Azerbaijan does not stand out for its political activism - the few voices opposing the establishment are silenced, thus rallies are rare and gather small crowds. Opposition parties blame the empty streets to “the repression against activists,” while government representatives like Aydin Mirzazade, speaker of New Azerbaijan Party which as ruled the country for 23 years claim that "the opposition does not have the social base".
It was not always the case. At the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was starting to shake, Azerbaijanis felt time had come for their country to stand on its feet and protests demanding self-rule grew. As unrest started intensifying in Nagorno Karabakh, an Azerbaijan’s region where the Armenian majority demanded first annexation to Armenia then independence, people took the street also calling for the government to keep hold of the region.
Thousands of people took the streets for the independence of Azerbaijan that led to the death of hundreds of people by Soviet Army that entered Baku on January 20, 1990.
Pro-independence mass demonstrations kicked off in 1988 when election results pushed the newly-born National Liberation Movement to call on citizens’ support to demand the Soviet authorities leave. Azerbaijan was not alone as across the vast and crumbling Soviet Union people were ready to fight for self-determination.
The Kremlin was unwilling to give in. On January 20, 1990 Soviet troops stormed the capital Baku in an attempt to thwart the independence movement and some 200 people were killed in widespread violence that is now known as “ Qara Yanvar” (Black January).
The National Movement for Liberation marked the awakening of the Azerbaijani national identity - it came to embody the spirit of revival and freedom of one nation to an extent that no other protest can compare.
Since Azerbaijan gained independence rallies have grown smaller year by year. Journalist Natiq Cavadli sees the country’s recent history of political activism as a sequence of three periods.
"Protests in the 1990s aimed at breaking off the Soviet rule, in the 2000s they stood for for democracy and the against violation of human rights, and the most recent protests are against the ruling party and the ruling family."
“In the 1990s people’s spirit, trust, and confidence in promoting change was high. The new generation is different, or maybe people are just tired, they lost the faith that change, or any changes, can actually happen.”
Elman Fettah, on the other hand, does not link fewer protesters to the distrust in the opposition. “The movement that started in 1980 and eventually led to independence had strong patriotic roots which led to mass participation,” he notes. “However, in the last ten years organizers and protesters are persecuted and attacked, even detained or fired from their workplace.”
Elman Fattah says that usually the City Hall creates various pretexts in order to prevent the rallies. They say, "there is no need to hold a protest," or "we don't consider appropriate to hold a rally."
"However, Article 49 of the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan provides the freedom of assembly," he states.
The chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, Ali Kerimli, says that after the repressions during the 1998 demonstrations, Azerbaijan turned into one of the most un-free countries in the world.
Freedom House, a non-governmental organization, ranked Azerbaijan 'Not Free' in its annual Freedom of the Press survey with a score of 79 out of 100.
Ali Karimli explains the reasons of decreasing the number of people participating in the mass rallies.
"Azerbaijan is a country with more than 100 political prisoners. In a country where opposition members don’t have passports, and for more that 10 years cannot be on TV, they don’t have offices, they cannot travel abroad to gather people at the demonstration that was held on September 11, 2016 - it is phenomenal."
"There is a golden rule, if the government and ruling party works, it has a lot of supporters. The Aliyevs' policy is to ensure the country's stability, preventing inflation, creating work places, helping to solve social problems, and providing security. For these reasons, people don’t share the oppositions' ideas,” Aydin Mirzazade says.
Commenting on the arrest of rallies' participants, he says that "people wont be arrested without any reason."
"Those who are interested in the clash with the police and don't respond to the demands of the police are arrested in the name of security. It is not massive, and police are not interested in it," said the MP, stressing that the opposition is trying to gain political points highlighting these cases instead of conveying over their ideas. So, it cannot have a very long life," he says.