The Azerbaijani opposition has survived, even though the civil society has been significantly repressed. They have observed Ukraine and Georgia and learnt from the two countries successes and mistakes. Next time Ilham Aliyev’s power is shaken, they will be ready to act.
Walking uphill from the Heydar Aliyev embankment, along the Koura Rver, we stroll the grounds of Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district. After passing shiny modern buildings under construction, we arrive on Almasiani Street, a dusty lane squeezed between two huge concrete Soviet apartment blocks. There, we are planning to meet exiled members of Azerbaijan’s shrinking civil society.
I go to a nearby store looking for something to snack on and come back holding a churchkhela, Georgia’s national candy, a sausage-shaped fried grape juice. I share it with our small group. Through friends, we had been put in contact with some Azerbaijanis living in the Georgian capital and are now eagerly waiting to meet them.
Our contact, Lala Aliyeva, arrives a few minutes late. She is a journalist working for Chai Khana, a new online platform covering various aspects of life in the South Caucasus in five languages (English, Russian, Azerbaijani, Georgian and Armenian). Lala invites us to the offices of the Caucasus Civil Initiatives Center, a local NGO, where we meet Zohrab Ismayil. Back in Azerbaijan, Ismayil had been the chairman of the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy (PAAFE), a Baku-based NGO focusing on transparency, government accountability, economic freedom and respect for property rights.
Between 2013 and 2015, following the EuroMaidan revolution in Ukraine and the shady re-election of Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev (the son of the former president Heydar Aliyev) for a third term, the Azerbaijani government, already one of the most restrictive regimes on the European continent, introduced a series of new laws and regulations affecting NGOs, their funding and activities. This allowed for an unprecedented crackdown on the NGO sector between 2014 and 2016.
Ismayil was summoned twice to the prosecutor general’s office to be interrogated. His NGO’s bank accounts were seized after a closed court hearing and his own assets were frozen. Ismayil’s case was far from isolated. Journalists and media outlets (including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), human rights advocates and political activists were pressured, forced into exile or, on the contrary, forbidden to leave the country. Dozens of local groups faced charges and NGOs, including international ones such as Oxfam and the Open Society Foundation, had their accounts seized and offices closed.
Most of the prominent members of Azerbaijan’s civil society ended up behind bars or in exile. Even though some activists like the journalist Khadija Ismayilova, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, or human rights activists Anar Mammadli and Rasul Jafarov have been released, their criminal records remain in place, and in the case of Intigam Aliyev, his travel ban as well. To this day, there are still around a hundred political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Zohrab Ismayil, the activist we are meeting in Tbilisi, has been in exile since August 2014. He has had worked as a fellow at Michigan State University for a year before joining other Azeri activists in Georgia, such as Amin, a young lawyer. Amin is also a member of the Caucasus Civil Initiatives Center, which conducts research, organises regional projects and training for young activists and advocates for greater transparency.
Azerbaijan is a “captured state” – a concept fathered by the IMF to describe a form of grand corruption. It means that the entire decision-making process and the state apparatus are used to serve private interests and the enrichment of a small caste of oligarchs. Azerbaijan is Europe’s most captured state. Its fragile economy rests solely atop its oil reserves. The oil and gas rent, however, does not seem to benefit anyone but the Aliyev clan and the vanity architectural works in Baku – partly Dubai-style pet projects, partly money laundering schemes.
Most of the rent (well over one hundred billion US dollars over the last decade) is accumulated within the State Oil Fund – Azerbaijan’s sovereign wealth fund. In 2015, its foreign currency reserves were depleted by 65 per cent in order to stabilise the Azerbaijani currency – the manat – which was devaluated by 97 per cent over the course of the same year. Little was done to address the socio-economic crises following the decline of oil prices and in 2016 Azerbaijan entered a recession. Currently, the average monthly salary is 515 manats (270 euros), which is less than in Georgia and Armenia. “Oil corrupts, it corrupted political systems everywhere. Azerbaijan is not any different,” Ismayil tells us. “If we get rid of oil, we can rebuild the state. Azerbaijan is not a state, it is a mafia.”
