After three month of peaceful demonstrations, last Sunday (September 25) Azerbaijan’s opposition parties and police clashed in downtown Baku. Ministry of Interior forces broke up the unauthorized rally by the main opposition alliance, Azadliq (Freedom), which unites the three largest opposition parties (Musavat, Popular Front, and the Democratic Party), and arrested more than 100 protestors. U.S. Ambassador Reno Harnish, acting on his own initiative, finally brought both sides to the negotiating table. Only then did the opposition parties agree to halt the rally, and the government agreed to join the discussions.
Nevertheless, two days of intense negotiations did not produce the desired outcome. The opposition parties have traditionally organized their protest demonstrations near the Galaba movie theater, which is located far from downtown Baku. This site and another location in the suburbs of Baku are the only places sanctioned by the authorities since freedom of assembly was reinstated in May of this year, after intense pressure from the West.
But now the opposition parties insist that they are tired of holding rallies in the suburbs of Baku and demand permission to protest in the downtown area. They claim that the space in front of the Galaba movie theater is too small for their growing support base. Azadliq has been drawing up to 50,000 supporters for their last few rallies.
Yet the authorities claim that political rallies are unwieldy in the downtown area, due to the heavy traffic, and pose a threat to the safety of citizens. Instead, they have proposed three other venues that are also located in the outskirts of the capital. “I don’t understand how the opposition can claim that the square in front of the Galaba movie is [too] small for them and at the same time demand the square in downtown Baku, which is five times smaller,” asked Ali Hasanov, head of the political department of the president’s office, in an interview with Lider TV. “If they say that they want a bigger space, we can offer them three larger venues.”
In reply, Popular Front chairman Ali Kerimli told ANS TV that people have the constitutional right to assemble wherever they want and that they intend to exercise that right. “We don’t care about the prohibition letter from the mayor’s office. It is unconstitutional,” Kerimli said.
Meanwhile, the international community seems increasingly worried about the rising tensions in the country. Both OSCE monitors and the Council of Europe office in Baku condemned the violence that took place on Sunday. The OSCE-sponsored talks between the authorities and the opposition are set to continue with the aim of reaching an agreement on a location for future rallies. However, the opposition has already announced that they would try again to stage a rally in the central square on Saturday, October 1.
For local analysts, it is clear that both sides are using the venue issue as a proxy for their larger political agenda ahead of the November parliamentary elections. The authorities try to keep large groups of opposition activities away from the downtown area, because they fear that they might seize key government buildings. Thus, it is safer for the government if the opposition holds its protest rallies in the outskirts of the capital.
For the opposition parties, the demand for a new staging area is nothing more than a way to enliven the election campaign and attract more protest votes. When they hold rallies in the outskirts of Baku, few people other than party members attend. Thus, the opposition parties’ lack of a clear election message and weak platforms force them to seek alternative ways to make it into the headlines and stay politically active.
In the short term, this strategy might win the opposition international sympathy, yet in the long term, they will not be able to attract more supporters. The only way to gain the support of the general population is to develop issue-based platforms and communicate a clear message to the voters. The Azadliq bloc, so far, seems too preoccupied with the election process, rather than substance.
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens anticipate more police brutality on October 1. In order to show the peaceful nature of their rallies, the opposition activists carried carnations in their hands during Sunday’s rally. Yet, this symbolic act failed to stop policemen from using excessive force to brutally disperse the protestors. The authorities are keen to demonstrate to the opposition that they are more powerful and that they will not tolerate ultimatums.