One day in early November, Ahmad Rahmanov went to the headquarters of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Health with a sign reading “Mandatory Vaccination is Fascism.” It didn’t take long before police arrived in three cars to bundle Rahmanov off to the station.
For more than two months, Rahmanov had been waging a lonely battle against the country’s COVID restrictions. He sent requests for information to various state agencies, both electronically and by mail, pressing them on questions he felt were unanswered: What is in the vaccines Azerbaijan is giving its citizens? Who bears responsibility if someone dies getting vaccinated, and what is the legal basis for denying services to unvaccinated people?
In July, Azerbaijan introduced the most comprehensive restrictions in the region, instituting a COVID passport system for most indoor public places, restricting access to people who had either been vaccinated or recovered from the disease. Baku also required about 80 percent of public-sector and many private-sector employees to be vaccinated, as well as students over age 18.
The restrictions have had the desired effect: Today, about 45 percent of Azerbaijanis are fully vaccinated, according to official data. That compares to 25 percent in neighboring Georgia and 15 percent in Armenia. As of December 1, Azerbaijan was averaging 162 new cases of the disease per 1 million people per day; in Armenia the figure was 175 and in Georgia, 950.
Rahmanov said that the government agencies he surveyed were unresponsive, so he escalated his fight: On November 5, he showed up in front of the Health Ministry and demanded an official response. After a long exchange with guards, a ministry official met him at the entrance and handed him a short letter.
“It didn’t have a stamp or a signature – no sign that it was official, like they had just written it and printed it out in a hurry,” Rahmanov told Eurasianet. “And it only stated that ‘the ministry is following the regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers’.”
Incensed, he left to quickly make his sign. When he returned, he was detained.
He said he was interrogated extensively in the police station: about his demands, his job as a social worker, his political affiliation (he is a member of the small Azerbaijan Communist Party), and particularly about his views on vaccines.
Eventually he was let go, and he said the police ridiculed him. “No one has a problem with vaccines, why should you?” he recalls them telling him.
Indeed, voices like Rahmanov’s are rare in Azerbaijan, where the anti-vaccine movement is tiny.
It is difficult to quantify; unlike neighboring Georgia, Armenia, or Russia there have been no surveys measuring anti-vaccine sentiment. But unlike in those countries, Azerbaijan has yet to see a significant, organized anti-vaccine campaign, and few public figures have expressed vaccine-skeptical views.
“We are very happy to see that our population is very responsible. Vaccination is not forceful. We do not have any anti-vaccination campaigns or even any anti-vaccination trends,” President Ilham Aliyev boasted during a November 4 speech.
That is not strictly true; some public figures are anti-vaxxers. The chairman of the semi-opposition ReAl party and former political prisoner Ilgar Mammadov, for one, has become a vocal vaccine skeptic.
“According to the government, 95 percent of Azerbaijanis of the age 18+ have been vaccinated,” Mammadov wrote on Twitter in early November. “Then why do we need the digital imprisonment tool called QR code (vax passport)? We ‘need’ it because mass vax is a political control measure, not a public health measure.”
Another opposition party leader, Ali Aliyev of the Citizen and Development Party, was summoned to the General Prosecutor’s Office in September and questioned about recent public statements he had made, including expressions of vaccine skepticism. He has called vaccination “a game” and the COVID passport restrictions “a crime.”
The prosecutor’s office told local news outlet Meydan TV that Aliyev (no relation to the president) was “casting doubt on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic” and that he was warned with “more serious measures in case he continues to carry out illegal behavior.”
But they are the exceptions. Government officials and members of President Aliyev’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party have all supported the government’s COVID restrictions, and most significant opposition parties have supported the vaccine-related requirements.
In August, the most influential opposition figure in Azerbaijan, Ali Karimli of the Popular Front Party, announced that he had gotten two doses of vaccine and called on others to get the jab, too.
“We all have heard countless lies from the government, but what does it have to do with vaccines?” he wrote on Facebook, adding: “After all these human losses I can’t believe that there are still those who dismiss the virus.”
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.