In the oversimplifying view of some Western commentators, the ongoing unrest in the “Muslim world” could or should not fail to grip Azerbaijan. On April 2 the veteran protest parties, Musavat and Popular Front, attempted to hold an unauthorized rally in Fountain Square, downtown Baku’s most crowded shopping area. The main slogan called for President Ilham Aliyev to resign. Police broke up the rally. Estimates of its size range from 350 to less than 1,000, according to the interior ministry and the OSCE’s Baku office, respectively. The municipality had approved the use of a football stadium on Baku’s outskirts for the rally, but the organizers chose confrontation tactics. They had billed their event as a “Day of Wrath.”
There are no credible reports or video material that would document excessive force being used by police in dispersing the demonstration. According to the police, 17 shop windows were broken and 25 parked cars were damaged during the two-hour event. Approximately 60 persons were detained and face judicial proceedings, possibly leading to administrative detention for five to ten days, for violating the public order or resisting the police. Four senior opposition activists face possible criminal charges for inciting those violations. The interior ministry had served the organizers with advance warnings against using an unauthorized venue for the demonstration (www.day.az, www.news.az, Turan, Radio Free Europe, April 2–6).
The sense of déjà-vu is unmistakable to any observer of Azerbaijani politics since the 1990’s: the script hardly varies. Musavat and the Popular Front apply for the legally required permission to hold a rally in downtown Baku. The municipality authorizes, instead, a rally at the football stadium. Opposition leaders nevertheless urge their supporters to gather in the city center. The police disperse the unlawful demonstration, sometimes with excessive force (depending on immediate circumstances). Opposition leaders and Western sympathizers then decry repression. This has been a constantly recurring pattern for the last 15 years. The parties’ top leaders, Isa Gambar and Ali Kerimli respectively, have held their posts throughout these years.
The novelty this time is the use of Facebook as a protest mobilization tool, mostly used from abroad to impact Azerbaijan. Thus, Strasbourg-based Elnur Majidli, who is promoted as a “Facebook activist,” has campaigned to mobilize a “Great Wrath Day – April 2” in Azerbaijan. Charged in absentia with calling for the overthrow of the government, Majidli responds that this is “moral terror” against him and his local Facebook contacts (Radio Free Europe, April 5).
Musavat leader Gambar declared that the April 2 demonstration was “not just an opposition protest, but a protest by all the people” (Radio Free Europe, April 4). Given the actual numbers involved, however, Azerbaijani officials describe such claims as “fantasy.” According to Baku-based analyst, Rasim Musabeyov, the action “showed how weak this opposition is. It did not attempt to show strength, but merely to show that it still exists” (www.news.az, April 5). Gambar and Kerimli had called for the April 2 demonstration, but failed to show up, and afterward called for further demonstrations.
Technically, the April 2 demonstration was called by a coordinating committee of Musavat, the Popular Front, and two small groups of the same 1990’s vintage. Titled a “public chamber,” this committee is seen by other opposition groups as divisive, promoting Musavat’s and Popular Front’s “hegemony over the opposition’s camp” (www.day.az, April 1).
A US State Department statement called for observance of the freedoms of assembly and of expression. It also called for due process to be afforded to those detained, with open and transparent court hearings and access to legal counsel. In Baku, US Ambassador, Matt Bryza, used a pre-scheduled meeting with the youth educational NGO, Ireli, to identify US policy with “evolution, rather than revolution” (www.day.az, April 4). That distinction, however, is often lost in the media playback.
The Western-greeted “protest wave in the Muslim world” generates pressure on Baku’s radical opposition leaders to follow the trend. They must view this international trend as their last chance to resurrect their parties in Azerbaijan. Conversely, failure to capitalize on this opportunity would confirm these parties’ lack of a social base. Moreover, their seemingly eternal leaders risk being overtaken by a young, internet-skilled generation of activists, some of whom agitate for revolutionary regime change. Neither generation, however, has come up with programs for governing the country.
In connection with the April 2 demonstration, Human Rights Watch in New York criticized “the [Azerbaijani] government’s latest attempt to prevent the protests in North Africa and the Middle East from spreading to Azerbaijan” (cited by Radio Free Europe, April 5). Seen from Baku, however, such criticism only reflects incomprehension of local circumstances, which differ starkly from those in turmoil-plagued Arab countries. The Azerbaijani presidential advisers, Ali Hasanov and Elnur Aslanov, have publicly ruled out “anarchy,” or any “turmoil that would disturb peace or paralyze transport and urban life” (www.news.az, April 1, 4).
The Iran-backed Islamic Party of Azerbaijan has applied for permission to hold a demonstration in Baku on April 8 (i.e., immediately after the Friday prayers). The Musavat-Popular Front-led bloc announced its intention to demonstrate again in Baku on April 16. This bloc is thoroughly secular and has refrained from common actions with the Islamic Party thus far. Tactically, however, circles in the secular-minded opposition have started expressing some sympathy with the Islamic Party’s social demands. The dates set for their respective demonstrations suggest that secular opposition circles might move to separate-but-parallel actions with Islamists, if not to separate-but-convergent actions.