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Baku's Flower Children

Arrests At Baku's Flower Festival
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Video: Protesters chant "No to terror!" and "No to Flower Day!" as police lead away members of the group on May 10.

Since the death in late 2004 of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev, his son and successor Ilham -- together with his father's trusted team of advisers -- has cemented control over the country. Buoyed by skyrocketing oil prices, the regime has sidelined or bought the divided and ineffective political opposition, rigged the outcome of successive parliamentary and presidential elections, muzzled independent domestic media, and drastically reduced foreign television and radio broadcasting.

Within that reassuring information and ideological vacuum, the sole perceived threat until now has been the specter of radical Islam. Mosques suspected of propagating radical Islamic trends have been closed or demolished and the arrest announced of two separate groups that purportedly sought to destabilize the country by launching a wave of terrorist attacks. Just last week, parliament amended the law on religion to ban the activities of unregistered religious communities.

But since the beginning of this month, a new and apparently unanticipated challenge has emerged to the political status quo in the form of peaceful student protests. The catalyst for those protests was the bloodbath perpetrated on April 30 at the State Oil Academy by a young Azeri from Georgia whom the authorities have written off as a psychologically unhinged loner. The following day, some 2,000 young people staged a spontaneous march through Baku to demand that the authorities declare a period of official mourning, and, specifically, that they cancel the Flower Festival planned for May 10 -- Heidar Aliyev's birthday.

They laid flowers at the scene of the shooting and posted placards, some of which denounced official corruption. The authorities initially tolerated those protests, but as of May 4 police began systematically removing flowers and protest placards without any explanation. Several protesters were detained: five of them were sentenced on May 9 to between three and 10 days in jail.

The authorities ignored the students' demands for a day of official mourning, and held the Flower Festival as planned. Police forcibly detained for several hours up to 50 young people who gathered in silent protest close to the main venue; some of them were reportedly beaten.

To be sure, the Baku protests were not as numerous as those in Moldova last month to protest the perceived falsification of the parliamentary elections. Nor were they as spectacularly violent and destructive.

But they appear to have followed much the same pattern, with disparate youth and student organizations communicating among themselves by e-mail to organize protests. It remains to be seen whether, and how swiftly, the initial protest evolves into a more sweeping rejection of the entire personality cult surrounding Heidar Aliyev and of the corrupt and self-serving regime that derives its tenuous legitimacy from its long-term association with him.

Students are detained at protest against the Flower Festival in Baku on May 10.
Similarly unclear is how the Azerbaijani leadership will react if the protests do gather momentum: with force or by seeking to sow dissent within the opposition? Or by quietly abandoning the Aliyev personality cult and tapping into accumulated oil revenues to finance a broad program of material benefits intended to make the political status quo more palatable? Inaction risks fuelling pent-up frustration and could even drive young Muslims to take up arms against the regime as they are doing in increasing numbers in neighboring Daghestan.

The fact that the recent protests were confined to Baku should not lull the authorities into a false sense of complacency: Last month's population census is expected to confirm predictions that over one-third of the country's 9 million population belongs to the 15-34 age group. The votes cast collectively by that group could determine whether Ilham Aliyev will indeed benefit from the recent constitutional amendment that -- on paper -- guarantees him a third presidential term in 2013, and a fourth five years after that.

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL