One year after the presidential ballot in which incumbent Ilham Aliyev was reelected for a third term, Azerbaijan's opposition National Council of Democratic Forces (NSDS) convened a mass meeting in Baku on October 12 to protest the unprecedentedly harsh crackdown launched by the authorities in the wake of that vote.
Human Rights Watch calculates that since Azerbaijan assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe on May 1, the government has "dramatically escalated its attack on activists, with [the] authorities arresting at least 11 people" and jailing at least nine others on politically motivated charges following "flawed trials."
That wave of arrests has elicited criticism not just from human rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch, but also from the European parliament and U.S. President Barack Obama. Former U.S. Ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich called earlier this month for the U.S. to impose sanctions in the form of a law modelled on the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act.
Attendance at the October 12 protest, which was held at a stadium on the outskirts of Baku, was 2,500 – 3,000, according to the independent website Caucasus Knot. Baku police gave a far lower estimate of 900. The number would doubtless have been higher if the rally had taken place closer to the city center, but legislation on freedom of assembly adopted in 2008 empowered the municipal authorities to allow such rallies only in a very few selected venues.
The demographic was varied: Pictures posted on the website haqqin.az show not only men in their 20s-40s, but a group of elderly men and a conservatively dressed middle-aged woman with a black head-covering, all holding pictures of political detainees/prisoners.
Addressing the gathered crowd, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli construed the ongoing wave of arrests as evidence of the leadership's inability to engage in honest political competition. He argued that the authorities' efforts to isolate Azerbaijan from the outside world in response to increasing international criticism of human rights violations is fraught with risk. Kerimli further predicted that "the Azerbaijani people are changing, they will no longer put up with repression but will say 'no' to arbitrary [reprisals], injustice and despotism."
Kerimli is now the de facto leader of the opposition following the resignation of Isa Gambar last month after 22 years as Musavat Party chairman. Gambar nonetheless plans to participate in the presidential ballot due in 2018.
Referring to the recent arrests, Camil Hasanli, the defeated NSDS candidate in last year's presidential ballot, characterized the victims as "Azerbaijan's most worthy sons and daughters," who have been thrown into prison and subjected to "medieval tortures" for their political convictions, their civic position, or their religious beliefs."
The meeting, for which the municipal authorities had granted permission, ended with the adoption of a resolution enumerating the opposition's primary demands: the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners; a guarantee of fundamental freedoms; reform of the electoral system, including a return to the mixed majoritarian-proportional system and changes to the composition of electoral commissions at all levels to ensure adequate opposition representation; and a firm commitment by the authorities that they indeed plan to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union.
Some individual participants called for President Aliyev to resign.
It is impossible to say with any certainty whether the authorities' decision to grant permission for the demonstration was taken in response to international criticism, or whether it reflects a firmly held assumption that after years of harassment, the opposition is now a spent force -- or both. Several days afterwards, President Aliyev signed an amnesty for 84 prisoners, including four persons considered political prisoners. The same day, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted amendments to the law on NGOs tightening the conditions under which they may receive foreign grants.
That pattern of reprisals alternating with occasional tactical concessions dates back to the era of President Aliyev's father and predecessor, Heidar Aliyev.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan faces a more tangible and immediate threat in the form of falling oil prices. The price of Brent crude, the global benchmark, has fallen by 16 percent since June. The reason, according to Stratfor, is a combination of over-production by Libya, the U.S., and Iraq, and sluggish demand. Last week the price dipped below $83 for the first time in four years, before stabilizing. As of October 22, it was $86.58.
In 2013, crude oil accounted for 84.44 percent of Azerbaijan's total exports. But addressing the cabinet on October 8, when the oil price was still above $90, President Aliyev downplayed the significance of the decline.
The online-daily echo-az.com quoted Center for Economic and Social Development Chairman Vugar Bayramov as explaining that the Azerbaijani government is currently considering three possible scenarios. The first, optimistic one is that the oil price remains above $80 per barrel, in which case the country's economy will continue to grow at the current rate. GDP grew by 5.8 percent in 2013, and projected growth for 2014 is 5.0 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The second is based on a price between $60 and $80 per barrel, in which case the economy will stabilize, while the third, under which the oil price falls below $60 per barrel, would necessitate cutbacks in budget spending given that 75 percent of budget revenues are generated by the oil and gas sector.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is having to pay more to service its external debt, which grew by almost 50 percent in 2011-2012, and as of May 2014 amounted to $12 billion.
If the price of oil falls below $80 per barrel, the ensuing decline in budget revenues could constrain the Azerbaijani authorities to cut social spending. (It is unlikely that the military budget will be affected: defense spending was predicted at over $3.7 billion in 2014 and is to grow by 3.1 percent in 2015, when it will account for 17.9 percent of all budget expenditure.) Implementing drastic cuts in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2015 could, however, spark spontaneous popular unrest on the lines of the violent protests in Quba in March 2012 and Ismailly in January 2013.
On the other hand, even in the event of a protracted period of low oil prices, the period of comparative financial vulnerability will last only until natural gas from the second phase of development of the Shah Deniz deposit begins to flow to Turkey in late 2018, and to Europe via the TANAP pipeline one year later.
-- Liz Fuller