At least four people have been arrested in Azerbaijan following a rally held in the capital to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
The authorities appear to have been caught off guard by the public enthusiasm for the rally, which was organized by several opposition and independent figures but was designed to be an apolitical celebration of the Republic, which was founded on May 28, 1918, and is revered by many in Azerbaijan for its liberal, democratic legacy.
Police first blocked the way to the meeting point, an obelisk in the center of the city honoring the Republic. After placing flowers at the monument, protesters began a march through Baku’s city center, but police demanded that the participants march only in small groups.
As they marched, crowds joined them and the movement slowly grew to several thousand. Protesters chanted in honor of the republic's leader, Mammad Amin Rasulzade, saying “We are Rasulzade’s grandchildren.”
“There were no slogans, no protest speeches,” Khadija Ismayilova, one of the event’s organizers, told Eurasianet. But police appeared to get “upset” that people were holding photos of Rasulzade, she said.
“Police were totally confused, they didn’t know how to act. They were not ready for any of this,” she added.
Overall, however, attendees said the atmosphere was peaceful and celebratory, with many families and children there
Ramifications came the next day, however.
One of the protest’s co-organizers, Azer Qasimli, was arrested and taken to the Yasamal District Police station.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijan service, Qasimli lawyer's said the activist was accused of offending police officers: “At the trial, he was blamed for not obeying the police. According to the police’s claim, he was swearing on the street.” He was sentenced to 30 days in prison.
Qasimli – a member of the opposition ReAL party – denied the charges and said the arrest was connected to his role in the Republic rally.
“Isn’t this a perfect way to mark day one, after celebrating 100 years of Azerbaijan’s First Democratic Republic,” tweeted Arzu Geybullayeva, an activist and journalist.
The following day, three more ReAL members were arrested: Elmin Hamza, Nariman Mujahid, and Arastun Bakhshaliyev. Seven other ReAL members were summoned to police for questioning, according to one senior party official, Natig Jafarli.
Azerbaijan’s opposition party Musavat also held a rally commemorating the first republic. This one was more overtly political, but it was not in the center of the city and so less sensitive. “In this country neither the poor, the rich, ordinary citizens, not officials feel happy,” said the head of the party, Arif Hajili, speaking at the event. He also criticized the recent arrests of several members of another opposition group, the Popular Front Party. That rally did not result in any arrests, however.
The legacy of the Republic is a fraught one in Azerbaijan. The government likes to claim the mantle of being the first Muslim state in the world to let women vote, but is uncomfortable with opposition and liberal Azerbaijanis' veneration for the Republic and in particular for Rasulzade.
And while the government held its own events marking the centennial, it appeared to want to keep the celebration to itself.
“It reminds me of Orwell’s Ministry of Happiness – you’re allowed to be happy when we tell you and for the reasons we tell you,” Ismayilova said. “You cannot be happy for your own reasons.”
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus. With additional reporting by Joshua Kucera.