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Azerbaijan's New Wave

The traditional opposition in tatters, a fresh-faced force is emerging to challenge the Aliev regime. Does it stand a chance?

by Shahla Sultanova 25 February 2014

BAKU| As Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev begins his third term, a new, youth-led opposition is emerging to challenge his 11-year grip on power.

 

Groups like the OL! Azerbaijan Youth Movement, NIDA (Azeri for exclamation mark), Positive Change, and Free Youth are turning heads for a fresh approach to challenging Aliev – one more focused on education, activism, and online organizing than the ballot box. This new wave is a response to the struggles of the old-guard political opposition. It has been trounced in every election since Aliev succeeded his father in 2003 and suffered a major blow last month when Musavat, Azerbaijan's oldest political party, withdrew from the main opposition alliance, calling for "new methods and tactics.”

 

Members of the OL! Azerbaijan Youth Movement. Photo from the official Facebook page.

 

"People don’t trust the opposition as much as they did before," said Ulvi Hasanli, who founded Free Youth in 2011. "It's all because they had no significant successes in the last two decades."

 

The new wavers are optimistic that their civic-minded, tech-savvy brand of opposition can help build a grassroots movement. But critics say they're inexperienced, disorganized, and too focused on Facebook activism that has little chance of "liking" its way to real political change in one of Eastern Europe's most oppressive regimes.

 

POLITICAL ENDS, APOLITICAL MEANS

 

While on the scene for years in many cases, the new wave groups have been trending, so to speak, in Azerbaijani political circles since Musavat withdrew from the National Council of Democratic Forces (NSDS) last month. In a murky statement, Musavat said the NSDS could not challenge the regime and called for a new approach. It did not mention elections, but the move came shortly after Aliev took 85 percent of the vote in the October 2013 presidential polls.

 

Together with the Azerbaijan Popular Front, Musavat is one of the country's two main opposition factions. Its NSDS withdrawal jeopardizes the alliance's future and set social media abuzz with outrage that evolved into calls for the new wavers to take the lead. Some commenters suggested they might have a better chance against Aliev.

 

In contrast to the political old guard, the new opposition defines itself as a civic force. Most new wavers believe the regime can't be challenged at the ballot box because polls are manipulated and, in any case, Aliev has cracked down on dissent, attacking independent media, stamping out anti-government rallies, and making it nearly impossible for opposition parties to campaign effectively. In October's elections, the NSDS candidate won only 5 percent of the vote, and Aliev's New Azerbaijan Party dominated the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary polls.

 

As a result of these failures, the new wavers won't join Musavat or the Azerbaijan Popular Front despite sharing the mission of challenging Aliev. They say the old guard is rigid and gets attention only during elections, and that it is time for a new strategy aimed at building grassroots opposition.

 

Vugar Salamli
“The elections made us believe that civic activism is more important than political activism to achieve political success in Azerbaijan," said Vugar Salamli, who helped found OL! (Azeri for “Be”) in 2006. "Most people have little knowledge about the role of citizens in society.”

 

OL!'s biggest project to date is the Free Thought University (AFU), established with the help of Western donors in Baku in 2009. Before being shut down by the government last April, AFU organized interactive lectures and roundtable discussions on topics like human rights, democracy, and gender issues. In 2010, it became the first organization to receive the Ambassadorial Award for Freedom of Expression over the Internet from the U.S. mission to the OSCE.

 

Founded shortly after the 2010 elections, the Positive Change youth movement organizes leadership trainings and flash mobs that aim, for instance, to raise interest in newspaper reading under a regime that Reporters Without Borders calls a "predator of the press." NIDA, which just celebrated its third anniversary, produces short videos encouraging people to vote, as well as documentaries on human rights violations in Azerbaijan. And, of course, it and the other new wavers are active on Facebook and Twitter, criticizing alleged government corruption and rights abuses.

 

Though the new wavers have a political goal, most are apolitical in the narrow sense that they're not developing policy platforms or electoral candidates.

