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War Dims Political Victory Of Azerbaijan Popular Front

Leaders seek mandate for reforms amid continuing conflict, communist threat

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THE haggard-looking deputies at the late-night session of Azerbaijan's parliament could muster only a smattering of applause when the election results were announced.

Even Isa Gambarov, the moderate Popular Front leader just elected acting parliament chairman, wasn't in a mood to celebrate. In a short and somber acceptance speech, Mr. Gambarov promised to do his best and asked for the support of all Azeris. There were no triumphant words about the coming to power of the Popular Front, an umbrella group of anticommunist parties.

The scene at parliament last week reflected the mood in this Transcaucasian republic. Most Azeris have been shocked by recent battlefield setbacks that have given Armenian fighters total control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan.

The Popular Front culminated its four-year struggle for power May 15, leading a popular uprising that ousted President Ayaz Mutalibov, a former Communist Party boss. But an ongoing domestic political crisis and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh have prevented the Popular Front from savoring its political victory.

Front leaders say they eventually want to launch wide-ranging democratic reforms. But Gambarov's more immediate task is shepherding the fragile Azeri government through to the scheduled June 7 presidential elections, which Popular Front leader Abulfaz Elchibey is expected to win. Although the Front is currently the most influential power in Azeri politics, former Communists still wield significant influence.

"The Front's strategy is to hold on until June 7, when it should get a popular mandate to make changes," says a foreign political observer based in Baku.

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