Thousands of protesters took to the streets early today in the northern Azeri city of Quba in what became a scene of violence as police fired tear gas and clubbed demonstrators. Radio Free Europe reports that four people were injured, according to authorities, and I have been told that a videographer from an opposition news agency was taken to a local hospital.
The catalyst for the demonstration was the leaked remarks by Rauf Habibov, the local governor, who apparently told associates that Quba residents are “traitors” for selling their land for as little as “thirty or forty manat.” (An Azeri manat is worth roughly USD$1.27 at current exchange rates.)
According to one source, videographer Rashad Aliyev was taken to a hospital for injuries he sustained during the melee, but I am attempting to confirm that. Information is somewhat sporadic from Quba just now.
Despite attempts by the governor to apologize for his unguarded remarks, the demonstration quickly spiraled into a riot, with protesters smashing windows at government buildings and, according to RFE/RL, setting fire “to a house thought to belong to Habibov.”
Dramatic video of a vigorously burning building – perhaps the residence of the governor – can be seen here, courtesy of CNN iReport.
A photo of a man identified as videographer Rashad Aliyev shows something interesting.
Note the man in the background, right of center, holding up a poster of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. This has provoked a good deal of discussion on Azeri internet forums today, and the two favorite theories are that either the man is displaying the poster as an “insurance policy” against assault by police or that he is a government “plant,” symbolically distancing the administration in Baku from the events in Quba. Personally, I don’t have a theory, but offer the oddly dissonant picture for your consideration.
There are several extraordinary elements to this outbreak of violence:
First, it is spontaneous. There was no planned demonstration, it was not a facebook-organized “People’s Day” or “March 11” event. The Quba incident was totally out of the blue.
Second, it was viral and attracted thousands of participants almost immediately. Thus, the demonstration was almost certainly larger than anything the opposition tried to arrange last year when some thought that Azerbaijan was ripe for an Arab Spring revolution. (Note: I wasn’t one of those people.)
Third, it was not, at least on its face, anti-Aliyev. And its goals were not ambitiously over-arching. These people didn’t protest and burn down a house because they want to throw out the Aliyev government. They were reacting to a specific, limited set of circumstances: the intemperate comments of a foolish and arrogant apparatchik.
Fourth, the riot happened not in Baku, but in a “region,” which is Azeri-speak for any province (“region”) outside of the Absheron peninsula, where Baku is located. One of the tactical errors that the opposition typically makes (not that I’m giving them advice) is to focus their efforts on the capital city. As one Azeri opposition leader (now residing in the US) told me today, “We have to encourage protest actions throughout the country: in the regions, in the villages and cities, not just Baku. This is the key.”
Finally, today’s event may be a tipping point in the making. I say this because the reaction to the governor’s idiotic and callous remarks was breathtakingly swift and the violence that followed was both surprising and carefully targeted. This implies pent-up anger, and where it exists in one region, it may emerge in others.
We will see in the coming days how these events resonate in the rest of Azerbaijan, but it is certainly not the kind of publicity the government wants less than three months prior to the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Baku in late May. The riot comes on the heels of international condemnation of widespread evictions of citizens from their homes in the city center to make way for Eurovision venues. (More on that story on this blog in the coming days.)
And in a hard-hitting television broadcast last week, the American network CNBC aired a segment on Azerbaijan’s ruling family for the premiere of its new “Dirty Money” series.
So how will the central government handle this black eye? If they really want to defuse the situation (and they do), then the first step will be to relieve the governor of his duties. That has to be done immediately if the government wants to gain a semblance of control.
The president might consider acknowledging that systemic corruption and oil riches which benefit a small group of Azeri oligarchs are the root causes of a situation where people feel compelled to sell parcels of their land for a lousy $40. The governor calling them “traitors” is just stunning, and in another place and time would be precisely the sort of thing that sparks a revolution.
In an interview today with Voice of America, former political prisoner Emin Milli, currently in graduate school in London, called for mass protests tomorrow at noon across Azerbaijan. But this evening there seemed to be limited support for Milli’s proposal on facebook among opposition party figures.
Addendum: a number of press reports indicate that the governor of Quba has been removed from office, and Azadliq newspaper, an organ of the opposition Popular Front Party, claims that a state of emergency has been declared in Quba and the city has been sealed off by police.