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Azerbaijan: Great People's Day marked by small turnout, arrests

Azerbaijan: Great People's Day marked by small turnout, arrests

Arrest during 11 March protest, Baku (Reuters/RFE)

The Great People’s Day, conceived by a handful of Azerbaijani opposition figures as a country-wide day of symbolic protests and local rallies, was held as scheduled on 11 March, and was for the most part a non-event.  Arrests took place as soon as protesters assembled in various locations, although reportedly one group managed to march from the McDonald’s in downtown Baku to the “National Bank” (probably the Milli Bank), roughly a kilometer away. Azerbaijani authorities say they arrested ten people in one district, and opposition figures say that “dozens” were arrested in toto.

Reports have been streaming in since last night of beatings by police, arrests, and random searches at Baku metro stations, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other sources.

Evidently, the government strategy was two-fold:

1) to characterize the 11 March event as a futile attempt to fuel political anarchy by a small, misguided group of foreign-based Azeris and Armenians, and

2) to quickly arrest protesters as they gathered in small groups before the gatherings could mushroom into large rallies.

Go here for footage of one such police operation today.

It would seem, on the whole, that the Great People’s Day didn’t amount to much, but one of the organizers has a different take.  Isa Yusifly, an Azeri political refugee who currently resides in Amsterdam, said that 11 March was, on the whole, a success:

This event today can be considered as the shift of youth from Facebook to real world. This was the first step of the chain, although organized and developed in a short time. But it is obvious that this event will serve as a beginning of well-organized, wide youth movement which will contribute to bringing down the tyrannical Aliyev regime in order to build a new, democratic society, based on universal, liberal values.

We shall see how “organized and developed” further efforts are.

Various press reports have described the arrests prior to the 11th as a “crackdown,” and while I think the term is overblown when only four (or six, depending on how you count) opposition activists are arrested, the authorities were clearly nervous about any planned protest actions in the wake of the turmoil in the Middle East.

So, apart from implementing a number of reforms to curb corruption (including a new corruption hot line), the government began a PR campaign to discredit the Great People’s Day, emphasizing that it had little support and was tainted by a deluded leadership and Armenian influence.

According to news site contact.az, Baku State University had beefed up security in preparation for 11 March.  Quoting the Turan news agency, the piece says that “a source…has told Turan the University is being guarded strictly, and the students have been required to come to their classes on March 11. Those who are absent will have to produce a reference explaining their absence. Those who are exposed as the rally’s participants will be expelled from the University.”

Now, I haven’t been able to confirm all of that, but the interview here with Baku State University rector Abel Maherremov seems to support at least some of what appeared at contact.az and Turan.  The interview is from ANS TV, and is absolutely priceless for the conspiracy theory put forth by Mr. Maherremov, who tells reporters that “Armenians” are behind the 11 March protests.

The “Amenian connection” was apparently an agreed-upon talking point, since Yeni Azerbaijan Party Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanli was quoted in a piece on APA alleging that many Armenians had signed up on the 11 March facebook page, some posing as Azeris.  However, he also took the opportunity to blame the brouhaha over today’s event on Popular Front chairman Ali Kerimli and Isa Gambar, whose Musavat Party is planning a demonstration for 12 March.

Finally, a report was circulating yesterday that the Azerbaijani government has informed the Baku office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) that they will have to shut down operations.  However, a press release today by NDI contradicts this.  The text appears in its entirety below:

NDI HAS NOT BEEN ASKED TO CLOSE IN AZERBAIJAN

WASHINGTON, DC — Contrary to some recent press reports, the National Democratic Institute has not been asked to close its Baku office.  On Monday, March 7, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Justice gave NDI a letter referencing the laws on state registration of legal entities and on nongovernmental organizations.  NDI is looking into this issue in consultation with the U.S. Embassy and representatives of the government of Azerbaijan and hopes for a prompt resolution.  NDI is grateful for the statements of support it has received.

 

Author

Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/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.

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