Young Activists Poised to Assume Higher Political Profile in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan's youth groups are poised to play a central role in the fast-approaching parliamentary election campaign. Opposition leaders believe the participation of young activists in get-out-the-vote efforts could sway the election's outcome. The government seems to share this view, underscored by the fact that arrests of pro-opposition youth activists have become routine in recent months. At the same time, authorities are taking steps of their own to court support from Azerbaijani young people.
The parliamentary election, scheduled for November, is already attracting international attention, as some political analysts believe the vote could potentially produce the same type of revolutionary pressure in Azerbaijan that ended up remaking the political orders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For example, the Council of Europe recently issued a statement that said the November ballot could be an event in which "we may become witnesses either to fair-and-free elections, or a bloody confrontation between thousands." In both Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution, student activists played a pivotal role in bringing about political change. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
An opposition party coalition in Azerbaijan has embraced a strategy that aims to follow the Georgian and Ukrainian examples, and it already has organized two public protests in Baku in recent weeks to exert pressure on President Ilham Aliyev's administration to hold free-and-fair elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For opposition leaders, youth activists collectively comprise a key component in their election plans.
"We consider them a natural ally," said Fuad Mustafayev, deputy chairman of the Popular Front Party, said of the youth movements. "[Y]outh is the most active part and, at the same time, one of the most vulnerable parts, of the population in Azerbaijan. That is why the democratization of youth is a priority."
Four youth groups Yokh! (No!), Yeni Fikir (New Thinking), Magam (It's Time) and the Orange Movement of Azerbaijan hold center stage in the opposition's plans to get out the vote. Several foreign groups specifically Ukraine's Pora (It's Time), Georgia's Kmara (Enough) and Serbia's Otpor (Resistance) are cited by all four Azerbaijani organizations as role models for fostering democratic change. Representatives of all four Azerbaijani groups also consider US President George W. Bush's February meeting in Bratislava with Pora leader Vladislav Kaskiv as a sign that Washington supports their cause.
All four Azerbaijani youth groups claim that their popularity is growing rapidly. Yokh and Yeni Fikir, the two largest and most visible organizations, report that their membership numbers have soared in recent months. In February, Yokh claimed less than 40 members. Now, the group says that it has over 2,000. Meanwhile, Yeni Fikir says it also has about 2,000 members. The numbers, however, could not be independently verified.
Yokh gained prominence in February when Razi Nurullayev, head of the Azerbaijani Society for Democratic Reform, began working for the organization. The group at the same time started focusing on issues, such as the campaign against corruption, that did not, on the surface, clash with government policies. Yeni Fikir likewise got its start in April 2004 with an anti-corruption initiative. According to Ruslan Bashirli, head of the Yeni Fikir Youth Union, the group has established a presence illegally in 15 institutes of higher learning across Azerbaijan. The group has raised its profile through street actions and the distribution of leaflets critical of corruption within the Aliyev administration.
The "Orange Movement of Azerbaijan," a youth group established in March 2005 by 89 students from Baku State University and the Azerbaijan State Oil Academy, acts as more of an underground organization. Police spent weeks scouring Baku Internet cafes in late March for those responsible for disseminating a message that announced the group's formation and described the Aliyev administration as "murderers and kidnappers" who posed "an obstacle for the nation's economic prosperity."
The fourth group, Magam, launched its activities in April 2005 with a translation of "From Dictatorship to Democracy," a 1993 book by American writer Gene Sharp that outlines the excesses of authoritarian rule and proposes methods for political reform. The book is considered a virtual bible for all of Azerbaijan's youth organizations, and all four actively disseminate it.
Whatever their membership levels, the groups' activism appears to have set off alarms in the corridors of power in Baku. Group members are frequently detained, though usually released the same day or shortly thereafter. In an e-mailed statement, Yokh claimed that two of its members were beaten by police in Baku as they handed out leaflets two days ahead of a massive opposition protest rally on June 4, which was sanctioned by the government. At a May 21 opposition rally, and in the days leading up to May 25 ceremonies in Baku marking the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, police also rounded up scores of youth activists and opposition members, including Yokh leader Nurullayev. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
As part of the effort to neutralize pro-opposition youth groups, officials quickly cobbled together a plan to rally young people to the government's side. A number of events have been planned that are designed to improve the government's image among young people, especially those living outside the capital. For example, officials have scheduled in the fall a forum, titled "The Role and Place of Youth in the Social and Economic Development of the Country," as part of an initiative to assist young Azerbaijanis in starting their own business in the regions. In reaching out to young people, Aliyev administration officials are utilizing the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party's (YAP) vast resources, including personnel and perks. Government members, Aliyev allies in the legislature, along with, rank-and-file YAP members are all being mobilized to influence the youth vote, according to a copy of the government plan published in the Azadliq newspaper.
One pro-government member of parliament, while welcoming the creation of youth movements, argued that centralized control is necessary to harness the energy of young activists. "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when youth used to be under the full control of the Communist Party, as Pioneers [and] Komsomol members, we felt an ideological vacuum," said Gultekin Hajiyeva, who, at 31, is one of parliament's youngest deputies. "Political and non-governmental institutions are the places where young people can spend their energy and use and develop their potential. However, this activity should be systematic and with the support of the government."
The fact that Azerbaijan's existing youth groups are strongly pro-opposition should come as no surprise, Hajiyeva added. "Young people always are keen to change something. But it is good when changes are for the better. Besides, they enjoy the support of opposition parties and, I assume, financial support from outside the country."
Both Yokh and Yeni Fikir representatives deny that they receive foreign financial support. "So far, we have not gotten any support. But, as an NGO, we do not exclude that we will apply to donor organizations [for help] with some projects," Yeni Fikir's Bashirli told EurasiaNet. Bashirli, however, like other youth group leaders, does not deny his group's close collaboration with the opposition coalition, which comprises the Popular Front Party, Musavat and the Democratic Party. Isa Gambar, leader of Musavat, has stated that the youth groups' capabilities and roles will grow stronger in the future.
Meanwhile, political leaders in Baku are looking askance at the strengthening ties between Azerbaijani youth groups and like-minded foreign activist organizations. Networking has become an increasingly important part of the Azerbaijani youth groups' growth strategy. In May, for instance, Azerbaijani activists traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia where they met with representatives of Kmara and attempted apparently, unsuccessfully to capture the attention of President George W. Bush during his May 10 speech in the city's Freedom Square. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Representatives from Yokh also recently traveled to Kruya, Albania to share experiences with members of Pora, Kmara and Otpor.
The reaction of one YAP MP to the presence of Azerbaijani delegates at the Albania meeting reflected the views of many Aliyev supporters. "These kinds of meetings are nothing but interference in the internal affairs of Azerbaijan," Bahar Muradova told various Baku newspapers. Officials were similarly displeased by a February appeal, prepared by Pora activists in Ukraine and sent to President Aliyev, urging the Azerbaijani government to be "wise enough not to bring the country to revolution."
So far, government displeasure and harassment has not diminished the appetite among young activists for change. "International organizations consider us as an organization which will lead changes in the country," Nurullayev, the Yokh activist, said in an April interview with the Baku-based Ayna newspaper. "We do believe that we will change the situation in the country."
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