AZERBAIJAN: Egypt-inspired protests spread to Caucasus, raising tensions
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Opposition groups in Azerbaijan are calling for the release of a 20-year-old political activist who was arrested last week after posting a message on his Facebook page calling for Egypt-style protests in Baku’s central square.
Although Azerbaijani officials denied the arrest was politically motivated, the situation highlights growing tensions between opposition groups and the government following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Two days after the Egyptian protests began on Jan. 25, the government appeared to launch a preemptive strike against an similar uprising in Azerbaijan.
The government’s anti-corruption commission, which is overseen by presidential Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehiyev, convened Jan. 27 for the first time since 2009. In the following weeks, several government officials have made announcements promising far-reaching anti-corruption measures within government ministries. According to the newspaper Yeni Musavat. 18-year president Ilham Aliyev is also considering reshuffling his Cabinet and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Artur Rasizade.
At the end of January, government employees received orders to ‘avoid irritating the population and to work effectively and build public trust,” according to the news website EurasiaNet.
Like in Tunisia and Egypt, government corruption, nepotism and heavy-handed limitations on freedoms of speech are widely regarded as the primary sources of public discontent in Azerbaijan, said Rashadat Akundov, a political activist in Baku. Azerbaijan came in 134th out of 178 countries in an index of citizen perceptions of corruption, compiled by Transparency International in 2010. ‘The regime’s promised [anti-corruption] measures are a show. Frankly, we’ve seen how this regime treats its people, and we don’t believe they will have real effects,’ Akundov said. He said the lack of public protest in Azerbaijan in the last several weeks is not an indication of complacency, but of people’s fear of government crackdowns. ‘That will change. I believe there will be protests in the near future.’
On Feb. 7, a small group of young activists gathered in solidarity with Egyptian protesters around a statue of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a park in Khirdalan, a suburb of Baku. The protesters held signs reading, ‘Be off Hosni Mubarak’ and ‘Dictator Exit.’ The police disbanded the gathering after a few minutes.
A week earlier, a group of about 100 opposition leaders and human rights activists gathered in a central square in Baku calling for new parliamentary elections, threatening popular protests if the government did not comply.
Jabbar Savalanly, the young political activist who was arrested Feb. 5, has been stridently critical of the government in online forums and is a member of the opposition group Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan. He called for a ‘day of rage’ -– a term borrowed from protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen -– on a posting on his Facebook wall. He was arrested on drug charges.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azeri-language service, Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson Orkhan Mansurzade said the arrest was not politically motivated. ‘The person has admitted that he possessed drugs. Nobody cared about his political affiliation,’ he said.
Opposition leaders and youth activists say the drugs were planted on Savalanly, citing two other cases in which political activists have been arrested on alleged drug charges.
Freedom of speech in Azerbaijan has come under international scrutiny in recent years after two young bloggers, dubbed ‘the donkey bloggers,’ were jailed for 18 months after posting a satirical video online in which one of them wore a donkey suit and poked fun at government corruption.
-- Haley Sweetland Edwards in Tblisi, Georgia