Azerbaijan Clamped in a Vise

Inspired by the Arab Spring:
By Ruslan Kurbanov
IUMS Member — Russia

Opposition supporters scuffle with police during an anti-government protest in central Baku May 21, 2012. REUTERS
Baku might find itself in a scary vise between Sunni militants on the North, Shiite alliance on the South, and irreconcilable reality within.(Reuters)
Azerbaijan Clamped in a Vise

The possibility of the spread of the Arab Spring revolutionary wave onto post-Soviet countries worries a big number of experts with Azerbaijan potentially going first.

There were several stages of liberalization and democratization that the ex-Soviet republics passed through with expectations of being crowned by a final one inspired by the Arab Spring. First stage was the collapse of the USSR in 1991 that led to the independence of the ex-Soviet republics.

Second stage was represented in the wave of color revolutions in several post-Soviet countries — Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kcoyrgyzstan (2005) — during which opposition removed the old ex-Soviet leaders and assumed power. And now, by the estimates of some experts, a third stage of liberalization can come to some post-Soviet countries with the revolutionary wave from the Arab World. And the first country noted in the list of such countries is Azerbaijan.

Will the Arab revolutionary wave reach the post-Soviet space? It is a real question. Surely, the Arab World, Azerbaijan, and other post-Soviet Muslim countries of Central Asia are quiet different. All these countries live in very different political circumstances and under the influence of very different historical, cultural, and political traditions. But some trends in today Azerbaijani society force us to make conclusions about serious legitimacy problems facing the ruling regime.

Political Unrest

Last year, Azerbaijani capital Baku observed its largest demonstrations during the last five to six years. For example, last April, the new opposition coalition Civil Movement for Democracy (Public Chamber) gathered ten thousand people for an opposition meeting in Baku.

The members of that action demanded that authorities organize extraordinary parliamentary elections, free political prisoners, end corruption, and solve the problem of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan which was declared independent from Baku in 1991. They chanted slogans such as "Down with Aliev's regime!" and "Freedom to prisoners, prisons to embezzlers!"

The leader of the Opposition People's Front Party, Ali Kerimli, stated that the meeting "is the first meeting during last seven years officially allowed by authorities. During all these years the regime tried to stifle opposition but it failed despite of prohibition of meetings and murders of journalists". He promised that for the next meeting the opposition will gather 100 thousand people.

The fact that Azerbaijani society is able to suddenly burst forth out of grievance from the government bureaucratic policies became more than evident in last March. In Quba — one of the Lezgi districts on the North of Azerbaijan — local population marched in masses against alleged corruption conducted by a district official, which forced the Azerbaijani government to commit troops and additional police units.

During that unrest, more than ten thousand people crowded the streets of Quba. Sizeable part of demonstrators began storming the house of the district administrator and some other administration buildings. After a series of arsons and pogroms, police began to use teargas and arrest the leaders of protesting crowd. The demonstrators went away only after discharging the Quba district administrator and after releasing all arrested people.

Ethnic Minorities

Against this background, the criticism of Baku's policy toward ethnic and religious minorities is also becoming tougher. The fact is that together with predominant Turk-speaking Azerbaijani people this country is homeland to other native ethnic minorities — Persian-speaking Talyshs on the board with Iran and Dagestani people like Lezgi, Avar, Tsahur, and others in the Northern part of the country.

The critics of the Azerbaijani administration blame it for conducting purposeful policy to assimilate the ethnic minorities, prohibit using native languages in administrative offices, falsify the history of ethnic minorities, restrict them in their rights for establishing national organizations and media outlets, arresting and murdering national activists, and so on.

In June, a conference took place in Moscow about the protection of the rights of Lezgi and Avar people separated between Russia and Azerbaijan.  Just after the event the editor-in-chief of the newspaper "Tolyshi Sado" (Voice of Talysh) and the deputy head of the Talysh Cultural Centre, Hilal Mamedov, were  arrested in Azerbaijan. Recently new criminal charges of treason and inciting ethnic hatred were filed against Mamedov.

But a big number of human rights defenders, including Chair of the Russian "Civil Assistance" committee, Svetlana Gannushkina, say that criminal case against Mamedov has political background, that it has been fabricated, and that criminal proceedings against him should be stopped.

Sunni Community

Shiites represent about 60-65 percent of the Muslim population of Azerbaijan, while Sunnis stand for 35-40 percent.  However, Azerbaijani governmental bodies intentionally widen the influence of Shiism in the country. For example, by the words of Dagestani expert Ruslan Gereev Azerbaijani, authorities provide all kind of preferences to Shiite communities and organizations and restrict the activity of Sunni communities and organizations.

Several years ago Sunnis of Azerbaijan witnessed the closure of Sunni mosques in the country. Some experts named those events "a whole campaign of crackdown on Sunni mosques" in Azerbaijan. For example, one of the biggest mosques — Abu Bakr Masjid — labeled by officials and police as a "Wahhabi mosque" was closed in the summer of 2008.

In early 2009 Turkish mosque "Shahidlyar" was closed "for reconstruction," according to the officials. Next mosque was closed in Gyanja city. An attempt to close Ilahiyat Mosque was stopped after interference of Turkish Embassy. (Click here for the US Department of State 2011 religious freedom report on Azerbaijan)

On top of that, authorities repeatedly attempt to pressure on the gem of historical center of old Baku — Lezgi Mosque built in the twelfth century. Since year 2000, this mosque has been added to the list of UNESCO's world cultural heritage.

