Azerbaijani opposition activists and journalists have launched a hunger strike to protest the recent pressure on the media and opposition parties from the State Committee for the Management of State Properties. The Committee is demanding that a building located in the heart of Baku, at 33 Khagani Street, be vacated, as it is state property. For the past decade the building has been home to the opposition Popular Front party, the newspapers Azadliq and Milli Yol, Turan New Agency, and several other media outlets and human rights NGOs.
Court hearings were held on November 14, but did not produce a compromise. Both sides argue that the law is on their side. Opposition activists claim that the building was given to them rent-free by a government decree in 1992. At the time, the Popular Front was in power. The State Committee for the Management of State Properties claims that the document issued in 1992 does not contain the words “free of charge” and is demanding payment of 30,000 manats (about $33,000) from the tenants. Once the “debt” has been paid, committee officials promise to consider a new rental agreement.
On November 15, representatives of the U.S. and British embassies, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and several other international groups visited the hunger strikers and voiced concerns about the pressure on the freedom of speech and media in Azerbaijan. According to Joan Polaschic, head of the U.S. Embassy’s political and economic section, “The recent events show the worsening situation with the independent media in the country.” Local human rights activists Murad and Rena Saddaddinov have also joined the action.
Meanwhile, a group of journalists and NGO representatives have attempted to stage a second protest rally in front of the headquarters of the State Committee, but police dispersed this rally, as they did with the first rally last week. The protestors, nevertheless, managed to shout the words “Freedom of speech!” “Hands off Khagani 33!” “Freedom to Mirza Sakit!” and “Shame on the murderers of Elmar Huseynov!” The latter two names refer to an arrested opposition journalist and the murdered editor of Baku’s weekly Monitor magazine, respectively.
The demands on the opposition parties in Azerbaijan are not new, nor is the confiscation of opposition party offices. The Musavat party was evicted from its downtown office following the presidential elections in 2003 and was forced to migrate to the suburbs of the capital city. The Azerbaijan National Independence Party was also evicted from its well-appointed headquarters in 2000 and since then has changed location five times. Many landlords refuse to lease their offices to opposition parties out of fear of reprisals from the authorities.
Yet, in this whole episode around 33 Khagani, the Azadliq bloc and the related hunger strike, two important conclusions come to mind.
Foremost, opposition parties and activists are continuing their 13-year habit of focusing on the process rather than content. Little more than a year is left before the next presidential elections and instead of working with voters and expanding their grassroots positions, opposition parties are once again spending their energy fighting over logistics, such as office space, the election code, permission for rallies, etc. The opposition spends so much time fighting over the rules of the game that it neglects to concentrate on winning the game.
The second conclusion from this situation relates to the unwillingness of the opposition parties to lose their comfortable downtown headquarters and relocate to more distant facilities. There is no doubt that the latest step by the State Committee for the Management of State Properties is politically motivated and seeks to further weaken the opposition parties ahead of the 2008 presidential elections. But the fact that opposition parties are willing to play the game shows how easy it is to draw them into a trap. Instead of spending all their energy to defend their 33 Khagani bastion, they should instead focus on developing messages that will be appealing to the public and start working with the electorate. Otherwise, another year will pass, and they will find themselves totally unprepared for the national elections, even if it costs them their office space.
(ANS TV, Azadliq, Musavat, Turan News Agency, November 12-16)