Thousands of Azerbaijanis protested peacefully in the capital city of Baku on September 23 against regime corruption following the "Laundromat" revelations that the government allegedly used as much as $2.9bn channelled into a slush fund to bribe influential foreign individuals and finance luxury purchases for the elite.
Protests are extremely rare in the oil-rich repressive country, where the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, has tightened the government's grip on civil society and the economy over the last decade. Critics of his regime and their families are customarily jailed and harassed, while the economy is in the hands of a few powerful oligarchs that also control the reins of political power. Attempts at public demonstrations are normally met with heavy-handed police crackdowns and arrests.
Therefore, it is all the more rare for Azerbaijani authorities to have sanctioned a protest organised by opposition parties like the Popular Front and the National Council of Democratic Forces and for the police to have not intervened during the two-hour long demonstration - though a few protesters were reportedly detained the day before the event. Baku police said 1,500 people attended the rally, but Azerbaijan’s Turan news agency reported the presence of thousands.
Demonstrators chanted slogans like "freedom" and "resignation" - calling for Aliyev to step down. During a speech at the rally, Ali Kerimli, leader of the Popular Front party, told the crowd that Azerbaijan's rulers had been caught taken money stolen from the people out of the country. The scandal is felt keenly by the many who have suffered worsening financial difficulties since the slump in world oil prices hit Azerbaijan’s economy, which remains in recession.
The protest was held under the slogan "Return the money stolen from the people." A group of international journalists and anti-corruption activists - working for titles or organisations including Danish newspaper Berlingske, the Guardian newspaper and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) - exposed the “Laundromat” scheme for laundering money over a two-year period through four shell companies registered in the UK. It is claimed that some of the money was used to make payments to European politicians who helped paint a positive image of the harsh Baku regime. The president’s administration has rejected all the claims. Aliyev's press secretary, Azer Gasimov, called what is alleged "absurd."
Several EU institutions, private companies and individual governments such as Bulgaria's have launched investigations into foreign nationals believed to have received funds from Azerbaijan via the illicit scheme and MEPs on September 13 voted for an investigation.