Along with this, police crackdown on Muslim activists is growing in the northern regions of Azerbaijan inhabited by Sunni Dagestani people (Lezgis, Avars, and Tsahurs). During the June Moscow conference on the rights of Lezgi and Avar people, experts talked a lot about the heavy presence of the military in the Sunni districts of Azerbaijan.

Dagestani expert Alikhan Amrahov writes about regular operations of Azerbaijani secret services in northern districts of the country inhabited by Sunnis and arrests of Sunni Muslims charged with keeping arm and planning terrorist attacks. According to his words, the most severe oppression is directed against Sunni communities with pro-Dagestani positions. They are blamed by Shiite leaders of official Muslim spiritual board in following "Wahhabi Islam," organizing underground radical groups, and preparing terrorist attacks against authorities.

External World

Some trends in today Azerbaijani society force us to make conclusions about serious legitimacy problems facing the ruling regime.

At the same time, Azerbaijan begins conducting more unfriendly policy toward its nearest neighbors of Russia and Iran. For example, recently, Baku raised high the renting price of the Russia Qabala Radar Station on the North of Azerbaijan from $7 million to $300 million annually. This decision was seen by Moscow as a sign for Baku's interest in stopping renting the radar station.

"Russian Defense Ministry is disappointed by non-constructive approach of Azerbaijan to the negotiations on prolongation of Qabala Station renting," a high ranked Russian officer told the media.  Along with this "disappointment," Moscow watches with great attention Azerbaijani policy toward ethnic minorities, especially Dagestani people.

As for Azerbaijani-Iranian relations, they are getting worse at an ever-increasing rate. The reasons behind that trend are numerous. Beginning from nervous reaction of Baku on Iran's attempts to widen its influence onto Azerbaijani Shiite community and ending by huge irritation of Tehran on the Azerbaijani-Israeli relations becoming closer.

Last year witnessed a series of loud scandals between Baku and Tehran. The Azerbaijani secret service uncovered a plot of "Iranian terrorists" against Azerbaijani high ranked officials. In addition, Azerbaijani National Assembly deputies asked to rename Azerbaijan to "Northern Azerbaijan," which reminds Tehran of Baku's old claims on a big part of Iranian territory known as Southern Azerbaijan.

The last straw that forced Tehran to recall its Ambassador, Mohammad Bahir Bahrami, from Baku was the incident where demonstrators in Baku protesting against "anti-Azerbaijani policy" of Iran insulted the supreme Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei.

Behind this background, experts draw the attention to the rapid growth in the Azerbaijani-Israeli relations on the threshold of possible attack on Iran. What is worth mentioning also is the 2009 WikiLeaks document where US Deputy Ambassador in Baku Donald Lu stated: "President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliev said that relations of his country with Israel resemble the iceberg — nine-tenths is hidden from eyes."


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All problems mentioned above rapidly increase the tensions within Azerbaijani society and radicalism among opposition, ethnic, and religious minorities; that is why some experts and politicians began to discuss about possible export of Arabic revolution to Azerbaijan.

Compared to their Arab counterparts, crowds in Azerbaijan are not Islamic opposition and their protests are not a wakening up of oppressed middle class by reason of rapid growing access to social networks, Facebook and Twitter. Rather, the post-Soviet Azerbaijan has a strong traditions of political opposition with strong public and political organizations. To understand the difference between situations in the Arab countries and Azerbaijan one should consider such as the huge remaining influence of the Soviet political heritage hanging over the Azerbaijani society and its high level of secularization.

That is why one cannot outright confirm the reproduction of the Arab spring scenarios in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan protest will probably imply gradual increasing of protest activity of the Azerbaijani opposition inspired by the success of the Arab revolutions. But as for more tectonic processes and irreversible consequences for Azerbaijan society one can talk only in the case of the collapse of the political regimes of neighbor countries.

A top concern that the Azerbaijani government should keep an eye on is the situation in Iran with 25 to 30 million Azeris, while the whole population of Azerbaijan including ethnic minorities is only about nine million people. Surely Iranian regime has a high degree of robustness. But in the light of public mood and increasing readiness to protest, activity within Shiite communities of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, and in the light of the growing influence of Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria some experts predict the appearance of a "Shiite Crescent" — Irani-oriented political alliance of Shiite political movements and parties.

A new serious situation will arise for officials in Baku in the occasion of the rapid religious revival of Azerbaijani society. Today Aliev's regime in Azerbaijan solves the problem of the growth of the Islamic activism by supporting Shiite expansion to Sunni regions of the country and by the expulsion of the active and radical Sunnis to neighbor Dagestan Republic of Russia.

In case the Sunni communities in Northern districts of Azerbaijan became militarized or the Northern Caucasian militant groups penetrated to the Azerbaijan territory then the ruling regime in Baku will find itself gripped in a scary vise between radical Sunni militants on the North, Shiite alliance on the South, and irreconcilable reality within the country.

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Dr. Ruslan Kurbanov, PhD in Political Science, is a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a senior research fellow of the Institute for Oriental Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences, and the director of Al-Tair Foundation.

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