By Karl Rahder
While 2011 saw activists and the opposition challenging the government in Azerbaijan, public response was muted and unrest kept in check. The number of political prisoners increased, and looks set to rise into 2012.
Azerbaijan’s Arab Spring Moment
It was the Arab Spring that never happened: A series of demonstrations early this year in Azerbaijan that were meant to trigger new elections and the resignation of President Ilham Aliyev, son and successor to former President Heydar Aliyev. As the movement gained a small measure of momentum, one opposition leader warned in January that if the Azerbaijani government did not agree to new, democratic elections, “the people will rise up.”
“By then,” he said, “it will be too late for the authorities, and events will develop in accordance with the Tunisian and Egyptian scenarios.”
Rise up they did not. After a series of demonstrations that lasted into June –some hastily organized by opposition parties and others arranged via Facebook - political life in Azerbaijan was much as it had been prior to 2011’s revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Muslim world.
The authorities’ response to the unrest, revealed much about the government’s fears and its strategy. As in neighboring Armenia, opponents of the ruling elite sought to ignite widespread protest, modeling themselves after the Arab Spring. But unlike the demonstrations in Armenia (where something approximating democratic pluralism is much more in evidence than in Azerbaijan), the rallies were relatively small and the government response was swift and harsh. The “Great People’s Day” of 11 March - organized on Facebook by a small group of Azeri activists - saw a meager turnout, a quick roundup of protesters by police and a number of arrests. More rallies followed in March and April, with hundreds of arrests and in some cases, criminal prosecution.
Despite claims by one respected analyst that there are “no credible reports or video material that would document excessive force being used by police,” widely available video shows police roughing up demonstrators and in one instance even shattering a bus window with a baton in order to douse protesters (who had been herded into the bus by police) with pepper spray.
Those charged and convicted with “creating public disorder” and similar criminal offenses connected to protests in April include prominent Musavat Party figure Arif Hajili and nine others, all of whom are now serving time in prison. In May, Harvard alumnus and Facebook activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev was sentenced to two years for evading military service, a charge that he and many human rights organizations labeled as politically motivated. Also convicted – on drug possession charges – was Facebook activist Jabbar Savalan; he is now serving a prison sentence of two years and six months.
The response from the international community has been that of indignation, with the EU expressing concern over the convictions of Savalan and Hajiyev as well as the bulldozing of the Institute for Peace and Democracy in August. Amnesty International issued a statement calling the charges against Savalan “trumped up .”
A Two-tier Strategy
The authorities’ response implies a carefully constructed program of ‘general harassment and targeted prosecution’ in which opposition parties and their leaders are undermined and marginalized through use of the legal system, occasional police violence, and ‘black propaganda’ campaigns.
Harassment of political opponents
The ‘harassment’ component is designed in part to demoralize the two major opposition parties - continuing a long-term project that has intensified since the death of Heydar Aliyev in late 2003 - and to undercut any latent public support that might emerge for a revitalized opposition.
Arastun Orujlu, chairman of the Baku-based East-West Center, told ISN earlier this year that the government had begun a shift from informally dismantling the opposition to something more concrete.
“Now their goal is to destroy the opposition formally,” he said.
In this, they have all but succeeded. Efforts in the past year or two have included branding the Musavat Party ‘Armenian collaborators’ (a theme during last year’s parliamentary elections) and adding “jihadist” to the list of other sins that Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli is routinely charged with.
In late March, for instance, young demonstrators at a rally sanctioned by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) gleefully displayed photo-shopped posters of Kerimli wearing a keffiyeh and clutching an AK-47. This was a new and typically crude tactic, complementing two other favorite accusations that have been hurled like a cudgel at Kerimli over the years: He colludes with Armenia and he is gay - a deliberately explosive charge designed to alienate more conservative elements of Azerbaijani society.
Increasingly, these campaigns utilize the Internet, and sometimes take place via the same social media channels that were used to organize the anti-government protests earlier this year.
In early March as the protests threatened to mushroom in Baku, the website, qaynar.info, perceived by many to be run by pro-government youth, posted a page identifying prominent Azeris who had Armenian Facebook friends. Anti-Armenian feelings still run deep in Azerbaijan since Armenia gained control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region after a bitter war in 1994. The page is still active as of mid-December 2011.
Some of the comments on the page were particularly vindictive, such as those of one reader who ranted that the Azeris who were singled out “should be killed, they should be hanged in the center of the city.”
Thankfully, these comments were somewhat balanced by readers who said things like, “may god protect us from ‘patriots’ like you. [J]ust try to do what Adnan Hajizada has done for this country, then maybe you can discuss the [A]rmenians on his friends list. [Y]ou are not doing anything for your country with this “patriotism."
