Azerbaijan protests without politicians

Photographer: Aziz Karimov , Abbas Atilay

Author: Sevinj Vaqifqizi

Illustrator: Chichek Bayramli

Togrul Abbasov contributed to this article.

Over the past ten years, a growing number of Azerbaijani citizens have been driven to protest. Their demonstrations are often small or even solitary--and political pundits have questioned their long-term impact. But these protests were so important because they represented the emergence of local, unorganized, and similar demands at different times. What led to these protests, and how did they differ from earlier political protests?

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, anti-government protests in Azerbaijan--including social demands, which reached their peak in 2003-2005--were concentrated around the political opposition. Thus, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, people in Azerbaijan were highly politicized due to structural changes and transformations in the country as well as the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ceasefire in the Karabakh war, that energy turned toward domestic politics.

“Issues of national identity and nationalism were at the heart of this political discourse. That is, supporters of both the government and the opposing forces had similar hopes and expectations that the bad social situation of the people at that time would be solved using political means, in other words, both sides were thinking more or less: ‘other problems can be solved if we properly understand our nationality,’” explains social researcher Togrul Abbasov.

“But the mass movement that had attracted people using political aspirations since the late 1980s reached its final point in 2003-2005. Discussion/confrontation on different aspects of nationalism ceased to offer any hope for the solution of social problems.”

The culmination of these political aspirations dovetailed with the astronomical rise of oil revenues in Azerbaijan. Thus, those who could not solve their problems by getting politicized had a new option-- to solve their problems individually with a portion of the oil revenues coming to the country.

This was a new hope.

“I would say this is a period of individual hope in a collectively disappointed society,” Abbasov says. “Therefore, protests arising after the devaluation of the manat emerged from scattered assembly of people whose personal expectations were not fulfilled.”

These protests are fundamentally different from rallies organized by established political parties. Starting in 2012, local communities began responding to a number of triggers, most notably the perceived bad behavior of officials and increased prices for necessities, like bread. But they have been individual incidents, without the momentum or structure to unite with other communities or form a larger, national movement.

Why weren’t these protests united?

“The main reason why the protests do not come together on a common platform is due to the absence of any modern organizational structure (national, class, trade union, etc.) that unites them,” says Abbasov.

According to Gubad Ibadoglu, chairman of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, the groundswell of protests that started at that time were a "struggle for survival. Ibadoglu attributed the sparseness of the social protests to the lack of left-wing movements in Azerbaijan.

“People from lower income groups all over the world are represented by left-wing movements and social democrats. As there were no such political movements in Azerbaijan, there was no political force to collectively unite these protests. Existing political parties are far from left-wing, and mainly operate only in the capital,” he explains.

But regardless of the political impact of the demonstrations, for individual protesters, the acts of defiance have taken a personal toll—lost jobs, prison sentences and, at times, a new feeling of freedom to speak out despite the consequences.

Sarvin Chobanov was one of many in his community who rallied against the local governor in Guba, Azerbaijan in 2012.

On March 1, 2012, an impromptu group demanded that the politician step down and, when he refused, they took their discontent to the street. At first the protest was peaceful. But it turned violent after soldiers were sent to disperse the crowd. They shot bullets in the air and used tear gas against the demonstrators. In response, crowds of people, including Chobanov, started to march to the governor's residence.

He expected the governor to resign after making controversial and insulting statements about the local community. He did not expect to be arrested.

But group of protesters turned violent, and set fire to the governor's house, leaving the scene only after the governor resigned.

Chobanov says that he was not involved in the violence. But a few months after the incident, he was summoned to the police station and, along with around 30 other people, he was arrested on charges of violating public order and using force against police.  “I didn't think they would arrest me when I joined the protests,” he says.

Chobanov was lucky: he was sentenced to three years of probation in December 2012, and released directly from the courtroom.

Others have not been so fortunate.

