Arif Yunusov heads the Department for Conflict Resolution at the Baku-based Institute of Peace and Democracy.
"Last year (2010) should have been a period of extensive political activity in Azerbaijan, because new parliamentary elections were held in November. As is traditional, starting from the spring, all of Azerbaijan's political actions had been connected with the elections to greater or lesser degrees.
After all, since Ilham Aliyev came to power in 2003, and particularly in 2006, all rallies were de facto forbidden, and each request by the opposition party to hold a rally was refused. In effect, the traditional Azerbaijani opposition only had opportunities to act legally in the election period, when they could count on support from Western states.
Nevertheless, these parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan will go down as a very insignificant and dull event. The opposition did not make even the weakest attempt to arrange a rally, in the capital city or elsewhere; and the government was so self-assured that this time it decided not to play any democratic games in front of the West, and basically – for the first time in the history of independent Azerbaijan – it separated the opposition off from the parliament completely.
The government accepted only those MPs who remained unfailingly loyal to it, and whom they called 'the constructive opposition', that is, an obedient one.
As expected, the traditional opposition claimed the elections had been rigged and the results were deemed invalid. At the end of December 2010, the entire group of losers from the traditional opposition established the 'Social Chamber', an association encompassing all the opposition parties and their supporters. Yet hardly anyone acknowledged them as serious players within the country.
Until recently, most observers of Azerbaijan's political scene had been interested only in Islamic extremists, as they are the only power which has actually remained on Azerbaijan's political scene and organised protest rallies without permission.
But at the beginning of January 2010, the government dealt the Islamic forces a serious blow, arresting what appeared to be the entire directorate of the Islamic party. As expected, the arrest of the party leaders did not bring any serious response from Azerbaijan's public, as this party has a negative image among many people due to its sympathies for Iran.
This was actually why the traditional pro-Western opposition not only did not come to the defence of the arrested leaders, but also saw many of its representatives approving of the government's decision.
Arab revolts wake up opposition
It seemed that the government no longer had any serious opposition. Its main political opponents were absolutely crushed, and the general public was filled with fear, distrust and disappointment. And right at that moment the events in Tunisia, and particularly Egypt, broke out, and became a serious catalyst in Azerbaijan.
Many parallels could have been drawn: in Azerbaijan, power had been kept within the same family and the same political forces. As in the Arab countries, Azerbaijan was characterised by an authoritarian ruling style, an enormous growth in corruption; thanks to energy resources a small part of the society (the ruling elite) became fantastically rich, while the majority became ever poorer, and opted to leave the country in search of job opportunities and more comfortable living conditions abroad.
As in the Arab countries, Azerbaijan's government continued to threaten everybody, particularly its Western partners, with the risk of Islamism, a tactic which so far has borne much fruit. For these reasons, the West turned a blind eye to the election rigging which had become a tradition in this state, and also to human rights violations.
At the same time, the events in the Arab world inspired the traditional opposition. However, in recent years it had been weakened, and initially its actions did not go beyond the demand to destroy Mubarak's monument in the Baku suburbs.
Yet the reaction of Azerbaijan's authorities has proved that even such calls, and more importantly, the course of events in the Arab states, has caused them considerable anxiety.
The first actions they took resembled those taken in numerous autocratic Arab countries: in mid-January 2011, the government proclaimed its intention to introduce reforms and pay more attention to the social status of the population.
Moreover, it did not forget the most current problems, principally corruption. For almost two years the Anti-Corruption Committee, which had been set up back in 2007 under pressure from international organisations, had not been assembled; but on 27 January 2010, the president ordered Ramiz Mehdiyev, the Committee's chairman, to call a meeting promptly and declare a start to the anti-corruption movement in the country.
On command, as it used to be in the Soviet period, all ministries, state committees and businesses, universities and schools started to hold meetings, where lists of allegedly thoroughly corrupt persons were read out in public. Each ministry and state institution drew up reports on the number of 'corrupt' physicians, teachers, police officers and other civil servants who had been punished and dismissed.
Youth – a new force on the political scene?
At the end of February, under pressure from the turmoil occurring in the Arab world, a new power appeared on the Azerbaijani political scene which drastically changed the situation in the country: youth movements, which use the latest technologies, the Internet, Facebook and other options. In the past nothing similar had ever existed in Azerbaijan.
Influenced by the events in the Arab world, the Internet and Facebook reported rapid take-up in Azerbaijan. Compared to January 2011, in February this year the number of Facebook users in Azerbaijan leapt from 200,000 to 325,000.
This number seems high for Azerbaijan, considering the total population of nine million, and the fact that quite a significant [number] of its citizens (up to two million) actually apparently live and work abroad. However, according to data published in the mass media, the vast majority of Facebook users in Azerbaijan (76%) fall in the 18-34 age group.
