In Azerbaijan, a tragedy is threatening to turn into a public relations problem for President Ilham Aliyev's administration. Young Azerbaijanis have started to voice displeasure over the government's refusal to declare a public mourning period for the victims of the recent mass murder at Baku's State Oil Academy.
Following the April 30 shootings, students and opposition groups called on the government to declare an official day of mourning and cancel May 10 celebrations commemorating the late President Heydar Aliyev, father of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. [For additional details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The government instead went ahead with its multi-million-dollar commemoration of the deceased Aliyev's 86th birthday, known as Flower Day.
Some young people in Baku organized a public protest on May 10 against the government's action. Turnout was slim, however, dampened by sparse television coverage and, reportedly, by fear of government retaliation. But among many young Azerbaijanis, anger is lingering. "[Heydar Aliyev] died in 2003. Thirteen kids died 10 days [before Flower Day] -- what is the logic?" asked Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani political blogger who participated in the protest.
The government has not explained why it made the choices it did. A presidential administration spokesperson contacted by EurasiaNet declined to comment about the decision.
One protest participant sees a simple reason behind the government's refusal not to declare a day of national mourning. "The reason is . . . fear. A primitive fear to admit a mistake," the young woman said, speaking in English. "It's very specific to Azerbaijani society. We hate admitting our mistakes, so the neighbor doesn't think we're weak."
Some youth are also frustrated by the lack of information about the investigation. "They want us to forget about [the attack] as soon as possible," the protest participant told EurasiaNet. Echoing the students' demand for more information, ARTICLE 19, a London-based advocacy group for freedom of expression issues, called on Azerbaijan to disclose its investigation findings. "The Azerbaijani public has the right to know what happened and who was responsible for this unprecedented massacre," it said in a statement distributed on May 15.
The same day, the General Prosecutor's Office and the Interior Ministry released a statement that included incriminating text messages allegedly sent by Farda Gadirov, the suspected State Oil Academy shooter who reportedly took his life at the scene. In one message, Gadirov expressed a desire to "experience pleasure in killing," according to a transcript distributed by the APA news agency. The government agencies were not forthcoming with details about the course of the investigation, however.
It remains unclear whether protestors' spark of anger will translate into a political problem for the government.
While university-aged students are upset, the general population, including many Baku residents, does not appear to be overly dissatisfied with the government's response to the tragedy. "I don't think [the frustration] cuts across all layers of society," said Geybullayeva, the blogger. On Flower Day "there were many students as well as families with children who were not disturbed as much as we were," she observed.
Fariz Abbaszade, a student at Baku's Qafqaz University who opted not to protest, explained his decision this way: "One event made people sad. [Another] should make them happy [and, for this reason,] Flower Day should be celebrated." Outside Baku, where state-run TV channels are the main source of information, many Azerbaijanis were unaware of the mourning day controversy.
About 50 youth were detained during the May 10 protests, although all were released within several hours. State-run media gave very little attention to the demonstrations and student arrests. "These protests did not receive coverage on any TV or radio, except on ANS, which allocated 27 seconds on the 6pm news," stated Emin Huseynov, chairman of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters' Safety and Freedom.
Such media outlets "would never show such a thing, especially during the flower holiday because they serve the government," he continued. "They seek to convince people that there is no discontent in society."
Some observers believe the protests and dissatisfaction among young Azerbaijanis will continue to play a role in domestic politics. "It is a card that those young people eager for political change can bring up time after time as an illustration for the government's immoral management," commented Bart Woord, secretary general of the London-based International Federation of Liberal Youth, which works on youth human rights issues.
One protester, who asked not to be identified, agrees. "The shooting at the Oil Academy . . . awakened many people," she said. "The incident and the [subsequent] events clearly showed us the totalitarian principles our government holds to."
Authorities seem acutely aware of the potential for the school shooting and its aftermath to be turned into a political issue. In releasing some details on Gadirov's frame of mind in the days leading up to the tragedy, the Interior Ministry and General Prosecutor's Office on May 15 also cautioned opposition groups against using the April 30 tragedy to try to score propaganda points. "[A]ttempts directed at the violation of public-order will be prevented and special measures will be taken against the organizers and participants of these actions," the government agencies said in a statement.