With the socio-economic situation getting worse, repression strengthens to defend the fragile stability. But with a silenced opposition and an entire state apparatus answering to the Aliyev clan, the Azeris have slowly lost the will to openly oppose their government. Half of them work, in one way or another, for government-related organisations. In every family, at least one member is a state employee. They could face repercussions, be forced to resign, have their advancement blocked or be fired if one of their relatives is whispered to be a member of the opposition.
Moreover, there are few opportunities for the opposition in the media, nor is there any money. While the opposition exists, it is in a worse shape than under the Soviet Union, when it could only operate underground. To join the opposition would be very risky due to the reasons outlined above. Besides, there is not much to join. There are a handful of opposition parties which are too weak to properly organise any campaigns or protests. Moreover, there are no free unions. The state has successfully created cynical citizens willing to protest, but unable to do so, repressed by social pressure and fear. “We have lost, as a nation, the will to gather together,” Amin explains to us.
When protest is in the air, the Aliyev regime has a secret weapon up their sleeve: Nagorno-Karabakh – the never-ending frozen conflict with Armenia over the disputed separatist region. No one benefits from the Karabakh conflict as much as the Aliyev family. Not only does it give them legitimacy as Azerbaijan’s defenders, it also chokes the entire public political debate.
When in April 2016, after several years of socio-economic crisis and a growing critique of the government, the Azerbaijani armed forces launched an offensive against the Armenian positions in the mountainous region, the opposition mainly fell in line and unanimously supported the troops. No prominent opposition force in the country thinks Azerbaijan should give up on Karabakh. As Ismayil puts it: “Many Azeris believe that if Azerbaijan has strong economic development, a strong democracy, a strong army and real power, it will be useful for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.” Even when it comes to economic development, getting Karabakh back remains a means to an end.
The picture was not always so grim. Azerbaijan has a track record of democratic rule. When it declared independence from the Russian Empire in 1917, it was the first democratic republic in the Turkic world. It was also the first Muslim-majority country to grant women equal political rights to men and in 1918 one of the first countries ever to allow women to vote. It had a free and diverse press, including the famous progressive satirical journal, Mollah Nasreddin, which has since achieved cult status and became the symbol of the century-old tradition of Azeri progressive secularism.
At the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani civil society was strong and active. When Heydar Aliyev took power in the 1990s, he was opposed by huge political organisations and republican movements. Azeris are proud of that heritage and they suspect that the European institutions do not pressure the state the way they do Belarus, as they are afraid that without Aliyev in power, the country will turn into an Islamic republic. Amin and Zohrab Ismayil claim, however, that Azerbaijani society and the opposition are deeply secular and there is no real threat of extremist religious groups.
They both have hope. The opposition who challenged Heydar Aliyev has survived, even though the civil society has been significantly repressed. They believe that the authorities cannot reach them everywhere, especially in Azerbaijan’s rural areas where the state is less present. The opposition has observed Ukraine and Georgia and learnt from their successes and mistakes.
Next time Ilham Aliyev’s power is shaken, they will be ready to act, they assure us: “Political rights are okay, but when you work 60 hours a week, you don’t need values. We should focus more on the economic and social rights than political rights,” Ismayil says. A remark that seemed directed at the European Union.
When talking about LGBT and gender issues, among the many other topics tackled by Chai Khana, Ismayil deems them “not a priority” but is quickly corrected by Lala who adds: “for now”. As we all try to suppress a smile, seeing him apologise to the young woman, he concludes that “it will come. First we need to address torture and freedom of assembly.”
But the two issues are not so far apart. After all, most journalists in Azerbaijan are women and when the change arrives, women will likely be its prime vector.
Valentin Luntumbue is a Belgian writer, independent researcher and College of Europe alumnus based in Brussels.