bleak suburbs of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, and an opposition rally
chants the national anthem. Glancing around the crowd, it's clear the
voice of protest in Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly young. Murad
Hasanli, an English-educated spokesperson for Azadlyq (Freedom), the
main opposition bloc, is part of a new generation of politically
motivated young Azerbaijanis.
"If you look at what
happened in Georgia and Ukraine, it was the youth movements that
provided the catalysts for political change," Hasanli said. "They were
the foot soldiers of the revolution -- and the opposition has
recognized that here in Azerbaijan, and from early on began to engage
with young people, and a whole plethora of youth organizations has
developed in Azerbaijan very quickly. We had Yeni Fikir (New Idea),
Maqam (Opportunity), Yokh (No!). Some of them were single-issue
organizations, some were broader political movements and they did
engage the young people."
Youth activists were an
ubiquitous presence at the opposition rally. With orange bandanas --
symbolic of Ukraine's Orange Revolution -- wrapped around their heads,
they led the chants and distributed leaflets and banners.
it's not just the young activists who are straining at the leash,
waiting, it seems, to be tested in power. There is a new generation of
educated Azerbaijanis who feel the old generation of leaders -- both
pro-government and opposition -- has had its chance and failed. Outside
Baku's Pedagogical University , a group of students
discussed their hopes for the future. These weren't activists, just
young Azerbaijanis frustrated at the way their country is going.
"We have to change all those who run the state so someone good comes to power. That's all," one of them said.
"If they give us (youth) the chance, if they give us the power, we'll do everything for the sake of Azerbaijan," said another.
Huseynov most definitely is an activist. He is an unmistakable figure
at the headquarters of the opposition Popular Front party: long black
hair beneath a military cap, orange sweater, military jacket, and a Che
Guevara wristwatch. He is also the leader of the Maqam youth movement.
is a new generation of educated Azerbaijanis who feel the old
generation of leaders -- both pro-government and opposition -- has had
its chance and failed.
"Our young people like to
buy expensive mobile phones and dress well -- but those are the young
people who have money," Huseynov said. "When most people leave school
-- if they can't get into higher education -- they go to Russia and
other countries to make money. Those who finish higher education can't
find a normal life here, which is why they're beginning to turn to the
path of opposition and are beginning to join youth organizations like
But most young Azerbaijanis are not like Huseiynov
or the activists at the opposition rally. Many may share their views,
but most are too fearful of speaking out. Razi Nurullayev ran in the
elections as an independent candidate and was widely praised for
leading one of the best electoral campaigns. He has just turned 30 and
sees himself as a future leader of Azerbaijan. The problem, he said, is
how to mobilize a young generation paralyzed by fear.
are not able to mobilize the young very intensively because the regime
is very repressive and cracks down on youth when they want to initiate
anything political," Nurullayev said. "Most of them have jobs in
government agencies, most of them are making their studies at the
universities. They risk to get excluded from the universities and they
risk to lose their jobs."
But Nurullayev is also an
optimist who believes that the latest generation of educated
Azerbaijanis has a responsibility to take over the reins of leadership
from an opposition he believes has failed the Azerbaijani people.
said the country needs a "new thinking people, a new generation who
have been studying abroad" -- who understand political strategy and
nonviolent means of getting their message across -- "and we can
mobilize the progressive part of the youth."
government also recognizes the importance of youth. President Ilham
Aliyev has seen the part played by youth movements in Serbia, Georgia,
and Ukraine and is on his guard. The pro-government Yeni Azerbaycan
(New Azerbaijan) party has its own youth organization -- although there
is little evidence that it enjoys grass-roots support. A new
post-Soviet generation is emerging in Azerbaijan -- and the battle to
win its loyalty is only just beginning.