Watching the serial outbreaks of unrest in Arab countries, Azerbaijan’s radical opposition parties see a possible model for political action in their own country. On the secular side, these groups are much-diminished descendants of the Musavat and Popular Front parties, which continually lost ground from the early 1990’s to date. On the Islamist side, illegal but semi-tolerated, the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan also hopes to capitalize on the wave of “Muslim unrest.”
Taking a cue from the secular opposition’s April 2 “Day of Great Wrath” (“Day of Wrath” Fails in Azerbaijan, EDM, April 7), the Islamic Party has applied for the authorization to hold a “Great Friday” after-prayer demonstration on April 8 in Baku. The Islamic Party is disseminating this appeal also via Facebook (www.news.az, April 6, 7).
As an Iran-oriented party in this Turkic country, it seems incongruous for the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan to bandwagon with the Arab unrest. It seems even more incongruous for Azerbaijan’s secular opposition to lump Azerbaijan, as part of the “Muslim world,” with the Arab countries. Such forced analogies seek to construct a rationale for importing the “revolutionary wave” into Azerbaijan. However, Azerbaijan’s circumstances differ at every level from those in the turmoil-plagued Arab countries.
Some of those Arab countries have enjoyed a head-start over Azerbaijan in terms of development. Azerbaijan has only started closing the historic gap. It has posted world-record economic growth rates in recent years, with commensurate infrastructure development and new job creation. The country has emerged undamaged from the global economic crisis, and looks set to cash in on high oil prices. The population, interested in stability and development, does not follow appeals to mass protests or demonstrations. Such appeals were failing already a decade ago, when the oil-driven economic boom had not yet started, but the prospect was at hand. The state leadership enjoys widespread trust among the populace, conditional however on the leadership’s performance. There are no tribal or confessional rifts to be exploited in Azerbaijan. The secular path of development is widely accepted in society, and guaranteed by state policies. Secondary and college education are widely accessible, creating a technical and managerial class; and some 11,000 students have received state scholarships to study abroad (www.news.az, April 5).
Such differences invalidate claims about a “revolutionary situation” or “potential social explosion” in Azerbaijan by analogy with Arab countries. Radical opposition circles in Baku had been making such claims since the 1990’s. Those same circles are now extrapolating the Arab events to Azerbaijan, as a new argument for their old thesis.
The leaders of Musavat and Popular Front have boxed themselves into a situation without exit. The two parties governed Azerbaijan in 1992-93 but failed utterly, albeit against overwhelming odds. They emerged discredited, but still with some modest social support after that experiment. Rather than building on their residual electorate and playing within the institutional system, however, both parties refused to recognize the outcomes of elections since the 1990’s, treating the presidents and governments as illegitimate. Initially, this was simply a grandstanding pose; but it hardened into a permanent policy, which party leaders Isa Gambar and Ali Kerimli did not know how to change without a “loss of face.” Entrenched in an irreconcilable, permanent opposition, these parties could no longer offer any prospects to their members and voters, in a country in which political patronage remains essential. Steadily losing support, Musavat and the Popular Front also experienced internal splits when Gambar and Kerimli expelled critics from the ranks. This process has been ongoing for the last 15 years.
Within the secular opposition camp, lesser parties feel marginalized by their two senior allies. Those smaller parties have apparently abandoned revolutionary tactics, and do not belong to the “popular chamber” caucus led by Musavat and the Popular Front. Leaders of the lesser parties, such as the Civic Solidarity and the Democratic parties, complain that Musavat and the Popular Front leaders are intolerant of alternative opinions, lacking new ideas for governing, and unable to reach out to society (www.day.az, April 1; Trend, April 7).
The modus operandi of Musavat and Popular Front remains that of protest at the margins of the political system. They lack teams of experts and have not come up with any alternative programs. This deepens their self-isolation. They can hardly call for dialogue with the government, as long as they do not recognize the government and adopt revolutionary poses. The government sees no point in conducting such a dialogue even it wished. According to President Ilham Aliyev’s adviser for internal politics, Ali Hasanov, “it is very complicated to engage in dialogue with such radical forces” (www.day.az, April 4).
Musavat and the Popular Front hope to halt and reverse their decline by mobilizing social protests, on the assumption that such a potential exists in Azerbaijan. This assumption extrapolates again from the Arab situation. It ignores, however, yet another difference. Crowds in Egypt or Tunisia clamored for new faces to replace old leaders, closing a past chapter and looking toward the future. By contrast, Gambar and Kerimli with their close circles look like the politicians of yesteryear in Azerbaijan.