Friday, 11 March 2011

Azerbaijan clamps down on planned opposition protests

The tide of protests sweeping the Arab world have inspired opposition campaigners in Azerbaijan to try the same. Small gatherings and online campaigns in solidarity with Arab protesters have been occurring sporadically since early February. Now, using social-networking tools, primarily Facebook, youth activists have called for a day of action (or a 'Great People's Day') on 11th March to protest against the rule of President Ilham Aliyev.

Protestors are being cautious. Of the several 11th March groups, some are insisting that their actions will only be virtual. The main Facebook group declared on 8th March, somewhat prematurely that “The PEOPLE's Revolution is Victorious!”, indicating that there was little intention to seek such a victory on the streets. One of the organisers of the group stated that it was up to individuals how to show their commitment.

The organisers' prudence is understandable given recent crackdowns on youth and opposition activists. One of the organisers of the 'Great People's Day' was detained on 4th March: he will be held in pretrial detention for a month on charges of dodging military service. Other activists have been visited by police, harassed, or detained. Pro-government youth groups have organised counter-campaigns, and police have also made it explicit that any unauthorised rallies will be “resolutely thwarted.”

Nonetheless Musavat (Equality), the main opposition party, has also called for street demonstrations the following day, 12th March, although the party's support is fairly low. More concerning for the government is the danger of youth groups fusing with demonstrations on social issues elsewhere in the country. In late February protests were reported in Sabirabad, west of Baku, where residents demonstrated against the government's handling of floods last summer and its continued failure to provide compensation; and in Nardaran, a village north of Baku known for its Islamic piety, against power shortages and unemployment.

Aside from dispersing demonstrators and targeting online activists, the government's response has been a well-publicised anticorruption campaign. A long-dormant anti-corruption commission returned to work and dozens of low and mid-ranking government officials have been publicly fired for graft. Whether this will lead to sustainable progress in tackling corruption is, without radical changes at the top of the country's power elite, unlikely.

Nonetheless the government's fear of an Egypt-style uprising looks overblown. The online campaign is low-key and uncoordinated, whilst targeted harassment of opposition activists has disrupted attempts to organise the movement. Isolated protests in other towns are nothing new and can usually be tackled by a combination of heavy policing and promises of more cash and services. The cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya prove that nothing is impossible, but all indications suggest that Azerbaijan will be spared widespread unrest at present.

Sources: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Eurasianet, Bloomberg

For more news and expert analysis about the Caspian region, please see Caspian Focus.

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