Foreign Policy Blogs

Azerbaijan's March 11 "Great People's Day" approaching

Tension is rising in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the 11 March “Great People’s Day.” The event was launched on facebook and has spread to other media, although specifics are somewhat vague, which seems to be a deliberate tactic.  People are being urged to stage symbolic or actual protests “in a civil way without provocations” in villages and cities across the country on the 11th.  Twitter updates for the event can be found at #11mart.

The organizers sent out more than 35,000 invitations for people to support the event, but as of the early hours of 8 March (Azerbaijan time), only 3200 or so had clicked the “I’m Attending” button, with 5,577 saying they would not attend.  That sounds like much ado about very little, but we shall see.  (Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar had not responded to the facebook invitation as of 8 March.)

I contacted Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli yesterday, who responded through an intermediary that the 11 March event is “not a demonstration that is organized by the opposition, but we support this initiative by young people politically and morally.  We support any initiative of Azerbaijani citizens for democratic changes.”

Kerimli wants to draw parallels between the anger in countries such as Libya and Egypt and the mood in Azerbaijan: “What happened in these countries raised revolutionary energy in the Azeri people very quickly.  Right now, day by day, Azerbaijani society is heading for radical change.  In the regions, anti-government sentiment is increasing.”

But Kerimli added that “we haven’t had time to prepare or organize a big effort for that date.”

So it seems unlikely that the event, due to its design and the fact that the organizers have not coordinated their efforts with Musavat or the Popular Front, will have a huge impact.

A former Popular Front youth activist now residing in the US told me that the strategy of rallies and other actions, large and small, across Azerbaijan makes sense, although he fears that the lack of organization or a central message could be problematic.  The previous opposition view that protests should be focused on Baku or that organizers of rallies should apply for permission from city authorities is counter-productive, he said.

“There should be people power” rather than an emphasis on political parties, he emphasized.  “This is what happened in Libya and Egypt.  Where are the parties in the Libyan revolution?  And in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t get involved until several days after the protests began. They were irrelevant. That’s why the March 11 event is a good idea. The protests can happen all over Azerbaijan, not just in Baku…The protests can happen in your city, in your town! There is too much stress on parties – let’s get the people on the streets!”

As I’ve said before, I don’t really buy the idea that most people in Azerbaijan are champing at the bit for revolution or even mass rallies.  For example, see these public opinion polling results from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation which indicate, among other things, that if protests occurred, a little over 10% of respondents would join the protesters.  (This was in January of 2010.)  Sixty one per cent would remain neutral, and roughly 22% would “help the authorities to establish order.”  That 61% neutrality figure fits with what I’ve observed in Azerbaijan, and while that can’t be terribly reassuring for President Aliyev, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the opposition.

(The poll’s methodology and conclusions are somewhat mysterious to me, however. The narrative summary claims that two-thirds of Azeris fully trust the president, but a look at the actual data indicate that 19.7% fully trust him, with 61.5% saying they partially trust him.)

In other news, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, about whom I wrote recently on this blog, was arrested again last week and is reportedly being detained in police custody for one month (although at least one published report says two months).  The allegation was that he left the city of Ganja, where his home is and where he is being tried on charges of evasion of military service.  Hajiyev had been ordered to stay in Ganja pending the outcome of the trial, but he says that the real reason he is now being held is his continuing public campaign on facebook protesting his prosecution as well as his involvement in the upcoming “Great People’s Day.”  Hajiyev is one of seven organizers of the event and one of only two who currently reside in Azerbaijan.

Today, Amnesty International issued a strongly-worded statement calling on the authorities to “immediately end their crackdown on activists preparing for a 11 March protest inspired by recent events in the Middle East and North Africa.”

This followed the arrest of Dayanat Babayev, a Popular Front Party youth activist, on charges of cursing in public during a conversation on his mobile phone.  (Um, if you’ve ever stood on the corner of Fizuli Street and Rashid Behbudov waiting for a bus, you’ve heard many Azeris cursing on their mobile phones.)

Babayev says he was actually arrested at an internet café, and that his real crime is that he is one of the promoters of the 11 March event, which if true is an indication that the government is taking the “Great People’s Day” seriously.

Hajiyev is now on a hunger strike, and has released a letter detailing his allegations that he has been beaten, threatened with rape, and other indignities while in police custody.  The on-line English version has been transcribed from the original hand-written letter and can be found here on facebook.  Hajiyev “names names” as we say in America, and asks that US ambassador Matt Bryza travel to Ganja to see him. The letter is disturbing, not just because of the allegations of police brutality, but due to Hajiyev’s veiled threat to commit suicide.

I’m waiting for word from the Azerbaijan Justice Ministry on why they are prosecuting Hajiyev in particular, and not the thousands of other Azeris who are said to evade the draft every year.  Hajiyev says he wasn’t actually evading the draft due to his planned graduate studies in Tbilisi, and I will post a follow-up if and when I hear from the Ministry.

As the facebook war heats up, the Azerbaijani web site, perceived to be pro-government, has posted a page identifying prominent Azeris who have Armenian facebook friends.  The Azeris are all (or almost all) liberal journalists, academics, political activists or other intelligentsia, and include names such as Orkhan Nabiyev, of the Dalga (“Wave”) youth movement, journalist Khadija Ismayilova, political analyst Rasim Musabeyov, among others.  (Hey Khadija, at least they referred to you as “famous.”)

It’s not much of a deductive leap to conclude that the point of the article was to make life miserable for these people.

Some of the comments have been particularly vicious, such as one reader who is said to have ranted that “these people should be killed, they should be hanged in the center of the city.” Although the rancorous comments were somewhat balanced by readers who said things like, “may god protect us from ‘patriots’ like you. [J]ust try to do what Adnan Hajizada has done for this country, then maybe you can discuss the armenians on his friends list. [Y]ou are not doing anything for your country with this “patriotism”.

And no, I have no idea if Armenian President Serge Sargsyan is one of President Ilham Aliyev’s facebook friends; they reportedly have a very cordial relationship.  (Maybe the nice guys at can look into this…)

Azerbaijan's March 11 "Great People's Day" approaching

Facebook friends?

For more, go to Onnik Krikorian’s blog here.

All this drama—and it’s far from clear just how dramatic the 11 March event will be—comes amidst the Azerbaijani government’s new anti-corruption drive.  While many opposition supporters claim the campaign is merely a superficial effort to blunt comparisons between despotic Middle Eastern regimes and the Aliyev government, the authorities do appear to be arresting at least some mid-level apparatchiks.  Scott Rosenblum writes in a recent piece for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute that the government efforts should be taken seriously.

Stay tuned for news on how the “Great People’s Day” turns out as well as a post on what’s happening in Armenia…



Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.