It looks like popular discontent with the government is on the rise in Azerbaijan. One can even say the “Arab Spring” is in the air. The proof of this is the riots that broke out the other day in Ismayilli, north-western Azerbaijan. The demonstrators set alight the villa of this district’s administration head, a hotel, and three cars. According to one of the versions, what incurred the wrath of the protesters was the allegation that the hotel had turned into a “den of debauchery.” Local online publications report that a crowd gathered in front of the house of the Ismayilli district administration head. At least one ancillary structure was torched, and the house was stoned. The protestors demand resignation of Nizami Alekperov, the district administration head, who is the brother of Fizuli Alekperov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Labor and Social Security. According to minval.az, the district administration head and his family had managed to flee before the house was surrounded by the rioters.
Another version says that what may have sparked the riots was a road accident which involved the Hummer car that belongs to Vugar Alekperov, the son of the labor minister and a nephew of the district head. The Caucasian Knot news agency reports that the accident was followed by a scandal caused by insulting comments of the younger Alekperov about local residents. The indignant young people began to smash the hotel and torch cars. A Hummer and two Chevrolets reportedly burned down. Azerbaijan websites claim that the hotel belongs to the Alekperov family.
It will be recalled that similar riots broke out last March in Quba, a provincial town in central Azerbaijan, 170 km north of Baku. The riots were caused by outrage over the insulting comments of the district administration head, Rauf Habibov, who said that Quba residents had “sold their district and themselves.” The protesting crowd burned a local government guesthouse, set fire to Habibov’s house, and blocked fire engines from entering the scene. The authorities deployed riot police units that used tear gas to break up the protest. Local news agencies reported that there were clashes between the protestors and the security forces. The local administration head was a relative of Transport Minister Zia Mamedov, the central government’s commissioner for Quba.
The Day requested Leyla ALIYEVA, director of the Baku-based Center for National and International Studies, to comment on the Ismayilli riots and forecast the likely consequences of public discontent.
“A minor road mishap – a collision between the Hummer that belonged to the district administration head’s family and some other car – triggered the events that resemble very much what happened in Quba last year.
“A group of people torched the administration head’s villa and a hotel. People took to the streets and the authorities in turn moved in the security forces. I think we are going to see more and more events of this kind. These disturbances show that there are very many people in the country, who are dissatisfied with governmental policies and the concentration of very rich resources in the hands of the powers that be. The situation is especially difficult in the provinces. People are short of jobs and elementary social protection. The local authorities consider themselves warlords who wield unlimited power. I therefore think that now even a road accident can become a match that will kindle the flame of social protest. This morning the protests continued, with people marching down the main street of Ismayilli. Incidentally, there were very many young people among the protesters. This movement was on a so massive scale and the crowd was so large that the police chose not to intervene, although they usually do so.
“We can see the signs of protest electorate activation on the threshold of presidential elections this year.”
Does this perhaps resemble the beginning of an “Arab Spring” in your country?
“There is in fact a stricter control here in Azerbaijan. Do not forget that it is an oil-rich country. There is a little different dynamics here, which follows the overall dynamics of the situation in post-Soviet countries, when we have already had the first wave of revolutions. In what form things will be going here is a different question. But, in any case, I think the balance of forces will have changed by the time of the presidential elections [October 16, 2013. – Ed.].”
In whose favor?
“It is difficult to say now whether there will be any mass-scale movement, such as a revolution. The situation may, of course, result in some serious changes and resignations before the elections. This obviously illustrates an increasing trend in the situation. Which scenario is most likely is a question of later assessments.”
You said Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country. So the government may raise wages and benefits before the elections and thus buy the voters. Can this occur?
“I do not think so because the projected pay hikes are very small. It is only the ministry of the interior and other law-enforcement bodies that are entitled to a serious pay rise. It is being done to further encourage the law-enforcement bodies to break up demonstrations. But I do not think this will lower the scale of protests. The system itself is so corrupt that it is next to impossible to redistribute resources and essentially raise wages in such a short period of time.”
Is there a strong opposition in Azerbaijan, which can win the trust of voters?
“In reality, we do have some alternative forces. There has never been a problem with this. Of course, people do not trust all the political forces as much as they used to. But in the current situation, even not so alternative elements look more attractive than those in power. I do not think there is a problem here. The problem is elsewhere. In the conditions of strict control and the tough system the former communists have built for petrodollars, the oppositional revolutionary mechanisms are limited. So far, all these protests are of a sporadic and unorganized nature, and they are not interconnected. They can be rather compared to a chain reaction. Naturally, our alternative political parties find it difficult to work. But it will be very difficult to thwart an objective process if tension builds up. What is crystal clear is that it will be impossible to rig the upcoming elections as easily as before. I think the current nationwide trend will leave its imprint on the way power will be changed. It is so far difficult to say about the scenario of this year’s presidential elections. But, definitely, the authorities will find it hard to implement the scenario of the previous presidential elections.”