“Every little form of protest is met with force”

by Nathan Hamm on 10/3/2005 · 5 comments

There’s just over a month to go before Azerbaijan’s parliamentary election, and we can probably expect to see much more of this.

Azeri police used truncheons to break up an opposition protest in central Baku on Saturday, saying the gathering, which marks the build-up to a Nov. 6 poll, had failed to get official approval.

The protest was part of a series called in the build-up to the election for the opposition to demand fair voting a freedom.

Banging their truncheons on transparent riot shields, policemen drove the protesters away from the central square where they had wanted to gather. Some protesters were beaten, and one man’s head poured blood as he was led away.

Washington Post carries a good overview of the political situation and video reports covering the opposition (including video of police dispersal of protests and use of force against bystanders), rural views on politics, corruption, and one candidate’s campaign as an independent.

One thing that jumped out at me in the article was the following paragraph.

“The struggle between the local power brokers and satraps and the president is the invisible real politics,” said S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. But others, he said, “are preoccupied with elections, the relation between the president and the parliament.”

Maybe I’m just overly senstive to Fred “Anonymous Sources Are Stalinism” Starr right now. I think he’s undoubtedly right about the behind-the-scene politics in Azerbaijan. But, and it’s hard to say for sure since the quotation doesn’t come in any real context, I’m not sure that anyone needs to be criticized for being preoccupied with elections at the moment. Yes, politics works in one way now. Critics of the government do recognize that. And it’s abundantly clear they are saying that needs to change. Would a fair election and the victory of opposition candidates (which I’m not even sure is a foregone conclusion were their a fair vote) usher in sweeping changes in Azerbaijan’s politics? Perhaps not, but it’s a fairly safe assumption that it will change the balance of power and that the change would be a positive one for Azerbaijan.

Axis has profiles of Eitbar Mamedov and Ali Kerimli.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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qadinbakida October 3, 2005 at 8:26 pm

Kennicott’s WP article was spot on, with the unintelligble quote by Starr being the only sour note.

An interesting bit of trivia: the kid in orange in the photo just above is Said Nuriyev. Nuriyev who was arrested a few weeks ago and almost died in custody from pre-existing health problems. Charges against him have been dropped but he is reportedly still in the hospital, surrounded by police.

Breed October 3, 2005 at 10:04 pm

I’m interested in making sense of the last sentence in your note – that “it’s a fairly safe assumption that it will change the balance of power and that the change would be a positive one for Azerbaijan.” If one believes the hype, one of the significant tensions that is keeping the status quo in Azerbaijan is between the old guard (e.g. ministers of Health, Education) who draw on significant political capital, and the President, who may or may not have the same access to power. One of the factors that seems to be crippling Ilham Aliyev’s ability to effect reform (again, assuming he actually wants to) is that he can’t sway the old guard the way his father could. Presumably, then, there are forces at work that prevent him from firing the old ministers and bringing in a new group of reformers. Wouldn’t this also be true of a group of new reform-minded folks, were they to come to power?

An alternative issue is that, to the degree that the parliament is more than a rubber stamp for the President, the presence of opposition forces would weaken the government, which would in turn provoke government crackdowns on political speech and behavior and speech it finds threatening.

There are, of course, several presumptions underlying the reasoning above that are, at best, questionable – Ilham Aliyev, or anyone in the opposition being a reformer (whatever that means); and, best of all, the idea that the stakes are “only” for the political control of the country, and not for the lovely sound of money from the BTC. And, I suppose, that Azeri cops beat up protesters that they don’t like.

I’d also be interested in hearing what you think the US should be doing, or saying, at this stage. Right now the official position seems to be to urge restraint and dialog (as per US Embassy), which seems to me – as a position – to waver cautiously between supine and prostrate. Fabulous use of political capital…

Nathan October 3, 2005 at 10:58 pm

I don’t think much would necessarily improve, but I think the shift would be healthy especially insofar as how foreign governments approach the Azeri state and are able to sway events one way or another.

Because that’s kind of the trick right now in regards to what we should be doing. I think the rather milquetoast approach is inescapable given uncertainty over who will come out on top and whether or not outside pressure–that would primarily be rhetorical–could be enough to tip events to an outcome we’d prefer. We’ve seen it before–the US and Europe call for restraint and dialog even while crowds are setting up tents. Once it looks like there’s actual momentum, we become a little more fired up and willing to act. I have a very hard time faulting the behavior too much as much as I may dislike it because there certainly are costs we don’t want to pay that would come from misusing our political capital.

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