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Azerbaijan: is the opposition gaining ground?

Azerbaijan: is the opposition gaining ground?
An unprecedented frequency in protest activity in Azerbaijan raises the question of whether the country could be headed towards a wave of pro-democracy unrest akin to the colour revolutions of Ukraine and Georgia, or even the Arab Spring. While protest activity is increasing in the pre-election period, at this stage, it seems unlikely that this will escalate in major civil unrest that might herald significant political change. The recent demonstrations seem to point to increasing popular restiveness over a lack of government transparency, accountability and poor governance. The frequency and intensity of recent protests represent something of a turning point for Azerbaijan, where public dissent has been relatively uncommon over the past decade. In a sign of a changing dynamic, opposition groups are making use of social networking sites as a way to bypass the government’s control of the media and convey their message to the public – much like the pro-democracy activists during the Arab Spring in 2011. However, despite the power of social media to energise support for pro-democracy campaigns, at present, Azeri civil action groups seem still too young and disorganised to pose a serious challenge to the government or escalate widespread unrest. Although Azerbaijan does not seem to be headed towards a series of uprisings at this point, the coming months will be a pivotal phase for the development of the opposition. Incumbent President Ilham Aliyev will likely win a re-election in October 2013. A fraudulent presidential vote could be a flashpoint and is likely to reveal whether any opposition could bring a real the challenge to the regime. A new wave of protests A protest mood is emerging ahead of the presidential election in October 2013: at least 12 demonstrations have occurred since October 2012, while before that there had not been any significant protest activity since last May. The Musavat and Popular Front Party – two mainstream opposition parties – organised the majority of the protests that took place between October and November last year. These demonstrations never attracted more than 300-400 people. The protesters called for the dissolution of parliament and resignation of the president. The riot police swiftly dispersed these rallies and often arrested members of the opposition. In recent months, two pro-democracy youth groups, the NIDA Civic Movement and the Free Youth Organisation (Azad G?nclik T??kilat?), have been more successful in mobilising people. One of the demonstrations they organised attracted as many as 1,000 people, which is substantial for Azeri standards. Spontaneous protests in recent months have also surprised the authorities. The most significant of these was in Ismayilli in January over low living standards and corruption in the local government. The protest attracted as many as 3,000 people. The authorities were evidently poorly prepared for unrest outside of the capital and it seems they had not foreseen the scale of the protests. Riot police deployed but struggled to contain the dissent. The incident showed that frustration with the authorities is not limited to the capital. In a sign of its concern with increased activism, the government adopted a new law on public gatherings in November, which increased the fines for participating in unauthorized rallies. This evidently failed to deter protesters from gathering, as did the heavy-handed approach by the riot police. The role of social media Lately, social media appears to have contributed to a change in mobilisation. NIDA has gathered almost 10,000 followers on Facebook and the Free Youth Organisation over 6,000. Both groups only joined Facebook in 2011. There is also an Instagram account for NIDA, where activists have posted photographs of protests, and the Free Youth Movement has a YouTube channel where it has posted videos of rallies. This new form of communication has helped to spread the activists’ message to the public. In the most notable example of how social media has served political activism, on 10 March, the NIDA Civic Movement and the Free Youth Organisation announced a protest against government unaccountability and abuse in the army on Facebook. Nearly 20,000 people confirmed attendance. Given that the attendance list of the event was public and thus visible for the government, this already represents a more emboldened attitude among certain sectors of population. Although only 1,000 of those came to Fountain Square in Baku, previous opposition gatherings in the capital had not received this much media attention. Activists have also turned to Twitter to spread their message. The hashtag #bakuprotest appeared first on Twitter in January and people have used it to echo what had been said on Facebook. Although the role of Twitter is still small, it contributes to the increasing role of social media. According to Freedom House, internet usage in Azerbaijan was 50% in 2012, a fourfold increase compared with 2006, and is growing rapidly. The use of Facebook is particularly on the rise. Over the past six months, the number of Azeri users on the site grew by 20%. Conversely, social media has allowed the government to take action and contain unrest. In a response to the widely publicised nature of the protest in March, there was an overwhelming riot police presence on Fountain Square. The authorities also pre-emptively arrested several of the organisers of the protest. Three