Not quite Spring in Azerbaijan

By bne IntelliNews March 26, 2013

Andrew MacDowall in Baku -

The demonstration ended with rubber bullets, water cannon, baton charges and arrests - an all-too-common denouement to protests in Azerbaijan. But were the scenes in Baku on March 10 the sign of a swelling popular movement that could topple President Ilham Aliyev, as the opposition would have us believe? Or were they merely a minor drama involving a small rent-a-mob bent on provocation and with little support within the country, as the government argues?

Certainly the anti-government movement seems to be growing in confidence, and an undercurrent of popular disquiet at corruption and authoritarianism runs stronger than the authorities would like to admit. But the Aliyev regime looks firmly entrenched, supported by a substantial proportion of the Azerbaijani population, networks of patronage and international allies reluctant to rock the boat. Aliyev, the son of father-of-the-nation figure Heydar Aliyev, faces an election in October, but seems set to be returned to power.

The March 10 demonstrations were called in protest at a spate of unexplained deaths of young conscripts in the army that the opposition claim are due to bullying, corruption and brutal initiation ceremonies. Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning investigative journalist, tells bne that there have been more than 100 deaths in the past year, of which only 16 were known combat casualties; she says that others may be suicides of persecuted young soldiers, or even assassinations by senior officers. In the opposition's opinion, the situation epitomises much of what is wrong with Azerbaijan: authoritarian hierarchies, graft and a lack of transparency.

In a statement sent to bne, government representatives say that, "the Ministry of Defence and the Military Prosecutor's office are doing all it can to prevent these deaths", that conditions are improving for soldiers and that critics should bear in mind the fact that front-line troops are "under constant psychological pressure" due to clashes with Armenian troops around the border with Nagorno-Karabakh - an ethnic Armenian enclave that is actually Azerbaijan territory, but over which it has not exercised power since a war between the two sides in 1991.

The government says that the protest was broken up as it was illegal, but asserts that permission would have been granted had the demonstration been held at another location, rather than in the heart of the city. But the opposition, as well as their international supporters such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, say that the "disproportionate" use of force by the police demonstrates the lack of freedom of assembly in Azerbaijan, and that several organisers were arrested before and after the demonstration on trumped-up charges.

In any case, the turnout was not that high. International press reports suggest 300-500 people, possibly based on official figures, while Emin Milli, a prominent dissident activist and blogger, tells bne that it was more like 1,000-2,000 - though he was not present himself. Milli has spent two spells in prison; US President Barack Obama is understood to have made a personal appeal for his release.

To the few, the most

Milli and Ismayilova see the March 10 demonstration as the latest in a series of increasingly vocal displays of popular discontent against the Aliyev regime. This year there have already been protests by merchants against corruption in the customs regime, and disturbances in the provinces against regional governors, some of whom behave like "feudal lords" in Milli's words. In January, riots broke out in Ismayilli, capital of a province of the same name, after an incident involving a businessman linked to the governor, which ended in a hotel being burned down and a local government office being attacked. According to Ismayilova, the incidents were triggered by a situation that is common in Azerbaijan's regions - local politicians divvying up the commanding heights of the economy between their family members and associates, while the rest of the population endures low incomes and poor prospects. The protestors demanded the governor's resignation, which was soon forthcoming - the government not unreasonably portraying his sacking as a sign of its responsiveness to citizens' demands.

While officially Azerbaijan's image is of a booming economy presided over by the benevolent Aliyev, Ismayilova and Milli say that this is a façade behind which lies a tormented society. Ismayilova says that the country is "a mediaeval monarchy with elements of Soviet dictatorship", in which public officials must be bribed and "white elephant" public projects, such as the world's highest flagpole (swiftly outdone by Tajikistan), are handed out to favoured companies linked to the ruling family. The pervasive culture of bribery means that many public employees, including teachers and medics, can be accused of corruption and sacked if they step out of line; it also opens the door to international organised crime. Milli claims that the cash flows right to the top, in a pyramid system of bribes.

The problem of corruption has been highlighted by Elshad Abdullayev, a former university rector now in exile in France, who has posted a series of videos apparently showing incidents of high-level bribery, including one of himself discussing a $1m payment for a parliamentary seat with a representative of the ruling party.

"Serious work is being done to fight corruption in the country," was the government's response to bne's questions about corruption and the perceived impunity of the powerful. "A special department to fight corruption has been created at the Prosecutor General's office. Since 2005, this department has started more than 1,000 criminal cases and 700 people have been held accountable. Only last year, 212 people were arrested by this department. The country has adopted a programme combatting corruption."

But in Milli's view, there is growing public discontent in Azerbaijan that risks boiling over into more violent incidents like those in Ismayili. He says that the Aliyev government has gone from being a "guarantor of stability" respected in the West to a reason for the chaos. Due to the weakness of Azerbaijan's parliament, where there is little or no genuine opposition, "the only way to communicate dissatisfaction is to riot," says Milli.

The fact that the opposition has been fragmented has often been cited as a reason for its failure to gain traction, by its supporters and critics alike. But Milli speaks of a new united opposition that has put aside its differences to focus on the shared goal of regime change. The movement has yet to appoint a formal leader - Milli says that they want to avoid creating "a saviour figure" - but prominent figures include Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a 30-year-old Harvard graduate who has also spent time in prison.

Milli says that he is "90% sure that we can remove Aliyev by the end of the year" and that the movement is gathering funding from a number of sources. The goal is a secular parliamentary democracy, investor-friendly and outward-looking, though Milli is more vague about how this change will come about.

Unfazed and unbowed

For its part, the government isn't fazed by the new opposition. One senior presidential advisor says that Aliyev's approval rating tends to range from 70% to 90%. He argues - as does the government as a whole - that after 80 years of Soviet rule, followed by war with Armenia, democratisation cannot come overnight. There are also dark hints that opposition movements are funded by Russia, and a rejection of the suggestion that Azerbaijan must change by US or EU diktat. "For the purposes of democracy, it is foremost important to provide the economic independence of the country as a poor country is not likely to build a democratic society quickly," the government statement says. "It is important to make changes to the mentality of the people, improve the system of education, etc."

While the opposition rubbishes the government's claim to popularity, Michael Taylor, senior Eastern Europe analyst at Oxford Analytica, is deeply sceptical about the chances of regime change. "Unless there's a political earthquake, Aliyev will win a sweeping majority this year, even if the opposition is united," he tells bne. "The broad mass of the Azerbaijani population is grateful to the Aliyevs for bringing stability after the unrest of the early 90s. Heydar Aliyev brought the country back from the brink. The opposition have to be optimistic, but something has to go badly wrong for the regime to fall."

But he adds: "It's not a very healthy political scene, with a group of clans in power, with the regime skimming a lot off at the top. But it's not monolithic, as the clans compete."

Azerbaijan's future, therefore, may hinge on how effectively its rulers can leverage its hydrocarbon resources to deliver real benefits to the population, while gradually easing up on the repression and allowing some political pluralism.

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