An unexpected riot in the northern Azerbaijani city of Guba on March 1 has seriously shaken up Azerbaijan’s usually calm political situation, and reportedly led to the dismissal of a regional government official appointed by President Ilham Aliyev.
Several thousand people gathered this morning in front of the main government building in Guba, about 180 kilometers north of Baku, to demand the immediate resignation of the region’s government head, Rauf Habibov, over offensive remarks he had made a few days earlier. In a video posted on YouTube, Habibov was shown charging that the “residents of Guba sold their city for 30-40 manats. They sold their country, their land, their family.”
The reason for the remarks is not clear, but, apparently, it proved enough to send local men out into the streets.
Chanting "Resign!" and "Ungrateful!," protesters -- some carrying portraits of President Aliyev in an apparent attempt to emphasize that they were not opposing the central government itself -- laid siege to the Guba government building, reporters on the scene told EurasiaNet.org.
Local police and reinforcements from neighboring areas proved unable to disperse the crowd. Instead, by mid-afternoon, large numbers of interior ministry troops, equipped with three water-jet machines, three armored personnel carriers, and three armored vehicles, moved in. But by that time, protesters had already burned a local government guesthouse and smashed a metal fence. The next target was Habibov’s house, which was burned completely. No one was injured.
The protesters moved on to the local police station to demand the release of 22 people detained during the morning. Clashes with interior ministry troops, using tear gas, ensued for about two hours and left dozens injured.
With tensions still building, Guba parliamentarian Vahid Ahmadov, who’d earlier arrived on the scene, phoned Interior Minister Ramil Usubov in front of the protesters to demand that all the detainees be released.
Ahmadov later reappeared to report that the presidential administration had told him that President Aliyev had fired Habibov, local journalists told EurasiaNet.org. All arrested protesters were released. The crowd dispersed, and calm was restored, although groups of police are still patrolling the streets, reporters say.
No official statement about Habibov’s removal has been released. Online reports that President Aliyev has left for Guba have not been confirmed. The president reportedly earlier held a meeting with the head of law enforcement agencies about the situation in the town.
Despite much online speculation, though, the protest was neither the work of opposition activists inspired by the Arab Spring, nor Islamists protesting government restrictions against practicing Muslims. Facebook and Twitter reports that similar protests are planned nationwide on March 2 have not been confirmed.
The long-term political implications of this outburst of anger against a local official -- and his dismissal -- remain to be seen, however. Azerbaijan's tightly centralized power structure does not make protests against government officials a regular occurrence.
Already, one opposition movement, the Public Chamber, has used the occasion to issue a statement condemning the use of police force against protesters and to assert that the events in Guba reflect popular discontent with "the wrong policy of the government." Habibov, not a particularly high-profile regional official, was appointed the head of Guba’s government a few years ago after serving in similar positions elsewhere in Azerbaijan. He is reportedly the protégé (and, some reports claim, the relative) of influential Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov, who rushed to Guba along with Ahmadov and senior presidential administration official Zeynal Nagdaliyev, to try and calm the crowd.
One of Azerbaijan’s oldest cities with a population of about 200,000, Guba has always ranked as a relatively rich region thanks to developed agriculture and tourism sectors and trade with nearby Russia. The city’s fresh mountain air and comfortable hotels and resorts have made it a favorite get-away destination for many Baku residents.
Now, it will prove memorable for another reason, too.