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Azerbaijan: Networking Its Way to Political Change?

With eight months to go before Azerbaijan holds a presidential election, a series of recent initiatives suggests citizens are becoming more politically active, and Facebook, along with other social networking platforms, is shaping up as a campaign wild card.

President Ilham Aliyev is expected to be nominated in the coming weeks as the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party’s candidate. Opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar and jailed Republican Alternative movement leader Ilgar Mammadov are among his potential challengers.

But while the general picture may look familiar – the powerful Aliyev up against various less-powerful opposition politicians – one fundamental difference from 2008 vote exists, analysts note.

“Five years ago, it was enough [for the government] to control TV,” commented political analyst Elkhan Shahinoglu, head of the Baku-based research center Atlas. “Now, doing that does not work, while the Internet, social networks have turned into a strong political factor.”

The Internet’s influence was most recently illustrated by a Facebook campaign that led to an unsanctioned rally in Baku in January against police treatment of protesters in the regional town of Ismayilli, and by a similar initiative to pay the fines of those demonstrators arrested. The social network also has been used as an information distribution vehicle about other protests and about a high-profile bribery scandal involving incumbent President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party.

The mobilization of young Azerbaijanis via social networks “is obvious now,” commented 31-year-old youth activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. “We saw it at the January 12 protest in Baku,” he added. “I saw … many new faces, not only opposition activists.”

A “Let’s Collect Five Qapik” campaign, organized via Facebook, Twitter and Internet forums, raised 12,500 manats ($15,930) from “more than 7,000 people” over two weeks to pay fines for those arrested during the Baku demonstration, Hajiyev said.

“Such numbers show that the social networks have already turned into a more important source of receiving information and for political debates in Azerbaijan than print media, which has a much smaller audience,” commented the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety Director Emin Huseynov. “And it [social media] will continue to grow.”

With over 1 million users, Azerbaijan easily has the highest number of Facebook users in the South Caucasus; some 142,000 have joined in the last six months, according to social-media monitor SocialBakers.com.

Activists are tapping into that dynamic’s fundraising potential. Hajiyev’s Facebook sale of personal photos has gotten has gotten him nearly halfway toward paying his own 600-manat ($764.62) fine.

Fellow activist Emin Milli, who spent 15 days in prison for the Baku protest, and others plan to expand the sale campaign to raise money to help finance a government-critical satellite TV station, Azerbaijan Saati (Azerbaijan Hour).

The initiative, Milli asserted, will show Azerbaijani society and politicians that “it is possible to unite for the sake of democracy.”

So far, the government has not taken any actions to restrict the use of Facebook for such purposes, but some recent comments by government officials are cause for concern, Huseynov said.

Speaking at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s February 13-16 conference on Internet freedom, one Azerbaijani participant asserted that social networks are sometimes used to “destabilize [the] situation and public order and organization of unauthorized rallies and demonstration.” She added that the state has a right to restrict freedom of expression in the interests of national security.

The comment fits into a recent pattern from senior Azerbaijani officials. On February 16, Ali Hasanov, an influential presidential advisor, claimed that unnamed “forces” both outside and inside Azerbaijan are envious of the country’s “dynamic progress,” and “want to harm Azerbaijan.”

They “use our own writers, NGOs, journalists and political parties for it,” Hasanov argued. The broad allegation was applied most recently to Azerbaijani novelist Akram Aylisli for his depiction of relations between ethnic Armenians and Azeris.

Suspicion of non-governmental organizations has also stepped up a notch. On February 15, regulations were approved that impose tough penalties [ranging from 5,000 manats ($6,371.86) to 15,000 manats ($19,115.60) and the loss of property] on non-governmental organizations and religious organizations for non-compliance with requirements about reporting grants and donations.

Shahinoglu believes such measures are intended to make Aliyev’s administration look strong following the protests in Baku and Ismayilli.

In a similar vein, the president also is taking action to discourage ostentatious displays of wealth on the part of officials. “Some officials organize pompous receptions, weddings and birthday parties,” he told the cabinet on February 12. “It should be stopped.” By way of contrast, Aliyev pointed to his own 50th-birthday trip in 2011 to an Internally Displaced Persons camp as a more becoming celebration – a remark that prompted sniggering both on Facebook and off.

Aside from opulent bashes, the misbehaving relatives of government officials – an apparent reference to the Ismayilli riots, reportedly fueled by anger against Vugar Alakbarov, the son of Labor Minister Fizuli Alakbarov – have also become an Aliyev target. “If I learn about such a case again, the person will be immediately arrested and his father fired from his post,” Aliyev said.

In the wake of the Ismayilli unrest, the president sacked Vulgar Alakbarov’s uncle, that region’s governor, and, for unclear reasons, another governor. But beyond these measures no steps have been taken to curb the potential for abuses of power.

Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.

Azerbaijan: Networking Its Way to Political Change?

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