In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 March, former President Ayaz Mutalibov voiced his approval of the series of meetings begun last year between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliev devoted to the search for a mutually acceptable solution to the Karabakh conflict. But at the same time Mutalibov argued that Baku should embark on talks with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic "as an equal participant in the negotiating process." For years, the present Azerbaijani leadership has rejected the idea of such direct talks, although recently it has hinted that it would agree to the participation of an Armenian delegation at future talks provided that the representatives of the Azerbaijani community who fled Karabakh during the fighting in 1992 are also present. The Azerbaijani opposition, too, does not recognize the Karabakh Armenian leadership as an acceptable negotiating partner.
Mutalibov's conciliatory proposal is the more surprising as he has made clear his intention of returning to Baku soon in order to contend the parliamentary elections due this fall. (He had fled to Moscow in May 1992 after an unsuccessful comeback bid catapulted the Azerbaijan Popular Front to power and has lived there ever since.) In articles published in "Zerkalo" on 29 January and 12 February, two Azerbaijani political commentators noted that the present leadership has softened the tone of its references to Mutalibov, although those authors do not link that shift directly to the success of a grassroots campaign launched last year to collect signatures on a petition that Mutalibov be allowed to return to Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 35, 2 September 1999). But those commentators agree that while many individual Azerbaijanis may sympathize with Mutalibov, it is by no means clear which segments of the domestic political spectrum could provide him with a support base.
Given Mutalibov's pro-Russian bias, it would be logical for him to seek the backing of left-wing political forces, and he has in fact expressed his intention to create such a left-wing bloc. At present there are two such blocs in Azerbaijan, which comprise communist and socialist parties respectively. The various communist parties, although they disagree among themselves on many issues, are unanimous in still considering Mutalibov a traitor for having dissolved the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (of which he was then first secretary) in the wake of the failed August 1991 coup. By contrast, the socialist parties aligned in the recently formed Movement for Socialist Solidarity would welcome Mutalibov as their leader and as an eventual candidate in the next presidential elections. But their electoral support is extremely modest.
There is, however, one group of voters who would be prepared to back an election bloc headed by Mutalibov: those Azerbaijanis who have been constrained by the imploding economy to leave Azerbaijan and seek work in the Russian Federation and who, according to "Zerkalo," constitute almost half the total electorate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 50, 17 December 1999).
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