The Armenian theme was also served up by Baku State University rector Abel Maherremov, who claimed on ANS TV (formerly the only bastion of editorial independence on Azerbaijani television) that “Armenians” were behind the March 11th protests.
In a similar vein, pro-government blogger Rauf Mardiyev was appropriately shocked after his discovery that six Armenians were listed as early supporters of the Great People’s Day on Facebook, tainting the event beyond redemption.
This 'Armenian connection’ was apparently an agreed-upon talking point: YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanli was subsequently quoted in a piece alleging that many Armenians had joined the 11 March Facebook page, some posing as Azeris.
Hedging their bets in case the “anything on social media that we disagree with is tainted” message wasn’t quite clear enough, pro-government television stations in Azerbaijan ran a series of programs during the spring on the alleged causal link between the use of Facebook and mental illness.
Targeted prosecutions: Setting an example
‘Targeted prosecutions’ consist of the prosecutor’s office bringing charges against a small number of significant figures – opposition political figure X, independent journalist Y or activist Z – who have taken very public stands against the government or written about corruption or other controversial topics. The charges and convictions of the few serve as a cautionary example for others who may then think twice before challenging the legitimacy of the government.
Favorite criminal charges include drug possession, hooliganism or, in one ironic case a parliamentary candidate accused of 'interfering with election officials’. Suspects are then detained prior to trial while an ‘investigation’ takes place. Family members find that they are suddenly fired from their jobs: Facebook activist Elnum Majidli, currently residing in France, informed ISN Insights that his father was fired, and according to an article from the Index on Censorship his mother has been told by her supervisors at work that they are under pressure to fire her. The authorities, he told ISN, are “listening to our telephone conversations and watching our home in Baku.”
The next step is to disbar defense counsel – thus sabotaging the defendants’ cases. Among those disbarred this year while involved in politically sensitive cases were Osman Kazimov, Khalid Bagirov, and Elchin Namazov. Finally, the defendants are convicted, an outcry from the international community ensues, and eventually the cases reach the Azerbaijani Supreme Court, which invariably rules in favor of the prosecution.
On November 29th of this year, the Azerbaijani Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s conviction of Savalan; on December 6th, it upheld the conviction of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev.
Most of those convicted can look forward to serving a substantial portion of their sentences, though the president has a habit of commuting the sentences of political prisoners, as happened when Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli - the ‘donkey bloggers ’ - were released earlier this year.
It’s possible - even likely - that President Aliyev may grant similar commutations prior to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Baku in late May. Azerbaijan’s 2011 Eurovision victory may well be a blessing for Azerbaijan’s political prisoners, as the government may find it embarrassing to have to explain its penchant for locking up Facebook activists.
The desired outcome behind the government’s strategy is the stamping out of any emerging opposition movement that could garner public support and lead to the sort of instability that brought an end to the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, unlikely as that may be: A 2010 opinion poll administered by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and another commissioned by the Caspian Information Centre in 2011 indicated strong support for the president, although opponents of the Aliyev government claim that the methodology of the polling was invalid.
The fear implied by the government’s actions is curious, since violent police tactics at demonstrations, a shrill propaganda campaign against the formal opposition as well as Facebookers, and convictions in court on phony charges suggest that the government actually agrees with the major charge leveled against it by the Musavat and Popular Front parties: Azerbaijan is an authoritarian state where divergent political voices are not tolerated. As Musavat Party chairman Isa Gambar told a US embassy official in 2007, "If the opposition is so genuinely weak, what is the government afraid of? Why can't we be shown on TV? Why can't we meet? Why are they arresting journalists?"
More trials and convictions are in the offing: Journalist Avaz Zeynalli is still being held prior to trial while police investigate allegations of extortion brought against him by a pro-government member of parliament. (Her chief advisor has ignored repeated requests for comment from ISN.) If the pattern holds, his attorney will soon be disbarred, Zeynalli will be found guilty and given a stiff sentence: Sentencing guidelines for extortion range from seven to ten years.
An essentially sultanistic petro-state, Azerbaijan sees little incentive to introduce meaningful democratic reforms. The country’s rulers, presiding over government-approved “opposition” parties in parliament and an authentic opposition that has now been virtually eliminated, will continue the pattern of harassment and targeted prosecution simply because it works. Social media tools such as Facebook and Youtube may be marshaled against the government by liberal activists, but the authorities and their allies have shown they can use these very tools, albeit in a somewhat clumsy fashion, to wage their own war against the opposition.
This article was first published by ISN Security Watch. Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.