of them appeared on TV a day later reading out seemingly prepared confessions. In addition to this, the Azeri government started funding pro-government youth organisations that spread their message through social networks. The upcoming presidential election Azerbaijan will hold a presidential election on 16 October and it appears that people see the upcoming vote as an opportunity to express their grievances. As such, demonstrations look likely to continue in the coming months ahead of the election as political activity increases in general. Despite the new trend in protests, the recent public dissent is unlikely to affect the election, which, if past elections are any guide, will most likely be fraudulent. International observers have consistently rated previous elections in Azerbaijan as corrupted – ruling President Ilham Aliyev won nearly 90% of the votes in 2008. Aliyev will run for a third time in October; after pushing through a constitutional change in 2009, he can run indefinitely. Although the recent demonstrations show a degree of popular frustration with the current regime, it is very difficult to assess the popularity and capabilities of potential candidates because of government suppression. Some opposition parties have nominated a candidate, but there have not been any reliable opinion polls indicating their levels of support. The repression in recent years has also prevented the opposition to unify in a strong political force with a clear outline for Azerbaijan’s future. As such, incumbent President Aliyev has most likely secured a victory in the October presidential election. Is Azerbaijan in a pre-revolutionary state? A fraudulent election is a flashpoint and is likely to show whether the opposition could pose a genuine threat to the regime. The probable victory for Aliyev could further fuel anti-government sentiment in Azerbaijan. Indeed, there is an increased level of opposition activism, but at present, Azerbaijan still falls short on some of the indicators that could signal potential mass mobilisation of people or even a revolt akin to the Arab Spring. First, one of the main reasons for the revolts in the Arab countries were prolonged socioeconomic grievances (particularly among youth) over joblessness, high costs of living and severe police abuse. In 2011, one fifth of the population was unemployed in Egypt and almost 19% in Tunisia. Although similar grievances exist in Azerbaijan over corruption in the government and police, they appear less intense. There are frustrations over low living standards and unemployment in certain regions of Azerbaijan – a wealthy elite benefits most from the country’s oil wealth – but unemployment rates are only around 6%. Meanwhile, labour unions are historically strong in Arab Spring countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Their strength played a significant role in the uprisings, giving pro-democracy movements more momentum when mass strikes hit the countries. Labour militancy of such scale is absent in Azerbaijan and labour unions are linked to the government, even when they are registered as ‘independent’. There are no indications the position of the trade unions in Azerbaijan will change in the near term. Finally, while the recent protests are something of a landmark moment for Azerbaijan, the turnout is still much lower than what we have witnessed in Arab Spring countries. Protests are happening more regularly, but have not been growing that much. Although a corrupted election could lead to an upsurge in protests, at this point, the opposition in Azerbaijan is still unstable. In addition to this, there are no indications that the Azeri security forces would defect, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia, and they continue to be effective in containing unrest. The differences between Azerbaijan and the Arab States at present, suggests that Azerbaijan is not in such pre-revolutionary state. The prospects for change Substantial change in Azerbaijan’s politics seems unlikely to occur anytime soon. To date, Aliyev has refused to make concessions to the opposition and has only intensified the crackdown on public dissent. But despite this, demonstrations are continuing and an escalation of protest activity could expose the limitations of the Aliyev regime and might force the government to change key areas. It is unclear how much opposition pressure is required before the government would be willing to bend to the demands of pro-democracy groups. The Azerbaijani regime is well-placed and maintains a strong position thanks to revenues from hydrocarbon resources. But according to the state oil company SOCAR, oil exports declined by more than 15.3% in January 2013, compared to December 2012. If this trend continues into the longer term, it would affect job security in the country – more than 50% of GDP comes from the oil sector. It seems that the future of the Aliyev administration hinges on how the government can use the resources from the oil sector to provide a certain standard of living for Azeri people while allowing some political pluralism without jeopardising its own position. But right now, the only way to communicate with the government is by protests, which based on the current trend, may lead to further mobilisation of people. Future trends to watch that could indicate this are improved organisation of activists, growing unemployment rates and an increasing role of social media in opposition activism. By Andrea Briedé Intelligence Analyst, Intelligence & Analysis, London Image:PA
Published: 26th April 2013