In March 2012, protesters in Guba, Azerbaijan demanded the resignation of the local governor after he publicly called Guba residents "traitors" for selling their land cheaply.

Peaceful protests in Guba turned violent after soldiers were sent to disperse the crowd. They shot bullets in the air and used tear gas against the demonstrators.

Higher prices led to outcry

Joshgun Bagishov was arrested for protesting over the rising price of bread in 2016. After two consecutive devaluations of the national currency, the manat, all food products became more expensive. If up until that point people who had voiced their social concerns privately-- in neighborhoods, on public transport, and in tea houses—by 2016, they, like Bagishov, were ready to take to the street. Higher prices for flour triggered protests in eight regions, including Siyazan, where Bagishov lived.

“We came here due to hunger, we cannot live,” explained a protester in Fuzuli, a district in southern Azerbaijan.

In Aghjabadi, a town in central Azerbaijan, three people climbed on a building and threatened to jump to their deaths over the rising prices and debts.

When law enforcement authorities dispersed a protest in one area, new ones popped up elsewhere.  After the riots, the price of flour dropped, but the amount of bread that went to the house of several protesters declined.

Other demonstrators, like Bagishov, were detained.

“There was a knock on the door one morning, while I was praying. When I opened it, 20 masked men entered the flat. First they searched us, then handcuffed our hands behind our backs, took us to their car, and then to the police department,” he says.

He notes they were beaten when they arrived at the police station and, after his brother started to protest their treatment, the police became more aggressive and beat them even more.

“Then they led us out of the corridor and to a storage area where there was a camera. They started to beat us even more aggressively in front of the camera. They said we threw stones at them. My brother was sentenced to 15 days, me - four years.”

Bagishov was released after three years and two months due to a pardon.

A group of residents protested in Azerbaijan’s Sabirabad district in 2011, after they failed to receive compensation for damage to their property and farms due to massive flooding in 2010.

The Kura River flooded in May 2010, destroying 30,000 houses as well as 110,000 hectares of farmland.

In January 2013 there were mass protests in Ismayilli, Azerbaijan against the governor of the region, Nizami Alakbarov, and his family. The protesters set fire to two cars and two motorcycles as well as a villa and a hotel owned by the Alakbarovs.

Following the riot, Interior ministry troops were sent into the area. The soldiers used tear gas to disperse the crowds, harming a number of innocent bystanders in the process, including children.

But could these social problems be solved after 2005, when oil revenues astronomically increased? Why didn’t the government address these social problems in a timely manner?

For instance, President Ilham Aliyev launched a program to improve the quality of life outside capital Baku in 2004, years before the wave of protests began. But instead of helping the local population, the situation got worse. The problems were exacerbated by the falling manat in 2015 and 2016.

According to Abbasov, the researcher, an increase of earnings is not the solution to social problems. The solution to social problems depends on how wealth is obtained and how it is distributed.

“Many reports show that, despite the increasing wealth in the world, unfair distribution has further increased the divide between groups,” he says.

“Secondly, the ineffectiveness of the state mechanism in Azerbaijan also plays a crucial role here. In other words, even the amount allocated for improving social conditions does not reach its destination, and it is embezzled by officials.”

Economist Toghrul Valiyev also notes that one problem was the government did not create a mechanism to test the effectiveness of the program.

The lack of accountability, and the continued decrease in people's quality of life, means more protests are likely, according to economist Ibadoglu.

“I think people were protesting because of the impact of serious changes over a short period of time. The devaluation, followed by a second devaluation, of revenues and rising costs led to rallies. The grounds have been laid for the protests by people who have been silent for a long time.” he says.

Joshgun Bagishov says despite the fact his last protest landed him in jail, he is ready to demonstrate again to help his community.

“If I was scared to express my opinions before, after imprisonment there is no fear. I know that what I say is true,” he says.

Archive photographs were provided by Abbas Atilay and Aziz Karimov




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