By Arifa Kazimova and Daisy Sindelar, RFE/RL
"I will fight to the end," says Rustam Ibragimbekov about his presidential candidacy.
Surprises are hard to come by in the highly managed world of Azerbaijani elections.
But Azerbaijan's opposition has already managed the first twist in what may prove an unusually lively electoral season by backing screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov to face off against incumbent Ilham Aliyev when the oil-rich nation votes for a president in October.
The National Council of Democratic Forces -- an umbrella group pulling together the country's main opposition parties -- voted overwhelmingly on July 2 to nominate Ibragimbekov, the screenwriter behind such classics as "White Sun of the Desert" and "Burnt by the Sun," the Academy Award-winning film made with his longtime collaborator Nikita Mikhalkov.
Ibragimbekov's name has been dangled as a potential nominee ever since he was appointed council chair last month. But it remained uncertain whether Azerbaijan's fractious opposition could ultimately unite behind a single candidate and whether the 74-year-old Ibragimbekov -- who has described himself as a "political neophyte" -- would rise to the challenge.
Speaking by phone from Moscow shortly after his nomination, Ibragimbekov told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service he was daunted but determined.
"This is a huge responsibility. I am grateful to my comrades for their trust," he said. "I will do everything in my power to achieve success. My hope is in the people of Azerbaijan. They will decide their own historic destiny. If I didn't believe in it, I wouldn't agree to take this responsibility. I will fight to the end."
Ibragimbekov's nomination is not necessarily expected to alter the outcome of the vote, in which the country's 51-year-old president, Ilham Aliyev, is widely expected to win a constitutionally permitted third term as the candidate of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP).
But the participation of an esteemed cultural figure like Ibragimbekov, whose work is known and respected far beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, may lend fresh urgency to calls for change in the increasingly autocratic Caspian country, which has been ruled by a single bloodline for more than two decades.
In addition to Ibragimbekov's nomination, the National Council on July 2 approved a formal memorandum outlining a radical overhaul of Azerbaijan's political system in the event of an opposition win.
The memorandum foresees a two-year, single-term "transitional" presidency, fresh parliamentary elections in 2014, and a recalibration to narrow presidential powers and broaden legislative ones.
Ali Karimli, the head of the Popular Front Party, attended the July 2 National Council session and said Ibragimbekov was the ideal candidate to guide Azerbaijan through a political transformation.
"This is for the position he's demonstrated in recent years, for his efforts at forming the National Council, and for his authority in the world and among the Azerbaijani people," Karimli says. "This man will only be president for two years. He will not participate in the next elections. He will remain nonpartisan. He will not think about naming heirs in the presidential or parliamentary elections. He will work for this nation to join the democratic world during the transition period. We think Rustam Ibragimbekov can become this person."
For his advocates, Ibragimbekov's assets go beyond his perceived political incorruptibility. He is also seen as having celebrity status in both the United States and Russia, where he is expected to generate a drumbeat of support ahead of the election. (A formal date for the election has not been announced but constitutionally it is due to be scheduled on the third Wednesday in October, which would make the vote the 16th.)
Ibragimbekov, who won an Academy Award for "Burnt by the Sun" in 1995, traveled to Washington in June, where he said lawmakers expressed enthusiasm for steps for the "development of democracy" in Azerbaijan.
Now in Moscow, Ibragimbekov is expected to draw on an especially powerful circle of friends, including the so-called "billionaires' union" -- the Union of Azerbaijani Organizations of Russia, a diaspora support group that includes LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov and property mogul Araz Agalarov -- of which he is a member.
Gathering support abroad, however, comes at the expense of face time at home. Having thrown their weight behind his nomination, opposition supporters are now eager to see Ibragimbekov return to Azerbaijan as soon as possible - even if it means his possible arrest or even murder, as Ibragimbekov has himself suggested.
Isa Qambar, the head of the Musavat opposition party, backed the National Council decision but is also keeping his own party nomination active in the event that Ibragimbekov does not return to Baku.
"Ibragimbekov says he will come to Azerbaijan by the end of the month. We want to believe this," Qambar says. "I hope we won't hear in a month, 'Gather 100,000 people and I'll come to Baku.' That we won't hear in two months, 'I'll come after my candidacy is registered.'
"Registering a candidate is a risk. If there are other candidates in addition to our single candidate, the authorities will have a chance to choose between them and there's a risk of that happening. The National Council could be left out the elections altogether."
The ruling party has already raised the possibility of a National Council collapse, with the YAP deputy executive secretary, Siyavush Novruzov, saying on July 2 that "every political party leader is going to put forth his candidacy as the elections approach. Nothing the National Council does has any significance for YAP."
The registration period is certain to present its own perils to a potential Ibragimbekov run. By law, each nominee is required to gather no fewer than 40,000 signatures in at least 60 electoral districts -- a demand that can expose opposition candidates to the vagaries of local officials loyal to the ruling regime.
Ibragimbekov, who holds a Russian passport and owns homes in Moscow and California, may also hit procedural snags over an electoral ban on candidates holding "foreign commitments."
For many Azerbaijanis, the potential of an Aliyev-Ibragimbekov face-off in the October vote is a drama as personal as it is political.
Despite a 2012 YouTube video showing the Azerbaijani president raising alavish vodka toast to the filmmaker on his birthday, Ibragimbekov has had a hot-and-cold relationship with both Ilham and his father, Heydar, and recently criticized the ruling elite for failing to nurture the Azerbaijani intelligentsia.
"They think they are the salt of the earth, and they think our history began in 1993," he said. "Such neglect offended me. That's why I'm speaking up."
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by Arife Kazimova and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service in Baku
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