In the run-up to next month’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, the Azerbaijani authorities have relaxed the draconian restrictions on public demonstrations that have been in place since November 2006, i.e. before the reelection of President Ilham Aliyev for a second presidential term.
The opposition Civic Movement for Democracy -- Public Chamber (GDDOP), which unites many respected veteran opposition figures
, has taken advantage of this window of opportunity to organize two mass protests in as many weeks at which participants have publicly demanded
Aliyev’s resignation and the holding of free and fair elections.
The Civic Movement for Democracy -- Public Chamber was formally established
early last year after opposition parties failed to win a single seat in the November 2010 parliamentary election.
According to former Prime Minister and independent parliamentary deputy Panah Gusein, it was conceived
as a shadow parliament.
It also aims to unite under its banner all those dissatisfied with the current regime.
Azerbaijan Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli declared
in January that “nationalists, believers, atheists, leftists, rightists -- all those, regardless of their views, who want change -- are with us.”
A 'Road Map For Change'
Gusein subsequently drafted a "road map" for the Public Chamber aimed at pointing the way to a “soft transition” to democracy. This document was unveiled
in May 2011 and the Public Chamber endorsed a revised version
three months later.
The amended three-stage plan envisaged embarking on a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition, the creation of conditions conducive to reform, the release of political prisoners, and the lifting of restrictions on the media and freedom of assembly and of conscience.
The second stage encompasses the creation of a presidential Council for Democratic Reforms and amending the existing constitution pending the adoption of a new one, which would alter the principles on which the parliament is formed.
The third stage involves “the legitimization of the authorities” by means of preterm parliamentary elections, which would be held prior to the presidential ballot due in October 2013. This would be followed
by the adoption of a new constitution and a public discussion about a possible switch from a presidential to a parliamentary republic.
The road map was formally submitted to the Azerbaijani parliament, which declined to debate its merits.
This prompted the veteran leader of the opposition Musavat Party and former speaker of Azerbaijan’s first post-Soviet legislature in 1992-1993, Isa Qambar, to call for a tougher approach given that the authorities have consistently rejected or ignored the Public Chamber’s proposals.
Addressing a meeting in early January that was held to discuss the Public Chamber’s strategy for the coming year, Qambar proposed staging protests
to demand President Aliyev’s resignation.
Initially, however, the Public Chamber decided to stage a demonstration
to demand the release of political prisoners, including 12 people jailed for their participation in an abortive protest one year ago for which the Baku municipal authorities had refused permission.
The municipal council duly granted permission to hold such a rally on April 8 on the southwestern outskirts of the city even though the organizers had proposed two alternative squares in the city center as the venue for the demonstration.
Parliamentary deputy Malakhat Gasanova, representing the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, claimed
that granting permission for the demonstration constituted clear proof of the authorities’ commitment to the concept of freedom of assembly.
Despite the inconvenient location and restrictions
on public transport, between 5,000 and 10,000 people reportedly showed up.
In addition to Qambar, speakers included Gusein and Kerimli, both of whom called for the president, government and parliament to resign.
This demand, however, did not figure in the resolution
the participants adopted. Among other things, this resolution called for the release of political prisoners, free parliamentary elections before the end of this year, an end to corruption and economic monopolies, and a 100-percent increase in pensions and in teachers and doctors’ salaries.
Just days after that first mass meeting, the Public Chamber applied for, and received
, permission to stage a second rally on April 22. That demonstration also attracted up to 10,000 participants, according to the organizers. The Baku police cited the far more modest figure
'A Struggle Between God And Evil'
Once again, would-be participants had to contend with problems in reaching the venue by public transport. They were also checked by police with metal detectors and security personnel filmed the proceedings.
Addressing the gathering, Qambar and Kerimli argued that the country’s leaders should step down as they have irrevocably forfeited the trust of the population at large. Qambar characterized the standoff
between the leadership and the opposition as "a genuine struggle between good and evil." Kerimli accused the authorities of "violating the law at every step."
Other speakers included representatives of the residents of Baku whose homes are being demolished despite their protests to make way for new development projects. Many complain that they have not been paid adequate compensation.
The formal addresses at the April 22 rally were reportedly interrupted repeatedly
by young men displaying banners and placards who chanted slogans calling for the resignation and imprisonment of the president’s while also denouncing corruption, including in the sphere of education.
Predictably, pro-regime media sought to downplay the significance of the protest. The website 1news.az, for example, stressed that, even if the number of participants were indeed as high as the 3,000 that unspecified foreign media estimated, this figure amounts to just 0.03 percent of the country’s population.
The website also construed the addresses by Qambar and Kerimli as a reflection of the struggle
between them for influence.
The GDDOP is now planning a third demonstration on May 6.
It also intends to create a press center to inform the anticipated deluge of Eurovision visitors
about they see as the real political and economic situation in Azerbaijan.