Azerbaijan: A Rare Opportunity for Opposition Youth to Protest

This post is part of our special coverage Eurovision Azerbaijan 2012.

On 17 March, 2012, opposition youth in Azerbaijan held a rare sanctioned rally in one of the outer districts of Baku, the country's capital. The protest, attended by several hundred people, did not meet resistance or obstruction from the police; uncommon in recent years as most protests have been quickly and sometimes violently dispersed.

As has been customary since the 2011 Arab Spring, those attending shared photos and videos online, using the date's #17Mart hashtag on twitter.  Pro-government voices responded with their own: #teessuflenirem (I find it regrettable) which criticized the protest as well as the opposition in general, and #Mart17dubl2, referring to last year's failed protests on 11 March and 2 April.

The Facebook event page for the “March 17 – Demonstration by youth for their future,” which was set up weeks prior to the gathering, listed three demands: the release of political prisoners, no corruption in the education system, and an end to the 20-year old conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh and the restoration of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.

Organized by the Movement for Protection of Youth Rights, the rally featured many Azerbaijani flags as well as those of Turkey and Northern Cyprus. A local photographer and activist tweeted one of the most striking banners of the picket:

@HuseynovaTurkan: Bize #eurovision yoX #Garabag lazimdi #17mart #Azerbaijan

@HuseynovaTurkan: We need Karabakh, not Eurovision!!! #17mart #Azerbaijan

Other placards highlighted the problem of corruption, especially evident in the educational system, sarcastically parodying government slogans claiming incomparable achievements in such areas.

@HuseynovaTurkan: analoqlu tehsil isteyirik #Azerbaijan #17mart #azadliq #tehsil

@HuseynovaTurkan: We want comparable education #Azerbaijan #17mart #azadliq #tehsil [Other placard in photo reads: Tax the teachers for bribes]

A Facebook album by Habib Muntezir features more photos from the protest, with some of the other banners reading “The President is good, those surrounding him are bad,” and “I sold my house to the government and bought a ticket to Eurovision,” which referred to the recent controversial eviction of homeowners as part of preparations for the international music competition.

Protesters also held banners referencing the recent attempt to intimidate through blackmail RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova. This young protester holds a banner that reads “Turn off the cameras. We are having sex.”

Blogger Aziz Karimov posted a link to video from the protest on Twitter:

Meanwhile, pro-government users urged their followers to instead gather around the Park Bulvar shopping mall for a petition campaign supporting Azerbaijan's 2020 Olympics bid. Others used the “regrettable” line.

@gunelibrahim: Azad media, azad internet, azad vetendash olan olkede “azadliq yoxdur” deyen genclere gore #teesuflenirem #17mart #mitinq

@gunelibrahim: I find it regrettable that there are young people who say “there is no freedom” in a country that has free media, free internet and free citizens. #teesuflenirem #17mart #mitinq

Another was the President of Integration of Azerbaijani Youth into Europe, as well as her deputy:

@GulselSafarova: Azerbaycan gencliyi olkesini sevmeli ve deyerini bilmedir.Sabah cixacaq genclerin bele olmadiqlarina gore #teesuflenirem

@GulselSafarova: Azerbaijani youth should love their country and know to appreciate it. I regret that those who will protest tomorrow are not such people. #teesuflenirem

@NargizXelef: Yeni gencler proqrami qebul edildi, gencler fondu yaradildi, her il gencler siyasetine yeni tohveler olur. Mitingdeki genclere #teesuflenirem

@NargizXelef: A new youth program was approved, a youth fund was established, there are new developments in youth policies every year. I regret seeing those youths at the protest. #teesuflenirem

A member of the pro-government youth organization İreli (Forward) also questioned the motive behind holding a protest ahead of Eurovision even though the opposition has already made it clear that they are aware of the increased visibility the international music competition, as well as its hashtag, gives them.

 @niyazaliyev: Maraqlidir, aktivleshme Avroviziya oncesi mushahide olunur,Avropanin diqqeti bizde olduqda… #teesuflenirem #mart17dubl2

@niyazaliyev: It is curious that activism becomes prominent right before Eurovision, when Europe is paying attention to us… #teesuflenirem #mart17dubl2

While the rally was largely peaceful, police did however detain several people, a musician scheduled to perform at the protest among them.

@turkhankarim: Musicians Natiq Karimov and Jamal Ali have been arrested by police. Also young blogger Etibar Salmanli #17mart #Azerbaijan

Nevertheless, even if sparsely attended, the demonstration was arguably development for criticism in the oil-rich country after last year's protests were quickly suppressed by police. Indeed, subsequent refusals by the city administration to allow new demonstrations, as well as the arrest of young political activists such as Jabbar Savalan, had appeared to have dissuaded activists from taking to the streets again.

But, with Savalan released in December on presidential amnesty, and others on the occasion of Nowruz (also known as Persian New Year and one of the most important holidays in Azerbaijan) as well as the increased attention Eurovision is bringing, there could be some possibility for change. Certainly, with the spotlight on Azerbaijan, both opposition and government supporters are leaving nothing to chance.

This post is part of our special coverage Eurovision Azerbaijan 2012.

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