After nearly a year and a half, a new U.S. ambassador has finally taken up residence in Baku.
Matthew Bryza, a career diplomat and longtime friend of the region, became the seventh U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan last December.
Upon arriving in Baku on February 6, Bryza declared he was looking forward to helping to deepen cooperation between the U.S. and Azerbaijan and strengthen Azerbaijan’s “democratic institutions.”
It’s not clear how deep this cooperation is going to go, but Bryza’s timing is perfect. His arrival has coincided with a renewed government crackdown on youth activists.
Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a Harvard grad and a former candidate for the national parliament, is stranded in his hometown of Ganja after the authorities tried to draft him into the army in an apparent violation of a constitutional provision allowing alternative military service.
Hajiyev was first detained in November when he wanted to go to Georgia to finish a doctoral degree. To his surprise he was barred from leaving the country.
Authorities said Hajiyev had been evading military service since 2006 and was wanted by the police. Hajiyev, on the other hand, pointed out that he freely ran for parliament and even appeared in a televised debate.
Hajiyev is refusing to go to the army and has demanded alternative military service. The authorities have a long history of conscripting activists and are firm in their intentions.
Since then, a criminal case has been opened up against Hajiyev and he must now report twice a day to local police in Ganja.
Yet, he can be considered lucky compared with another young activist, 20-year-old Cabbar Savalan.
Police detained Savalan, from the opposition Popular Front party's youth wing, in his hometown of Sumgayit on February 5. He has been charged with allegedly possessing opium, but Savalan’s supporters claim that the drugs were planted by the police themselves. Savalan doesn't even smoke, his friends say.
Unlike Hajiyev, who has been prominent in youth politics since the mid-2000s, Savalan is relatively new to the field. It’s only been three months since he joined the Popular Front's youth group. Therefore, the harshness of the accusation and the two-month pre-trial detention he got on February 7 raises an interesting question: why crack down on a 20-year-old newcomer?
Abulfaz Gurbanli, the head of the Popular Front's youth wing, thinks the government has had enough of the scandals that come with arresting prominent youth leaders, so they are now targeting newcomers. There are fewer headaches involved, and besides, arresting newcomers effectively bars young people from joining “unwanted” groups.
Though Savalan was a newcomer, he had eagerly taken part in various protest actions and was active on Facebook. Following events in Tunisia and Egypt, he had even started to advocate holding an Azeri “Day of Rage.”
According to Parvana Persiani, a researcher with the Baku-based AN think tank, there may lie yet another answer. Savalan's sudden arrest may be more about teaching a lesson to those young people in Azerbaijan inspired by current events in Arab world.
-- Ali Novruzov