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Azerbaijan's Hot January: Unusually Bold Protests Challenge Government

Riot police look on as firefighters try to extinguish fires after mass protests in the town of Ismayilli on January 24.
January is usually an uneventful month in Azerbaijan. This year, however, it has been a time of revolt.

The past four weeks were marked by a string of bold protests denouncing what many see as an increasingly corrupt and overbearing government.

With the country's vast oil wealth slow to trickle down to the majority of the population, the protests have also reflected mounting frustration over the divide between rich and poor under President Ilham Aliyev's iron-fisted rule.

As a presidential election looms that will pit Aliyev against an increasingly vocal opposition, many believe Azerbaijan is in for a lot more political turmoil in the year to come.

"The opposition political parties hope to expand their electoral base by using these protests and win the presidential election in October 2013," says Baxtiyar Haciyev, a member of the youth opposition movement Positive Change and a graduate of Harvard University.

"But people may not be willing to wait until October. If the government does not immediately adopt social, political, and economic reforms, if it does not give people -- especially young educated people -- a voice, these protests may spread across the country in upcoming months. Then it will be very difficult to control this process."

Aliyev, accused by Western governments and human rights groups of rigging past elections, has tolerated little dissent since succeeding his father in 2003.

But his heavy-handed response to the January protests, far from crushing criticism, has only fanned public anger.

Intended To Raise Awareness

More than 20 people were handed stiff fines for participating in a January 12 protest in Baku, under a new law against unsanctioned demonstrations.

The peaceful rally, sparked by the suspicious death of a young army conscript, was intended to raise awareness of deadly hazing and violence in the army.

More than 20 people were handed stiff fines for participating in a January 14 protest in Baku intended to raise awareness of hazing in the army.
More than 20 people were handed stiff fines for participating in a January 14 protest in Baku intended to raise awareness of hazing in the army.
Five days later, some 1,000 shopkeepers demonstrated in Baku to protest sharp rent increases by the managers of Azerbaijan's largest shopping center, believed to have connections with top government officials.

The rally erupted in clashes with police during which 15 participants were detained.

Some 5,000 shopkeepers kept their businesses closed in support of the protesters.

Then, on January 23, thousands of people gathered in the town of Ismayilli, 150 kilometers northwest of the capital, in response to the authorities' refusal to shut down a local motel allegedly housing a brothel.

In a night of rioting, protesters torched the motel, reportedly owned by the son of Azerbaijan's minister for social welfare, as well as the local governor's residence and several cars. Dozens of protesters were arrested.

When the rallies resumed the next day to demand the release of demonstrators and the local governor's resignation, riot police answered with tear gas and water cannons.

Authorities say 12 protesters remain in custody in Ismayilli, facing criminal charges of looting and organizing riots. Many others were fined.

Forcefully Dispersed

The crackdown shocked many Azerbaijanis and sparked another rally in Baku to express solidarity with the Ismayilli protesters.

Clashes erupted between police and demonstrators protesting rent increases at Azerbaijan's largest shopping center on January 19.
Clashes erupted between police and demonstrators protesting rent increases at Azerbaijan's largest shopping center on January 19.
Again, the demonstration was forcefully dispersed and about 40 participants were detained. Three opposition activists and a prominent journalist were subsequently fined between $380 and $3,185.

Authorities have described the protests as isolated incidents and sought to portray organizers as bent on sowing chaos in the country.

Fuad Alasgarov, the head of the presidential law-enforcement department, blamed the unrest on "forces interested in disrupting socio-political stability" in Azerbaijan and seeking to "confuse people by spreading various rumors and cause confrontation in the public."

Zahid Oruc, a member of the pro-government Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party, who sits on the parliamentary committee on defense and security, puts the protests down to hardship caused by the global economic crisis.

They are not, he insists, directed against Aliyev's rule. "There is one common feature in the position of those who are demanding change," Oruc says. "They want these changes to be implemented under the leadership of President Aliyev. Neither in Ismayilli nor at the Bina shopping center did the protesters chant slogans or brandish placards in favor of another leadership."

Role Of Social Media

What certainly characterizes these protests is the unprecedented role played by social media, which has invited comparisons with the Arab Spring revolts that brought down long-entrenched leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Young, educated urban residents have been the driving force behind January's spike in political activism and have relied heavily on social-networking websites to drum up support for the rallies.

As many as 20,000 people joined a Facebook page set up to promote the antihazing rally in Baku. Activists have also been collecting signatures for an online petition urging Aliyev to address hazing and violence in the army.

Another Facebook page was created to lobby for the firing of a police officer caught on video assaulting a demonstrator. The clip, posted on YouTube, shows the officer kicking a man from behind as he walks away from the January 26 rally in Baku before slapping him hard in the face:

In a country like Azerbaijan, where as many as 40 percent of the population is less than 24 years old, the authorities are increasingly viewing social media as a threat.

"It's obvious that the government is afraid of social media, considering that it has in the past targeted bloggers and other social-media activists who have called for public protests," says Giorgi Gogia, senior researcher on the South Caucasus for Human Rights Watch.

"The increased fines for organizing and participating in unsanctioned rallies are meant to frighten activists who use Facebook or other social media to express their frustration with authorities."

It is, of course, much too early to ascertain whether the protests will grow into a genuine challenge to Aliyev's rule. In any event, Gogia says Azerbaijan's strongman would be well advised to take the current unrest as a "wake-up call."