In an otherwise calm post-election period, Azerbaijan’s students are emerging as the only loud critic of the government. For the second time this year, students have staged a hunger strike against the Ministry of Education. This time, the protest action was organized by students from the private Independent University of Azerbaijan, which the Ministry of Education shut down on May 5 for operating illegally. Together with this university, more than 19 faculties and departments from other private universities have been closed due to alleged violations of educational standards.
Minister of Education Misir Mardanov, speaking to journalists on May 6, said, “The Independent University of Azerbaijan is operating without a license. Last year, they accepted more than 1,700 students illegally. There is only one way to accept students into universities — through the State Committee on University Exams. This university has been avoiding this rule and we have warned them many times in the past” (Day.az, May 6).
Students from the university responded by staging a hunger strike starting June 1, claiming that their educational rights had been violated and that they should be given a chance to graduate. The protest is underway inside the university auditorium. Twenty students initially began the hunger strike, but the numbers have grown to 65 students, and on June 23 the independent daily Zerkalo reported that even parents of the students had decided to join the protest. Khalida Garayeva, one of the hunger strikers, stated that the parents’ decision is motivated by the lack of any response from official state structures toward solving the problem.
After intense negotiations, the Ministry of Education made some concessions in mid-June, agreeing to transfer the IUA juniors and seniors to other universities for the continuation of their education. Yet, the prospects for the freshmen and sophomores remain unclear. The Ministry of Education has proposed letting the court system decide their fate.
Although the dilemma of these students is sad in itself, it has even sadder implications for educational and democratic standards in the country. Foremost, it shows how chaotic the Azerbaijani educational system really is. In the early and mid-1990s many small private universities were established without proper documentation and without minimum educational standards. These universities are often used to dodge army service or as diploma mills. The actual curriculum and the acquisition of knowledge are at the bottom of the priority list for the students and faculty of such institutions. These problems, however, are not found at all private universities. Some of them have indeed increased the level of education in the country. Therefore the government should not treat all private institutions with the same broad brush.
Second, the hunger strike by the students and parents shows how few avenues Azerbaijanis have to express their dissenting views. Regular polls conducted in the country by local and international NGOs show the very low level of trust that ordinary citizens have in their courts and judicial system. Political parties and human rights organizations are weak and are not able to represent the problems of this segment. Thus, the hunger strike remains the most optimal and, unfortunately, the most radical form of response.
Similarly, several months ago students expelled from Baku State University and Azerbaijani Pedagogical University resorted to a hunger strike to defend their rights. Authorities claimed that these students had been expelled for skipping classes, but the students argued that their dismissals were purely political decisions. Specifically, they had been punished for their pro-opposition activities on campus. The exhausting, three-week duration of this hunger strike eventually concluded with a victory for the expelled students, who were promised that they would be reinstated in their classes.
Finally, the hunger strikes by student from Independent University of Azerbaijan shows the growing and potentially very powerful mass of potential protest voters, who are prepared to deploy such radical actions as a hunger strike to defend their rights. This segment of the population has already become a major headache for Minister of Education Mardanov, and they may cause trouble for other ministries as well.
Meanwhile, the hunger strike and the day-to-day suffering of the students continues, and it is not clear how the process will end. Every day media outlets broadcast reports about one or two students being taken to the hospital. Politicians from the opposition camp visit the students and try to score points at their expense. Ali Kerimli, the chairman of the opposition Popular Front party has stated, “One should not play with the lives of more than 2,000 persons.” (Azadliq, June 6). The opposition coalition Azadliq has also organized a roundtable discussion on the issue. For their part, the students are threatening to renounce their citizenship as their last act of protest.