As street protests in Armenia dramatically toppled longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan this week, citizens in Azerbaijan – Armenia's neighbor and foe – have been watching intently, with the events widely discussed on social media and on the streets of Baku.
“Sargsyan is out – how can we not be following the situation in Yerevan?” asked Aida Alakbarova, 51, smiling, as she was walking in the garden of Baku's State Philharmonic Hall.
For those dissatisfied with the rule of their own longtime leader, President Ilham Aliyev – who was just elected to his fourth term in office – the events in Yerevan have occasioned jealousy. For others, concerned above all about the ongoing simmering war with Armenia, the change in power represents a chance for peace.
“Let the freedom of speech there be also here” in Baku, said 52-year-old Ali Taghizada, his gold teeth shining as he smiled.
Some particularly admired the casual style of Armenian protest leader Nikol Pashinyan and his distinctive T-shirt, baseball cap and backpack. “Our opposition looks like they are government officials wearing suits and ties everywhere,” said 21-year-old Aydin Mursalov.
Many Azerbaijanis said they admired Pashinyan's ability to rally Armenians together. “Our opposition leaders are holding authorized rallies and cannot even fill the square,” said 34-year-old Aydan Valiyeva. Walking in a hurry near Baku’s historic old town, she complained about the ubiquitous construction in preparation for a Formula 1 race over the weekend. “How can we revolt? We don’t have a leader.”
Tellingly, shortly after Sargsyan stepped down, Azerbaijan's parliament took up a bill that would strengthen already-harsh penalties against illegal assemblies.
Azerbaijan's beleaguered liberal activist community was left marveling at the change in Yerevan that has thus far eluded Azerbaijanis. Activist and former political prisoner Adnan Hajizada, referring ironically to a common belief in Azerbaijan that Armenia is merely a Russian puppet and thus unable to make its own decisions, wrote on Facebook: “Well, but it was a Russian outpost, and wasn't able to conduct an independent policy...”
Well-known investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova asked on her Facebook page: “Why is victory always on their side?” It occasioned a lively discussion, with one participant arguing that Azerbaijanis themselves are to blame, since Aliyev “is doing everything to harm us, but we are not speaking up.”
Even the fact that Sargsyan – before he ultimately stepped down – deigned to meet face-to-face with Pashinyan struck some Azerbaijanis. In the recent election campaign, Aliyev didn't even campaign for himself, instead sending out a deputy to engage in politics on his behalf.
“For more than 20 years we have not witnessed any tête-à-tête meeting between the ruling party and the opposition,” said another activist and former political prisoner, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, in an interview with Eurasianet.
Others, though, noted the important distinctions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Armenia had only a small opposition presence in parliament, Azerbaijan has none at all. Azerbaijan is far richer, and so its resources to crush dissent are much greater.
Arif Hajili, head of the opposition party Musavat, said that what happened in Armenia is unlikely to be repeated in Azerbaijan because of Baku's much greater power.
“The Azerbaijani government uses state resources against its opponents, and these resources are much higher than in Armenia,” Hajili told Eurasianet.
For those less inclined toward Azerbaijan’s opposition, a change of power suggested the possibility of compromise from Yerevan on Nagorno-Karabakh, the territory lost to Azerbaijan in a war in the early 1990s and now controlled by Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced from their homes, and Azerbaijanis are determined to regain their territory.
Many Azerbaijanis hold Sargsyan, who is from Karabakh and held senior leadership positions during the war, responsible for atrocities carried out by the Armenian side. Azerbaijani media regularly deride Sargsyan as leading the “Karabakh clan” in Yerevan.
As such, his departure was seen as potentially positive for Azerbaijani interests.
“Any change in Yerevan is positive. Perhaps there might be a chance to go for peace in Karabakh," 26-year-old Alim Hajiyev told Eurasianet.
This is in spite of Pashinyan's consistent adherence to the same hardline position on Nagorno-Karabakh that dominates Armenian political thinking. “Armenia’s geopolitical fundamentals [are] unlikely to change,” regional analyst Thomas de Waal wrote after Sargsyan's resignation. Pashinyan “has kept to public consensus on taking [a] tough line” on the disputed territory.
The Azerbaijani government, nevertheless, continues also to express hopes that a new leadership will be more amenable to compromise. “After the departure of the military regime of the dictatorship led by Serzh Sargsyan, we hope that sensible political forces will come to power in Armenia,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev.
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani journalist.