Inspired by last month's Egyptian uprising, young activists in Azerbaijan were calling for antigovernment demonstrations today -- and using Facebook to spread the word.
Originally planned as a "virtual protest," in which supporters could express their solidarity with a simple click of the mouse, the March 11 movement
has since morphed into calls for a flesh-and-blood demonstration of growing disenchantment with the country's autocratic regime. It is a move that has rattled Baku.
But it was uncertain what size or shape the protests would take -- or even if they'd take place at all, with organizers being intentionally vague about locations. As of March 10, nearly 4,000 people had used Facebook to signal their intention to mark the day of protests. Protest organizers have stressed the peaceful nature of the initiative, but have not minced words when it comes to their goal -- bringing an end to the country's "dictatorial regime."
The Azerbaijani government does not take such phrases lightly. In the past several days, authorities have arrested a number of activists
tied to the March 11 events and the country's Musavat opposition party, which is planning a subsequent day of rallies on March 12. (Members of another opposition force, the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, are planning yet another protest in the coming days.)
They forget that Azerbaijani youth will not be fooled by these crazy attempts."
Among those arrested is Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, the only March 11 organizer operating within Azerbaijan. A fellow organizer, France-based Azerbaijani activist Elnur Majidli, said the arrest of Hajiyev and others shows how anxious the authorities have become about rising opposition to the regime of President Ilham Aliyev.
"If the government detains young men for a minor Facebook page and exerts pressure on their families, it means the end for the government," Majidli says. "The authorities have admitted as much through their actions. The more they detain young people, the more they're going to motivate those young people to protest and aggravate the situation."
The New Opposition
Hajiyev, Majidli, and other organizers of the so-called Great People's Day action say they chose March 11 as the day for their protest because it marks one month since public demonstrations in Egypt forced the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
Indeed, the Azerbaijani organizers share the tactics and goals of their Egyptian counterparts. All are young, Internet-savvy, and Western-educated -- Hajiyev, for one, is a 2009 graduate of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. As a group, they have emerged as a fresh-faced complement -- or alternative -- to Azerbaijan's graying class of political oppositionists, represented by parties like Musavat and the Popular Front.
Bakhtiyar Hajiyev was arrested for his role in organizing the protest
Hajiyev was detained March 4 in his home city of Ganja, on charges of leaving the city limits while under investigation for evading military service. But Hajiyev says his one-month detention is tied to his Facebook activities, and has complained of being insulted and harassed by prison officials.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy called on the Azerbaijani government to ensure Hajiyev receives due process and proper treatment. The rights watchdog Freedom House has called the recent arrests "disturbing" and said further crackdowns "will be an indication not of the Azeri regime's strength, but rather its weakness."
The March 11 campaign has sparked efforts from pro-government youth groups to discredit activists like Hajiyev and question the loyalties of government opponents. But Hajiyev's mother, Solida Movlayeva, argues her son is fighting for a better Azerbaijan.
"Bakhtiyar has been detained for his political views, because of his search for justice," Movlayeva says. "He's a patriotic young man who loves his country and its people. Otherwise he never would have returned after paying to get an education somewhere else."
Preparing For The Worst
Many countries have seen a rise in public protests inspired by the political turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt. Oil-rich Azerbaijan, which is ruled with an iron grip by Aliyev and a tightly knit network of allies, has been no exception, with widespread poverty and political and religious repression fueling anger among ordinary Azerbaijanis.
Mindful of the mood, the government has attempted to stave off public unrest by trumpeting a new anticorruption drive
. But critics have shrugged off such campaigns as window-dressing and accuse the government of redoubling its pressure on activists and boosting the police presence in Baku. (The government's lockdown efforts have been so strenuous they've spawned a March 11 joke among young Azerbaijani activists: "If they're trying this hard, we'd better show up!")
The government in recent days has also sought to crack down on a number of foreign NGOs operating in Azerbaijan, including the U.S. National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit group working with youth groups in the country. An NDI employee in Azerbaijan told RFE/RL the group's country director received a letter from the Justice Ministry requesting their office be closed.
In a statement published on its website on March 9, the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry likewise blamed foreign agents for the rising unrest, saying that "radical opposition forces" were attempting to "create color revolutions in Azerbaijan."
"Adventurers are trying to take advantage of the developments in North Africa, and are using as their tools a group of youths and some NGOs that are directly dependent on foreign donations," the ministry said. "But they forget that Azerbaijani youth will not be fooled by these crazy attempts."
The government has even brought out its chief psychiatric expert to warn about the consequences of Facebook-style revolt. Speaking to the Trend news agency, Garay Geraybeyli advised the country's online activists to seek mental help and said, "Those who prefer virtual communication have problems communicating in real life. Such people have a limited vocabulary. They have problems speaking."
Geraybeyli's admonition apparently does not extend to the country's president, Ilham Aliyev, who recently waded into the world of social networking by launching his own Twitter and YouTube
written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Arife Kazimova in Baku