Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Is Azerbaijan Likely to Have Its Own Maidan?

Is Azerbaijan Likely to Have Its Own Maidan?

Ukraine and Azerbaijan share a similar past in some significant ways. However, what happened in Kyiv’s Maidan square in the course of the 88 days is unlikely to resonate in the country not too far from Ukraine and facing many of the same issues from a ruling style point of view. While there are several reasons for this – a weaker opposition, a stronger economy, better international lobby, etc., the biggest reason is fear. It is entrenched so deeply in people’s minds that very few would go to the main square in the heart of Baku to raise their voices let alone set up tents and occupy the square. There is fear of the consequences to one’s self but also to one’s family members, and the fear of police brutality as seen during many other attempts to organize. This fear is greater than any will to stand up against an authoritarian ruler. Or so it seems for now.

Weakened opposition

Ever since the ruling family came to power in Azerbaijan in 1993, the opposition has been slowly discredited in the eyes of the general public. Not once since the large protests in 2003 and 2005, during the presidential and parliamentary elections respectively, have Azerbaijanis visited the main squares of the city en masse. The ruling government made critical amendments to a number of laws, including on freedom of assembly. In Baku, the capital, it is nearly impossible to organize any kind of peaceful opposition protests as the city authorities refuse to allow this, despite the constitution stipulating the right to assembly so long as the relevant government body is notified. As a result, rallies that are held in the city end up dispersed violently by the police. In November 2012 and May 2013, Azerbaijani parliament eagerly approved changes to fine rates for participation in unsanctioned protests as well as raised the maximum administrative jail sentence from 15 to 60 days.

There are other critical policies too, with the most recent one tightening control over the internet, making “slander” and “abuse” online criminal offense. A statement posted online, can now cost its author up to three years in jail.

Weakened people

There is also the people factor. The protests in cities like Istanbul, Kyiv, Caracas and across their respective countries were the result of people’s grievances with their governments. In Turkey, especially, the growing discontent with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s policies, the party’s inability to represent the whole of Turkey and not just the so-called fifty percent of its voter base, resulted in the explosion of what can best be described as human frustration. The Gezi Park events, over which the country-wide protests began, were just the last straw of people’s patience. However, in countries like Azerbaijan, while there is a large growing discontent, there is no unity among the people–or at least of the scope it was seen in Turkey or Venezuela or Ukraine.

The fear that has been skillfully spread through education establishments as well as places of work have left a deep scar and a reminder of what could happen if anyone decides to cross the line and challenge the government. While the people are well aware that they live under an authoritarian rule, and object to unequal division of wealth exemplified by the ever-growing family businesses of key government officials, they have no incentive to take their signs, their pots and pans, and their courage out to the streets. Unfortunately the Azerbaijanis have yet to find a way to communicate their frustration–or be allowed to communicate their frustration. In the case of Turkey where there are still some signs of democracy lingering here and there, elections are the only means for the people to express their discontent. Although the recent elections showed that voter fraud has also reached the borders of this country and the results are still contested and yet to be announced by Turkey’s Supreme Election Board.

In Ukraine, however, just like in Azerbaijan elections are not always free or fair. But in Azerbaijan the continuously rigged elections have not been enough to cause massive uprisings as fear continues to prevail. Even if one day President Aliyev decides to reject the country’s European integration, there is little evidence to suggest that people will be outraged and pour onto the streets as Ukrainians did. Even under a dictator like Yanukovych, Ukrainians were able to occupy one of the city’s main squares. In Azerbaijan, it would be impossible to stay in one place as a group of more than 10 people, let alone install a stage or a sound system or camp out and “occupy” the square. The protesters will be dispersed immediately, and at best detained and placed under administrative detention. At the least they will be charged with illegal possession of drugs, or be placed in jail for causing a mass unrest–facing a minimum of 7 years or more of imprisonment. After all, it is a country where activists are facing charges at the moment for using Facebook to organize.

Surely there have been attempts to protest–while Ukrainians burned tires and buildings during the protests, in Azerbaijan people burned themselves.  Nine cases of self-immolation were recorded since December 2013. The head of a local non-governmental organization Atlas, says this is a new form of protest. According to the director Elkhan Shahinoglu most of these acts of self-immolations are taking place in front of government buildings to show unhappiness and frustration. While historically individual cases have led to country-wide protests like in Japan or in 1968 Czechoslovakia or 2011 Tunisia, in Azerbaijan it is yet to be seen whether these are going to stay as individual, isolated incidents.  

Before the self-immolations began there were other attempts of demonstrations, too. In January of 2013 Baku saw by far its largest protests since 2005, with approximately 4,000 people gathered in the Fountain Square to address the issue of the increased number of deaths of army conscripts. This was sparked by the death of a young soldier–Jeyhun Gubadov. The man’s family was told he died of a heart failure, however the family’s disbelief in the medical reports led to a further investigation that revealed severe injuries covering the conscript’s body. As it turned out, it wasn’t a heart failure at all. Police were quick to respond to the peaceful protests and resorted to violence to disperse the crowd. Some 120 protesters were detained, some were beaten, and others received hefty fines. Days later, another mass protest broke out, this time in another part of the capital, with market traders clashing with the riot police over increased rent of their stalls at one of the largest shopping malls–Bina–in Baku. Once again, violent means were used to disperse the crowd with police using tear gas.

Baku wasn’t the only city sparked by protests. When a young driver of a large sports car collided with a local taxi (later identified as the son of the Minister of Labor and Social Protection in Azerbaijan) and went on to demean the local women, further angering the residents of the small town of Ismayilli, the injustice resulted in mass town riots. The locals not only burned down the hotel allegedly owned by the son of the Minister but also some of the local governor’s cars who as it turned out was the brother of the Minister. But the car crash wasn’t the main reason of the protests. The local unemployment, poverty, and many other grievances were on top of the long list of concerns that brought the locals to a breaking point. Police violence was the most severe here, deploying water cannons, rubber bullets, tear-gas, while sealing off all exits and entry points into the town.

After seeing the unfair treatment of the people in the town of Ismayilli, hundreds gathered at different locations across Baku. Detentions followed and included prominent figures, journalists and political figures. Other protests have been taking place in the course of the past year, especially in the run-up and in the aftermath of the elections.

So far, none of the above mentioned attempts have been successful. The government hasn’t budged a bit, claiming that the protests are futile attempts and cannot impact the route the democratic leadership is taking the country on. Ousting of the President in Ukraine doesn’t scare the Azerbaijani government. So it was not surprising when an influential MP from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party Ali Huseynli (New Azerbaijan Party) commented that President Yanukovych’s departure was unconstitutional, adding “It is a new trend in the world recently to carry out coups and terrorist activity under the pretext of revolutionary processes”.   

For many of the folks in Azerbaijan who are unhappy with the regime, this means one thing: that the government has no intention of becoming intimidated or of letting the people take inspiration from the recent events in Ukraine and start mass protests . Not yet, to say the least.