Azeri Opposition Cancels Protest

by Nathan Hamm on 12/3/2005 · 5 comments

Things aren’t looking too hot for Azerbaijan’s opposition. There was last week’s violence against protesters, the new parliament has already met, and now the opposition has decided to cancel this weekend’s protest.

Because last week’s protest was technically illegal by overstaying the time approved for it, the city approved a more remote location for the protest planned for this weekend. One certainly can understand why they might cancel after last weekend’s violence and this weekend’s bad location, but this decision not only makes the opposition look weak, but makes it less likely that the US and Europe will go out of their way to pressure the Azeri government.

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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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Andy December 3, 2005 at 6:29 am

I agree. The Azeri protests were beginning to attract media attention in the West, and by cancelling this protest, they’ve lost all the momentum they had built up.

Protests may return next weekend, but they’ll be starting again almost from scratch if they are hoping to attract outside media attention.

Additionally, it’s interesting that they aren’t prepared to go ahead in the city centre without official approval. To my mind, this shows that the Azeri opposition don’t have the numbers to really push their case.

Peter December 3, 2005 at 11:41 am

The opposition lost momentum back when Rasul Guliyev’s expected triumphant return to Baku was thwarted back on October 17. The fact that Guliyev felt the need to return is indicative of the concern that there was no credible charismatic leader for the Azeri opposition movement. Furthermore, it is questionable how desirable or credible he would have been had he had the chance to take his rightful place as leader of the chairman of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party. Like many of his would-be inspiration figures, Guliyev was a former representative of the old order that he sought to depose. I think that this is a weakness that ruling regimes in the Eurasian space have learnt to exploit and manage. It came as quite a shock when Ilham Aliyev performed his wide scale purge around the time of Guliyev’s planned return, but events seem to have vindicated him.
Lastly, if you want discuss the muted international response to the ongoing protets, there are three points to consider.
First of all, and this hardly requires much brains to work out, the massive Western corporate presence in Baku has been enough to scare the U.S. or the UK off from making statements that might rock the boat. To be exact, Baku is not just jam-packed with foreign companies, but jam-packed with foreigners. Usually fat British northerners jam-packed with crisps and Guinness, to be exact.
Second, the OSCE has indeed been critical of the elections, though this denunciation has tempered by considerable appreciation of progress noted in the course of the elections. Notably, this mixed verdict was also a feature of the report on the Kyrgyz election, a fact that was largely overlooked at the time. In customary fashion in this part of the world, the government is at liberty to admit deficiencies in the system, citing the irresponsibility of regional administrator.
That point carries on into the third issue, which is that we have no certain data about the real popular consensus for regime change. While not for a moment suggesting that this provides moral justification for the outcome, I do think that the average man in the street (and not only the streets of Baku), would opt for stability over extended popular unrest.
Sadly, this may well be a consequence of the fact that Azeris have had their political worldview skewed by a virulent personality cult and aggressive political grandstanding. Nonetheless, it is also true that any politician that could campaign ferociously on Nagorno-Karabagh and appear to shun Western-inspired reforms for a more socialized control economy would be sure to win popular support. Though there is a freely available and vocal opposition press, and relatively widespread Internet access, the core problem remains that the nation’s constituents have been gulled into disregarding the fate of civil society and the future of a genuine, healthy democracy.

pablo December 4, 2005 at 11:21 pm

After what happened on the 26th, can’t hardly blame the opposition for not inviting supporters to get beat again. It’s not like they have a Ghandi to lead them to slaughter. But don’t forget that since the first post-election protest, they had rounded up an additional 5000 or so more people at each succeeding rally.

I think to understand the opposition movement one must first realize that Alieyev’s Azerbaijan is nothing like Kuchma’s Ukraine or Shevy’s Georgia. In pre-rose Georgia for example there was a critical media. Not so in Azerbaijan where Aliyev has so successfully repressd his population and squashed independant press. Then you have this Orwellian cult of Heydar looking at you while the cops don’t hesitate to beat the heads of women and old people. Azerbaijan is a police state.

Azerbaijan’s oppositon is grass roots without the water. Unlike Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia, they are operating on absolutely no western support. On the contrary, the west supports Aliyev.

People know this and they have been through alot the past dozen years. Any opposition movement is going to have a doubly hard time convincing these people that a “democracy” is possible if “we make it happen,” when the west doesn’t give a shit about democracy unless it is convenient. The people in Azerbaijan know this. They remember 2003 better than we do.

No, things don’t look great for the opposition today, but let’s remember that they looked worse last year.

Peter December 5, 2005 at 2:49 am

Pablo, what you say is largely true, though I would make a couple of clarifications.
First, it is not altogether correct to say that Azerbaijan has no opposition press. I know it does because I’ve read it. Also, though the pro-government press does its job it does not compare with the snivelling admiration displayed in Uzbekistan, say. Though I admit this is a completely relative situation. What distinguishes Azerbaijan from Georgia is that there is no independent television station. Again though, you have to understand that this is a country which is considerably more plugged into foreign media, be it Russian or Turkish. If only because of its proximity to the Western world, it is much harder for the Aliyev regime to brush things under the carpet. In fact, they can only do this, as you say, with the implicit approval of the West, which brings me to my second point.
There are many forms Western support can take. Again you are wrong to suggest that the events in Kyrgyzstan were supported or even encouraged by the West, by which it is assumed you mean Western governments. It is, however, more proper to maintain that international media attention and the relative short time elapsed since the Ukraine revolution did a lot to give events in Kyrgyzstan a global profile. Actually, of all the revolutions, had the Azeri one taken off, it would most have resembled the Kyrgyz model: a power struggle among present and former elements within the governing structure. The truth is that there has been no connection between the aspirations of people on the street and their putative future leaders.
Again I would say that there ingrained social reasons for this that I am sad to say a few street protests will fail to cure. If the West is to do the right thing, then it should use its fairly considerable leverage in the region to prevent Azerbaijan from sliding into a feudalistic kleptocracy that disenfranchises its population by default. That means getting our hands dirty in Nagorno-Karabagh, which involves getting the Turks into the fray. It means stopping to pretend that the human rights situation isn’t on the acceptable side of awful. It means doing more to enforce a democratic system than sending the odd PACE and OSCE delegation from time to time. The crowds can affect change, but whether they can affect the right change is another matter.

pablo December 9, 2005 at 7:53 am

I stand corrected – as I remember the Azadliq newspaper.

Well put commentary.

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