Yet most importantly, the youth organisations did what their older fellows in the democratic opposition parties had failed to [do] – they held out their hands to the Islamists. Both parties hoped to take advantage of each other's potential.
At the end of February, a group named '11 March – The Great National Day' was established on Facebook. The organisers called for anti-government demonstrations to be carried out throughout Azerbaijan on 11 March. This day of action was timed to coincide with the first month of the victory of the national movement in Egypt. The organisers of the 11 March protest called for counteraction against the country's lawlessness.
Yet the action lacked a certain agenda, or even a particular location and start time. The organisers simply called on everybody who disapproved of the status quo to take part in protests throughout the countryside, regions and cities, irrespective of the number of participants.
'Are you ready to gather, in good order, and without provocation, and bring down the dictatorial regime in Azerbaijan?' asked the authors of the proclamation. Appeals and posters also included those which contained an Islamic element. One poster read: 'We want freedom of religion and education. Yesterday the mosques, today the hijabs; what about tomorrow?' These posters were put up in early March in various parts of the capital, as well as in other regions of the country (picture 1).
At the same time, the organisers sent invitations to participate in the action to over 30,000 Facebook users. By 10 March, 2,886 people had joined the group, 5,065 had rejected it, 1,911 had not yet committed themselves, and 22,969 decided not to respond.
For their part, the Islamist party joined in. At the beginning of March, believers from four villages (Nardaran, Bina, Masztagi, Bilgah) on the Absheron peninsula around the capital city convened a series of meetings calling for the ban on wearing the hijab to be lifted and for their leaders to be released from detention; they decided to start a campaign both in mosques (to be recalled in each Friday sermon) and a series of political actions.
On 7 March, the Islamic party announced through the mass media that it had decided to organise a rally in downtown Baku which would be attended by 20,000 people; the slogans to be used were: “Freedom for political prisoners!” and “Down with corruption!”.
These are the origins of the following image: on 11 March youth organisations were preparing for a demonstration to which they invited members of the Islamic movement. The secular opposition parties, including Musavat, NFA and others, planned their rally on 12 March. Later on, the Islamic party was also planning to hold its rally.
Such unrest seriously scared the state authorities, which, from 6 March on, started preventive detentions of numerous activists from the youth organisations. In various locations in Baku's suburbs, the government deployed military hardware as well as internal army units, which officially started their military exercises on 10 March in apparent preparation for the demonstrations.
The government's fear was transparent and was widely perceived. It resulted from the very alliance of young people and the secular opposition with the Islamic party which the Arab governments had been so afraid of. In fact, the alliance was vague and was far from being binding, yet it was a turning point in the political situation in Azerbaijan.
It was no surprise that the pro-government media started fierce counter-propaganda against the leaders of the secular opposition, blaming them primarily for the collaboration with Islamic forces.
At the same time, it was clear that these rallies would not lead to any dramatic changes in society, and the forces of order would be able to control the situation. Yet, the youth rally on 11 March, held in the very centre of the capital city, showed that society's fear of the state forces, which had been clearly present for the last three years, had been considerably reduced.
This youth demonstration gave serious encouragement to the pro-Western opposition. On 12 March and 2 April, several hundred demonstrators attended illegal rallies in the very centre of Baku, which they could not have even imagined beforehand. They were not frightened and fiercely resisted the police forces, to everyone's great surprise.
The unpleasant surprise for the government was that during the 12 March rally, the pro-Western activists were joined by several dozen youths who started to chant 'Allah Akbar', causing fury among the police.
Then the authorities launched a virulent anti-opposition campaign, including extensive arrests of opposition activists in the provinces, expelling students from universities due to 'unjustified absences', and the state media started a black PR campaign against the opposition leaders.
Nevertheless, all of this did not stop the opposition, and on 2 and 17 April, it organised more protest rallies. As usual, a few days before the event the police made preventive arrests of the activists; however, this was fruitless.
What future for the opposition in Azerbaijan?
It is true that the Islamist element has refrained from active participation in these demonstrations, preferring to organise their own rally. Yet in each case, it is obvious that events in the Arab world have awakened Azerbaijan's society.
So far, it is hard to judge how events in Azerbaijan will proceed. Certainly, it is too early to say there will be wide-mass protest rallies as in the Arab states; yet the fear and disappointment which were prevalent in Azerbaijan are no longer visible. Furthermore, it is clear that due to the events in the Arab world, the political life of Azerbaijan has been extended by a new power – the young, who will be essential players.
And at the end of the day, the turmoil in the Arab world has influenced the traditional opposition and the Islamic movement to work together. Currently, neither party fully trusts the other, but if the government continues with its repressive policy towards both of them, the process of their assimilation will be more successful."