 

"We are not indifferent to politics," said OL!'s Salamli. “Actually, any action by a civic movement is kind of a reform proposal to the government. But we have no political ambitions. Our main goal is to do civic projects such as promoting democratic values.”

 

Nermin Rehimli of Positive Change said the group aim to train leaders who will be active in universities and at the local level. "But we have no plan to be in politics.”

 

In fact, Free Youth's Hasanli emphasized, the new opposition is an outlet for a growing number of people who want to stay out of mainstream politics in an authoritarian regime.

 

"Some people want to contribute to change in their country, but they do not want to have political affiliation for various reasons," he said. "In that sense, organizations like ours seem to be the best place for them.”

 

Members of NIDA being arrested in July 2013 in Baku. Image from a video by Obyektiv TV/YouTube.

 

Among the new wavers, the standout exception to the de facto "no politics" rule is Republican Alternative (ReAl), established in 2009 in protest to constitutional amendments that year allowing Aliev to seek a third term. But ReAl, which organizes primarily on social media, is also a cautionary tale. Its 2013 presidential candidate, longtime opposition figure Ilgar Mammadov, was arrested before the vote on what Amnesty International called "trumped up charges" of organizing January 2013 riots in the northern town of Ismayili, denied candidacy, and remains in jail while on trial.

 

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

 

It's difficult to gauge public support for the new wavers because reliable polling data are scarce in Azerbaijan. Before being shut down, AFU held roughly 200 lectures attended by more than 2,500 people, according to its website.

 

Regardless, many political observers say these groups have a ways to go before being able to take on Aliev.

 

“For all these actors to become a political opposition, I believe, a certain degree of organizational coherence is required," said Farid Guliev, a doctoral candidate at Jacobs University Bremen who has written several research papers on the Azerbaijani opposition. "The current arena is too dispersed and scattered with new figures and groups coming and going.”

 

Some of the new groups, Guliev said, play an important role in raising political awareness in a society that lacks strong democratic traditions. But he said it takes more than Facebook activism and social networking to force change in Aliev's Azerbaijan.

 

“The new opposition groups are stronger within social media networks that are often limited to circles of close friends and followers," Guliev said. "They need to develop stronger links with society at large. Their ability to organize protest in the streets, and not online, is very limited. If they turn from online exchanges to real action, they will face repressive measures, including jail."

 

To this criticism, ReAl member Natig Jafarli said they organize online because there's no other outlet given Baku's iron grip: "Social media is the only resource left to us." He added that ReAl holds small regional political meetings and that the arrest of Mammadov, who says he traveled to Ismayili after the riots began to quell the tension, shows that ReAl transcends Facebook activism.

 

"He would not be arrested only for his activity on social media," Jafarli said.

 

Other new wavers have faced persecution for their "real world" activism. Last spring, seven NIDA members were arrested on charges including illegal weapons and drug possession. But the arrests came either right before or shortly after a peaceful protest in Baku last March, and Human Rights Watch said they aimed "to intimidate other young activists critical of the government." All seven remain in jail while on trial.

 

But while these arrests suggest that the new wave has an on-the-ground presence, they also speak to Guliev's point that Baku is prepared to fight back. And Arastun Orujlu, a political analyst who heads Baku's East-West Research Center, said the new wave is, ultimately, just as weak as the old guard.

 

"The significance of any political group is measured by its social base," he said. "No matter traditional or new, today no opposition force has a strong social base.”

 

Ali Kerimli, leader of the Azerbaijan Popular Front, said the new wave should focus on building a base.

 

"I support all the groups in the new opposition, and I am always ready to,” he said. “They have a special place in the future of Azerbaijan. However, I believe they are not strong enough to fight the Aliev government. Those groups are at the formation stage now. They should focus on networking and building their social base. That should be their priority.

 

"They should also keep in mind that when regimes are in transition from authoritarianism to democracy, opposition forces must be unified. They should always consider joining the opposition coalition. It is impossible to challenge the regime alone."

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Baku.

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