-Aliyev protest. Police said 3,000 people had joined the sanctioned protest.
Opposition leaders said: "Aliyev should think about his resignation to enable the people of Azerbaijan to hold an early democratic presidential election in 2002."
Aliyev–78–rose swiftly from a general in the KGB secret police to the republic’s Communist Party boss in the Soviet-era. After the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union–he ran an autonomous region in Azerbaijan.
In 1993–he made a whirlwind return to power after voters–tired of social instability–a series of bloody coups and years of conflict with neighbour Armenia–backed him overwhelmingly in a presidential election.
A statement adopted by Saturday’s rally focused on the stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh–where Azerbaijan suffered a humiliating defeat in a 1988-94 war with Armenia.
"Aliyev came to power on promises to resolve the Karabakh problem–but he has not kept his word–has cast the society into defeatism and has allowed the United Nations and the OSCE not to implement their resolutions on Karabakh," the statement said.
Aliyev–in his second term and looking increasingly feeble after a heart bypass operation in 1999–has said he will seek re-election for another five-year term in 2003.