Facebook-inspired protests in Azerbaijan are evolving into a game of cat-and-mouse designed to invigorate protesters while straining law-enforcement authorities by keeping them on a constant state of alert.
On March 14, police and plainclothes security personnel were out in force, blocking access to Baku State University in anticipation of trouble. In addition, university administrators kept classrooms locked and canceled afternoon classes. But a protest action -- called by users of web-based social networks and posted on a Facebook page, March 11 – Great People’s Day -- never materialized.
When queried about the reason for the strong security presence, a police officer said the road to the university had been blocked for repairs. Meanwhile, a university official who declined to identify himself, explained that a foreign-dignitary was visiting, requiring the extra security. After several hours passed with authorities on high-alert, nothing happened and the university gradually resumed its normal operations in the afternoon of March 14.
The fact that protesters did not converge on the university is not necessarily an indication that the Facebook protest movement is losing steam. Supporters hint that it reflects a deliberate strategy that aims at keeping authorities guessing.
Uzeyir Mammadli, activist of the Nida Citizen Movement, some of whose members were arrested March 11, the first day of protest, said he did not know who was responsible for spreading misleading announcements about the non-existent rally at Baku University. But he had praise for the announcement’s effect. “It exhausts police and get people used to the idea of protest actions. People start thinking about it as routine. The more, the better”, he said.
A central element of the Facebook-spread protest campaign to date has been a loose organizational structure that gives everyone involved plausible deniability about who is guiding the protests. No one who is openly sympathetic to the movement professes to know who is in charge, or what’s going to happen next. And some even contend the entire protest process has moved beyond anyone’s control.
Mejid Merjanli, a student in Istanbul, Turkey, and one of the listed organizers of the March 11 – Great People’s Day page on Facebook, said there’s no way to control what is posted on the page’s wall. “What we are doing is technical support – everyone is the owner of the page, we don’t even know the people who post announcements on the wall of the page,” Merjanli said.
“All we do, is try to make sure that the page is not being used for calls for violence, anti-constitutional and illegal actions” he added.
Well aware of the upheaval in North Africa, officials in Baku have taken a variety of measures designed to ease public discontent with the government. At the same time, law-enforcement personnel acted resolutely to disperse protests on March 11-12.
The current element of uncertainty seems likely to ensure that authorities in Baku devote considerable resources to crowd control measures, even if planned protests in the coming weeks fail to materialize, as was the case at Baku University.
The next two weeks could strain security services. Anonymous calls have already been made for a protest action to be held Marvch 18 in central Baku, near the sites of the British Embassy and the representative offices of the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. There is no way for authorities at this time to determine whether the calls are genuine, or represent another false alarm.
The Public Chamber, a grand coalition of non-partisan politicians, opposition political party representatives and non-governmental organization activists, has announced its intention to hold a rally on April 2. The planned demonstration has garnered widespread backing from Facebook protest supporters.
Ali Kerimli, the chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, and a prominent member of the Public Chamber, expressed hope for a large turnout for the April 2 rally, citing the recent explosion of Internet readership inside Azerbaijan. “There are more and more politicized citizens,” he said.
Kerimli also noted a change in recent police behavior during March’s protests, in comparison with security forces’ response to election-related protests in 2005.
“Unlike the 2005 rallies, police haven’t used batons much. ... It’s much better than before,” Kerimli said. He went on to attribute the change to the events in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa. “Police also watch TV and see what is going on in the world. Dictatorships fall, and police don’t want to be a subject of people’s hatred anymore.”
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.