Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Challenging the Aliyev Regime: Political Opposition in Azerbaijan

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Challenging the Aliyev Regime: Political Opposition in Azerbaijan

Article excerpt

Abstract: The opposition in Azerbaijan has long been considered a dysfunctional political group that does not threaten the ruling regime. Large swathes of the Azerbaijani public see opposition forces as badly organized, poorly funded, and vulnerable, allowing the Aliyev regime to stand largely unchallenged in the political arena. The traditional opposition's image of failure drove newly emerging groups to develop a different format, which focuses more on education and less on politics. This article examines the development and transformation of the political opposition in Azerbaijan since independence in 1991, teasing out the significant distinction between the old and new oppositions in challenging the ruling regime. Based on analyses of media reporting and scholarly works, as well as numerous interviews with opposition members, I argue that both branches of the opposition in Azerbaijan have so far failed to test the regime mainly because of the oppressive tactics employed against them, but also as a result of their failure to establish a new form of party politics.

The Emergence of Opposition in Azerbaijan

Despite its current image of failure, examining the evolution of Azerbaijan's political opposition reveals that, in its early stages, it was a successful organization. During the 70 years of Soviet rule, Azerbaijan had a single political party: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Until Gorbachov's glasnost policy gave the Soviet people an opportunity to question their government, this party went unchallenged. However, in the lead up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the media began to attack the key institutions of the regime, including the party, the military and even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself. Some media outlets began courting dissidents, and vice versa. (1)

Over the course of 1988-1989, politics moved increasingly from government offices into the streets, and, as this transition took place, issues of nationalism, once effectively marginalized, began to resonate across the political sphere. (2) Massive mobilization encompassed multiple national groups simultaneously, as successful challenges by individual groups led to further challenges by others. (3) Dozens of newly formed organizations promoted these issues and their actions received extensive media coverage. (4) Like most mobilized national communities in the Soviet Union, (5) Azerbaijanis were also demanding freedom of movement, increased autonomy and the ability to engage in greater cultural expression. Ultimately, though, nationalism motivated the majority of politically mobilized groups. Azeri nationalism was initially directed against the Soviet Union, and took the form of demands for greater autonomy. During this period, while individual citizens could not organize formal political parties, they could act as movements. (6)

Among the newly established nationalist groups, the Popular Front (APF) movement, which brought together academics, university students, and dissidents, was the most popular. The group was soon recognized and gained support from members of the dissatisfied national public who sought challengers to the Soviet regime. Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh territorial conflict with Armenia and the Black January events, when Soviet troops entered Baku on the night of January 19, 1990, and killed 133 people while wounding 611, (7) was a turning point that greatly increased recognition of the Popular Front.

On June 16, 1989, Abulfaz Elchibey, a Soviet dissident and orientalist-historian, was elected chairman of the Popular Front. By the autumn of that year, the movement had already challenged the Communist party. It signed a protocol with Communist Party First Secretary Abdulrahman Vezirov on ten points, including legalizing the Popular Front, lifting the military curfew, and convening a special session of the Azerbaijani Parliament to pass a new sovereignty law. The law, which was largely written to the Popular Front's specifications, asserted Azerbaijan's right to defy federal authority, and even to secede from the Soviet Union. …

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