Political Mobilization in Azerbaijan-The January 2013 Protests and Beyond

Article excerpt

A wave of public protests rocked Azerbaijan at the beginning of 2013. The first protest event of the year was inspired by the disputed death of a young conscript in the Azerbaijani army. While the official cause of death was heart attack, the family insisted he was beaten to death. The result was a fierce debate about the difficulties facing newly recruited soldiers and the conditions under which they serve. Some activists initiated a Facebook group and called for a demonstration in Baku on January 12. Twenty thousand people joined the group, an impressive number by Azerbaijani standards, given that support for anti-establishment manifestations can be dangerous. Later as many as 1,000 protesters, also a large number for Azerbaijan, joined the actual event in support of the dead soldiers' family, demanding the defense minister's resignation. Just a week later shopkeepers at Baku's largest shopping mall, Bina, protested against increased rents. The demonstrators blocked a major highway and 5,000 shopkeepers kept their businesses closed in support of the protest. This was shortly followed by another spontaneous outbreak of dissent in Ismayili, 150 km northwest of Baku, where community members set fire to cars and buildings and called for the governor's resignation after a controversial car accident. Riot police finally managed to disperse the protesters, many of whom were injured and/or imprisoned. The harsh treatment brought about another rally in the capital in support of the Ismayili protesters. The outbreak of civic unrest in Ismayili can be seen as particularly important since it indicates discontent with the government, not only in Baku, but outside the capital as well. (1)

The January events were followed by others, very diverse in character; both in Baku and outside; some within the framework of "democracy activism" and others mainly addressing economic issues, such as low wages. Their common denominator appears to have been frustration with a leadership that, despite paying lip service to reforms, let corruption, nepotism and autocracy rule. Hence, some analysts and activists described these events as the beginning of an "Azerbaijani Spring." However, while the authorities appear to initially have been taken by surprise, they learned their lesson and all subsequent unsanctioned demonstrations were stifled with force, with the law enforcement agencies often taking advantage of new methods and equipment. Nevertheless, the protests are intriguing as they illustrate the increased will, of at least certain groups, to actively participate in shaping the societal and political arena in a country most often described in terms of political apathy. The articles in this issue focus on the new dynamics of political opposition in Azerbaijan by analyzing the actors (Sultanova), the role of social media (Pearce) and the innovative use of humor (Hadjizade and Pearce) to carry out dissent. This introduction will serve as a background to these texts by elaborating on the circumstances that have molded this new wave of activism. (2)

Political Apathy and the Opposition's Endemic Problems

To a large extent the recent mobilization in Azerbaijan can be accredited to a generational shift in the democratic opposition movement. In 1992 Abulfaz Elchibey, leader of the Azerbaijan People's Front Party was elected president of independent Azerbaijan, in what has been called the only free and fair election in the country's history. (3) His government lasted less than a year and ever since Azerbaijan has been under the presidency of the Aliyev family. The Popular Front Party instead became the backbone of the political opposition and most current opposition parties stem from the Popular Front, as do a majority of the current opposition leaders (see Sultanova, this issue). During these 20 years, since the fall of the Elchibey government, the efforts of the opposition have faced continuous official constraints and growing national and international discredit. …