Azerbaijan: following the protests
– There are about 10,000 people, aren’t there?’ asked a young man in the crowd.
– Not really, there are at least 15,000,’ another one answered. The people livened up.
– Anyway, they are as few as two years ago. As if there is no crisis yet and people still have dollars.’
At this very moment, Gultekin Hajiyeva, ex-MP, is telling the rally participants from the rostrum that Georgia has managed it and that we should succeed in that too.
This is a sanctioned rally of the opposition (the National Council of the Democratic Forces (NCDF), held at Mahsul stadium, well away from the city center. The stadium is fenced off and there is only one entrance. There is a police security check at the entrance. The procedure is the same as two years ago.
Not only the rally venue, but also its ‘content’ remains unchanged from year to year: the same slogans, the same appeals to pro-western Georgia’s successes. Same old thing.
Arkam, an elderly from Buzovna settlement, Baku outskirts, attends each and every rally. They, the elderly, sit at the same places, to the left of the bleachers, as three years ago.
“I think, if we come here more often, we could make this protest popular, says Akram. “Therefore, we shouldn’t stop. We should keep setting an example to people and then there will be more of us here and that will change the whole country.
Three such rallies were held ahead of the referendum, which, as opposition claims, will endow the president with absolute monarchical powers. The rally on September 11 passed without any adventures. 30 people were detained after the rally on September 17. Some of the detainees were released, others were not. As a result, more than 10 people are still in detention. “They want to hush us up, but nothing will come of it, there will be more of us, says the young man with Azerbaijani flag.
But there is also another opinion. “It’s not a struggle against regime, but rather its imitation, one of the bloggers wrote on his Facebook page. His publication stirred up heated debates. The issue of usefulness and effectiveness of the protest rallies has become particularly topical after a new wave of arrests following the rally on September 17
“What’s the point of holding rallies if the authorities haven’t heard us, but instead have arrested those young people, wrote Aytaj. “People are suffering for nothing.
“I can’t understand those, who do nothing, who just sit at home leg-crossed and inappropriately criticize the protesters, wrote Zulfiya.
Indeed, many are still optimistic about the methods of struggle and their effectiveness and call for active participation. Meanwhile, some people say, (again, like in previous years), the opposition forces can’t come to terms with each other, since NCDF and the Musavat party held their rallies separately, on different days.
“I will be participating in the rallies on September 17 and 18 together with my mother, Khadija Ismail, a prominent investigative journalist and former political prisoner, wrote on her Facebook page. “The allegations that one rally is going to hamper another is a complete nonsense. The NCDF has already called for support to the Musavat party’s organized rally and it can confirm it once again. In my opinion, the rallies on September 17 and 18 aren’t interfering with each other. On the contrary, they help each other. A person, who will arrive from the region on Saturday, can take a one-night rest and then join the Sunday rally. .
The opposition was driven out to Mahsul stadium during the parliamentary elections in 2015. During previous elections, including in the period of Heydar Aliyev’s presidency, the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (APFP), the Musavat, as well as some other parties, frequently organized protest rallies in the city center, which sometimes resulted in clashes with the police (as it happened during the 2013 presidential elections and 2000 parliamentary elections).
The situation started changing in 2005, after numerous attempts to organize rallies had been suppressed. It was then that Mahsul, or, to be more precise, a broad area outside former Galaba cinema, at that time accommodating the Azerbaijani State Cinema Fund (the stadium is located slightly behind it), was proposed as a rally venue. From then on, the opposition was holding its sanctioned rallies there and sometimes in other districts, far from the city center.
Whereas in 2012, the protesters were forced to move to the fenced stadium area. And since that time, the rallies have been traditionally held there, on the other side of the fence, with a single entrance guarded by the police.
“No matter where the rallies are held, they are still useful, even if held in harsh conditions, says Hikmet Hajizadeh, a political analyst. “Let’s recall the Soviet period, when only 7 people out of 250 million hit the street in protest against invasion of Czechoslovakia. And their names went down in history. Moreover, any protest, any rally creates human assets, and we could see, how effective it was with other disempowered groups in other countries-black people struggling against apartheid, women demanding voting rights.
Today, the opposition is protesting against the constitutional amendments, enhancing the President’s powers, namely, allowing him to dissolve the Parliament, to appoint the Vice President (there was no such position earlier), who will become country’s second top official. The President will be also entitled to call new presidential elections, whereas the term of office for president will be expanded from 5 to 7 years. In addition, age-limit for MPs will be removed. The age-limit for a would-be Vice President has not been specified. In this regard, the opposition talks about legalization of the feudal practice, as well as about the President’s intention to hand over power to his son, Heydar.
Interestingly, there has been no mentioning of an alternative outcome of the referendum. Everyone believes that if the referendum is held at all, the adoption of constitutional amendments will be its natural outcome.
The Constitution of Azerbaijan was adopted on November 12, 1995, through the nationwide referendum. Two more referendums, suggesting introduction of the constitutional amendments, were held in the country since that time – in 2002 and 2009. In both cases, the opposition termed the constitutional amendments as antidemocratic. And in both cases they were passed anyway.
The referendum is scheduled for September 26. The opposition hasn’t been allowed to campaign.