Recent Crackdown and Mass Protests do not Spell Political Reform in Azerbaijan

by Suzanne Rothman on 11/12/2014 · 2 comments

Azerbaijan is a land of extraordinary riches. So vast are its oil reserves that natural fires burst from ground, leading ancients to believe the land was sacred. In modern times, the Azerbaijani government uses this natural wealth as a source of revenue. Today, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and other pipelines transport Azerbaijan’s oil to importers around the world, generating enormous wealth in the land of fire.

Azerbaijan’s high oil and gas earnings have not, however, translated into significant improvements in the public sector. Structural development is the most outward expression of this. The Azerbaijani government has been investing millions in construction, building luxury edifices such as the Flame Towers in Baku, as well as lavish tourist complexes in other parts of the country. However, the average Azerbaijani does not get to reside in the lavish new buildings due to low salaries. With luxury apartment homes being out of reach, most Baku residents settle for living in decaying Soviet-era complexes. Outside Baku, except in areas chosen to become touristic sites, there is little if any renovation.

These low salaries are also a good example of how Azerbaijan’s black gold has failed to truly benefit the populace. As of 2011, the average wage of an Azerbaijani doctor stands at $300 per month while teachers earn $344 monthly.[1] Since the cost of living in Baku is extremely high, with rent starting at $400 per month, both instructors and physicians need resort to bribes in order to earn enough money to survive. Corruption is not only endemic to those spheres, but also to public services in general. Azerbaijanis who want to acquire passports or driving licenses commonly have to pay off state officials in order to obtain their documents.

Although the government has been making an effort to repel such mid-level corruption, it has done nothing to alter the far more staggering corruption in the upper echelons.[2] While doctors struggle financially and have to rely on bribes to make ends meet, president Ilham Aliyev’s teenage son, Heydar (named after the former president, Ilham’s father), has owned millions worth of property in Dubai since 2009, using money pocketed by the ruling family from state revenues.[3] Corruption in the Azerbaijani elite is no secret, with the president being named “Corruption’s Person of the Year” by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.[4]

Fraud is not the Aliyev government’s only crime. The regime also has a dismal human rights record. This past July, human rights activist Leyla Yunus was arrested on charges of treason. Because Ms. Yunus is an outspoken critic of the Aliyev government, global human rights organizations, as well as other governments, believe the charges are false. Ms. Yunus’ case is merely one example. According to Human Rights Watch, “In 2013, the authorities used a range of spurious charges […] to imprison political activists critical of the government.”[5]

The outside world is well aware of these facts. President Obama specifically named Azerbaijan as a country where civil society is stifled during his speech at the annual session of the Clinton Global Initiative in the New York City this September.[6] What is surprising, however, is the staunch awareness among the vast majority of the Azerbaijani people that their government is corrupt and autocratic.

A contact of mine, a local journalist, swore that he witnessed agents of the YAP (New Azerbaijan Party, Aliyev’s faction) stuffing voting slips into the ballot boxes in the regions outside of Baku. In a discussion about leadership, one of my students said, “we [the Azerbaijani people] know the government is taking all the money.” Others ardently concurred. Many others made similar statements.

There are certainly abundant examples of protests throughout Azerbaijan; earlier this year there have been reports of people in the country’s various regions self-immolating in protest of unfair treatment from the authorities and widespread corruption, which encumbers their everyday lives.[7] More recently, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in response to the intense government crackdown, arrests of prominent activists, and impositions on freedom of expression.[8] These protests, however, are not representative of the Azerbaijani people, the majority of whom are comfortable with Aliyev maintaining power, though they recognize the president’s corrupt ways.

Thus, the large turnout at the latest wave of demonstrations is not indicative of imminent regime change in the Azerbaijani Republic, nor even a significant reform to the regime’s policies. Why?

Political fatalism has taken strong hold in Azerbaijan. One of my colleagues said he did not even plan to vote in the 2013 elections, because he believes his vote is meaningless. By and large, Azerbaijanis believe that they cannot change the political reality of their country. The same student who spoke passionately about the presidential family’s misuse of public funds said, “But what can we do?” Gottschalk argues that for social change to be successful the people must have hope that their program of reform can be successful.[9] Clearly, such hope is not widely prevalent in Azerbaijan.

Additionally, more than one of my contacts said that the Azerbaijani people prefer the present state of affairs to the unknown. “I will vote for the current president, because someone else might be worse,” a colleague told me before the elections in October.

The perceived failure of the Arab revolutions to produce stable and prosperous democracies further convinced many Azerbaijanis that they should not challenge the status quo. As one of my students put it, “Look at Egypt and Syria. We do not want to be like them.” Many Azerbaijanis commenting on the political reality in their country made similar remarks, thereby demonstrating that the events of the Arab Awakening, especially the instability and violence in countries like Libya and Egypt, impact popular Azerbaijani political thinking.

Azerbaijanis, at least those residing in Baku, are conflict-weary and overall satisfied with living conditions. Most of the people I have been able to speak to about politics always stressed the fact that regardless of widespread corruption, they ultimately have access to services and many believe life in general is improving. Almost all of the people I spoke to brought up the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, emphasizing their fear of experiencing the kind of violence and economic detriment they experienced in the early 1990s. It is precisely that fear of turmoil that makes the situation in the Arab world resonate so strongly with Azerbaijanis, making them fearful of confronting the establishment.

Though the Obama administration and the Council of Europe have criticized the regime’s repression and intimidation of political activists, external pressure is weak. It is also ineffectual, as Azerbaijani energy grows in importance in light of the conflict with Russia. Domestically, popular fear of instability coupled with fatalist views on politics and the public opinion of living standards being favorable keep the Aliyev government secure. The same factors inhibit Azerbaijani from even demanding meaningful reform. What this means is that things will remain as they were before the crackdown and protests that followed it began, Dubai mansions and all.


The author would like to thank Emily Bunker Peterson for editing.


[9] Gottschalk, Louis. “Causes of Revolution.” American Journal of Sociology 50, no. 1 (1944): 1-8, p.5


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Suzanne Rothman is a former Fulbright scholar who resided in Baku, Azerbaijan. She earned a BA in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and Politics from Brandeis University in May 2013. Before coming to Azerbaijan, she has studied and worked in Israel/Palestine, Bahrain, and Morocco. She is interested in Central Asia-Middle East relations, women's right, and human rights.

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