Even with no specifics yet available for Azerbaijan’s “day of rage,” the government is persisting with a crackdown on youth group activists and Facebook users in the run-up to unsanctioned youth demonstrations expected for March 11.
The idea for such a protest first went public on March 6, when a group of six Azerbaijani youth activists set up a Facebook group that called for large-scale anti-government demonstrations on March 11 throughout Azerbaijan. “Are you ready to join together to break up the dictatorial regime in Azerbaijan in a civilized manner and without provocations?” the group’s Facebook page asks.
The number of Azerbaijani Facebook users appears to have surged in recent months. The Facebook traffic-tracking website Socialbakers.com reports that Azerbaijan’s Facebook users increased by 4.6 percent in February to reach 324,880 people, more than three-quarters of whom are between 18 and 34 years old.
Coming nearly a month after the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a figure with whom Azerbaijani government critics often compare Azerbaijan’s strong-armed President Ilham Aliyev, the Facebook group’s call for supporters has met with a relatively modest response, however.
While founders of the group, known as “March 11 – The Great People’s Day,” have invited some 30,000 Facebook users to join their cause, so far only about 3,000 registrants have accepted the invitation; 5,000 users have rejected it, group sources say.
Despite the international public attention their protest appeal has attracted, one of the campaign activists admitted that the group does not expect anything remotely Cairo-scale on March 11. The event’s purpose is simply to make Azerbaijani youth more politically active, said the activist, who asked not to be named. “But we did not plan any concrete rallies on March 11,” he claimed. Nor has any information about a plan, place or time for the rallies been published.
Nonetheless, with scenes from Egypt, Tunisia and, now, Libya before them, the Azerbaijani police are jittery. On March 10, the Interior Ministry issued a statement warning that “all methods” will be used to prevent any unauthorized demonstrations. “It relates to all attempts, including the one planned for March 11 via Facebook,” said Interior Ministry spokesperson Orhan Mansurzade.
The ministry’s statement went on to allege that protestors are “working with foreign centers” to try and import “color revolutions” to Azerbaijan.
With that long-standing fear in mind, police began targeting individuals who disseminated leaflets about the protests, handouts that were filmed and posted on the March 11 group’s Facebook page. Opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan member Dayanat Babayev, Musavat Party youth activist Sakhavat Soltanly and youth activist Rshadat Akhundov have been sentenced to five days in prison for alleged “hooliganism and resisting police.”
Several other individuals involved in distributing leaflets and some representatives of civil society groups were also detained between March 7-10, but have since been released. Among them were two employees of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety [IRFS receives funding from the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan; EurasiaNet.org is financed under the separate auspices of the Open Society Institute’s Central Eurasia Project] and an employee of the Nida public union. One of the IRFS detainees, Mehman Huseynov, told EurasiaNet.org that police had questioned him about the March 11 protest.
The detentions follow the March 4 imprisonment of youth activist and Facebook user Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and February 7 imprisonment of fellow activist Jabbar Savalanly. International and local civil rights groups, as well as embassies, have condemned such moves.
The outside criticism, however, has done little to deter officials. Preventive measures have also been taken at Azerbaijani universities. One student at Baku State University, the country’s largest higher education institution, said that the university administration told students on March 10 that they must provide written justifications for any absence from class on March 11. “We were threatened with expulsion if we are found attending any protest,” said the student, who asked not to be named. Many BSU students had not previously heard about the March 11 protests, he added.
Some pro-government media have tried another tactic. In an apparent attempt to smear the reputations of prominent Azerbaijani Facebook users known for their independent views, such outlets last week published an illustrated list of ten Azerbaijanis who have Armenian friends listed in their Facebook profiles. [The list also includes the name of EurasiaNet.org correspondent and former RFE/RL Baku bureau chief Khadija Ismayilova – ed.]
The hubbub over the crackdown on Facebook users and youth activists has nearly overshadowed the more concrete plans for another demonstration -- this time clearly linked with the opposition – on March 12.
Despite the city government’s refusal to grant participants permission for a rally, the Musavat Party has pledged to stage a protest on the afternoon of March 12 in downtown Baku, outside a cinema not far from the city center.
A senior member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, parliamentarian Mubariz Gurbanly, however, has downplayed the likelihood that either the March 11 or March 12 protests could prove serious. “The number of those who support the protests is much smaller than even 0.1 percent of [Azerbaijan’s] population” of 8.3 million people, Gurbanly asserted to the pro-government APA news agency.
But, in the end, evaluating Azerbaijan’s protest potential may come down to a question of quality, rather than quantity, asserted Intigam Aliyev, director of the Legal Education Society and a lawyer involved in the defense of activist Hajiyev.
Azerbaijan’s Facebook-enabled youth activists “represent a new generation of youth . . . who are able to lead people and fight for their rights,” Aliyev argued. “They could become a big headache for the government.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.