Azerbaijan: Is Guba Protest Response a Harbinger of a Political Shift in Baku?

Police clash with protestors in Guba, Azerbaijan, on March 1. (Screenshot: Baku 24 TV via YouTube)

For the first time since President Ilham Aliyev assumed the presidency in Azerbaijan in 2003, popular pressure, specifically the recent protest in the northern city of Guba, has caused officials in Baku to blink. The question now is whether the government’s efforts to quickly redress citizens’ complaints was an exception, or a new rule.

The outburst in Guba on March 1 prompted central government officials to sack the regional governor, Rauf Habibov, who apparently provoked the unrest by making insulting remarks about local residents.

For now, officials in Baku are rigidly silent about the clashes between police and protesters and the dismissal of Habibov, who was a presidential appointee. The dismissal was itself a precedent-setting development. Also surprising, political observers say, is that officials seem cautious about punishing suspected organizers of the unauthorized demonstration, or cracking down on local government critics. In other recent mass protests, such as a Baku rally in April 2011, authorities acted quickly and emphatically against those seen as the chief troublemakers.

In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, Guba parliamentarian Vahid Ahmadov, a non-aligned politician who played a key role in convincing demonstrators to disperse, emphasized that President Aliyev “gave a clear order that weapons should not be used against protesters.” Ahmadov also stressed that the president, during the clashes, stayed in constant phone contact with Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov, who was widely seen as Habibov’s political patron.

Guba itself remains calm, although the city is still being patrolled by Interior Ministry troops, one resident told EurasiaNet.org. All water cannons and armored vehicles were withdrawn over the weekend, the local resident added.

Law enforcement agencies have launched a criminal investigation into the reasons for the disturbance, with a large number of prosecutors and investigators currently at work in Guba. Some Baku-based opposition newspapers reported that local police detained about 25 Guba residents in connection with the riot, but a spokesman for the General Prosecutor’s Office, Eldar Sultanov, declined to comment about the reports, saying only that “the public will be informed further about the course of the investigation.”

One local civil society activist told EurasiaNet.org that investigators are checking local Internet cafes in an apparent attempt to determine who posted the video on YouTube in which Habibov makes the controversial comments that incited the protest. They are also reportedly trying to find out who posted comments on social networks calling for residents to take to the streets. The activist could not confirm reports of arrests being made.

Local government representatives have confirmed that all those detained the day of the protest have been released. Habibov’s first deputy, Sahib Mammadov, is serving as the acting head of government until President Aliyev appoints a new governor. A timeline for that appointment has not been given, but Ahmadov emphasized that any new appointee “should be a person able to work and to talk with local residents.”

During a March 2 conference in Baku, the head of the presidential administration, Ramiz Mehdiyev, and another top Aliyev aide, Ali Hasanov, refused to answer journalists’ questions about the Guba events. The two can often be outspoken when it comes to commenting on domestic developments.

One former presidential-aide-turned-opposition-activist, Eldar Namazov, believes that Guba may be a sign of changing times, saying that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, Azerbaijani officials are more attuned to public opinion. Other opposition members have asserted the same.

“The opposition, civil society activists and experts during recent years have continuously expressed concerns about the existence of serious social, economic and political problems in Azerbaijan and have called on the authorities to start a dialogue with civil society [groups and activists],” Namazov said.

If such unrest could happen in Guba, one of the country’s richer regions, it “could happen again, anywhere,” he continued. "There are much poorer regions with a lot of problems and discontent.”

Guba parliamentarian Ahmadov, indeed, noted that "[t]he problem [with Habibov] has been brewing for a long time.” Without getting into specifics, he said “it is not the first time when Habibov offended local residents and ignored the people of Guba.” The recent YouTube video, in which Habibov characterizes Guba residents as penny-pinching traitors, simply proved “the last straw,” he said.

In an apparent bid to prevent “last straws” from snapping elsewhere, Azerbaijani television stations on March 1 avoided broadcasting information about the disturbances in Guba, or showing Habibov’s offensive speech. Nonetheless, thanks to cell-phone videos posted online, many Baku residents quickly became aware of the situation in Guba, located some 180 kilometers to the north.

Political analyst Elkhan Shahinoglu, the head of Baku’s Atlas research center, believes that the government now finds itself confronted by a dilemma about how to respond to what he terms an unexpectedly serious message about the population’s level of discontent.

"The immediate fulfillment of the protesters' demands by the government could indeed be considered by some as a weakness. Unhappy people in other regions could consider that now they can protest freely and even burn houses, and the government would step back,” said Shahinoglu. “I do not know how the authorities will handle this difficult situation.”

The Aliyev administration could potentially pre-empt more trouble by removing other unpopular regional and central government officials, taking more efficient steps to curb corruption and reaching out to civil society organizations, Shainoglu said. “But I am not sure that the government has enough political will for it,” he said.

Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.

Azerbaijan: Is Guba Protest Response a Harbinger of a Political Shift in Baku?

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