Azerbaijan: unrest increasing as an election looms

This article was published in CEERES' Spring 2013 newsletter. Access the full newsletter here.


Azerbaijan: unrest increasing as an election looms


By Karl Rahder


(Note: this is an early version of a perhaps longer article. Comments welcome.)


Recent incidents


Of the three South Caucasus states, Azerbaijan has long been considered to be the most stable, at least since the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 1994. President Heydar Aliyev—father of the current president—sought to bring order and economic development to the country, in part due to the “contract of the century” which awarded exploitation of much of the country’s oil reserves to British Petroleum. While Azerbaijan was hardly “democratic” in the late 1990’s, governance under Heydar Aliyev included a veneer of pluralism as the country emerged from years of internal chaos and war.


But since Heydar’s death in late 2003, the domestic political landscape has been bleak under the rule of his son Ilham, who has presided over a crackdown on dissent that has progressively worsened in the past nine years.[1] The situation has been particularly worrisome since 2012, when a riot broke out in the city of Quba, about 90 miles northwest of the national capital of Baku.


Other incidents have multiplied this year, including:

·     The arbitrary arrests and imprisonment of journalists, opposition figures and youth group activists[2]

·      Police responding to demonstrations in Baku with excessive force

·      The attack on opposition presidential candidate Isa Gambar’s entourage in January while en route to a campaign appearance[3]

·      The closure by authorities of an independent university in April[4]

·      An effort by the government to discredit pro-democracy NGOs[5]


The pattern outlined above is depressingly familiar to anyone who has spent time studying Azerbaijan.[6] And while the human rights situation has deteriorated steadily, the arrest of an activist or roughing up a few protesters or the closing of a university are, in the larger context, cases of “dog bites man.”


What is truly remarkable in Azerbaijan’s recent past, and what may signal a fundamental shift in the country’s political dynamic, is a new pattern consisting of a series of unexpected, spontaneous outbreaks of violence since last year. The three major “explosions,” accompanied by a number of lesser but still significant political events, are indications that Azerbaijan may be entering a new, unstable period in its modern history.


We will review these events briefly and then explore the government’s reaction as well as aspects of the opposition strategy in the run-up to the presidential election in October. Is a revolution brewing? Does the president possess the vision to address the underlying forces that are destabilizing the country? Will the Azerbaijani people turn toward a “new wave” of youth and other activists who will topple the Aliyev government?


Three explosions: a taste of what may lie ahead


·      Explosion 1: Quba

In early March of last year, thousands of protesters took to the streets in a series of demonstrations in the northern Azerbaijani city of Quba after a video surfaced of remarks by Rauf Habibov, the local governor, who told associates that Quba residents were “traitors” for selling their land for as little as “thirty or forty manat.” (An Azeri manat is worth approximately US $1.28 at the current exchange rate.)

The resulting explosion of outrage caught everyone off guard, and despite attempts by the governor to apologize for his unguarded remarks, what began as merely a demonstration quickly spiraled into a riot, with protesters smashing windows of government buildings and, according to reports, setting fire to a house owned by Habibov.[7]

After responding with force against the rioters, the Baku government dismissed the governor soon afterwards. But many protestors were arrested, with several convictions in the months that followed.


·      Explosion 2: Bina Market

About a thousand shopkeepers clashed with police in January of this year at the Bina Market, situated on the outskirts of Baku, after their rent was raised by more than $300 a month. The market, a popular shopping area, “reportedly has indirect ties to state officials,” according to Radio Free Europe. Thousands more shopkeepers went on strike in a show of support for those who blocked off access to a road and were subsequently tear gassed by police in the skirmishes that followed.[8]


·       Explosion 3: Ismayilli

In late January, a random car wreck in the resort town of Ismayilli, about a hundred miles northwest of Baku, erupted into a scene of violence and general mayhem lasting two days. It all began when Vugar Alkeperov, the son of the Minister of Labor and Social Protection and nephew of the minister’s brother—who happened to be the Ismayilli governor—was allegedly involved in a collision with a taxi. According to press reports, Alkeperov got into a quarrel with the taxi driver after the crash and then made insulting comments regarding Ismayilli women, all of which was followed by a blowup with local men and the torching of a hotel that may have been connected to the governor and, according to rumors, housed a brothel.[9] Ismayilli resembled a combat zone for the next few days, with thousands of locals battling police and setting fire to more buildings (and luxury cars thought to belong to officials) before order was restored.


Sensing a public relations debacle, President Aliyev fired the governor three weeks later and went on national television to scold the sons of government officials for their “obnoxious behavior.”[10] But the prosecutor’s office acted much more quickly in arresting two well-known opposition figures—Ilgar Mammadov and Tofiq Yaqublu—for inciting violence and resistance to police, although the two men arrived separately in Ismayilli after the riots began and stayed briefly before returning to Baku.[11]


There are several extraordinary elements to the outbreaks of violence since last year:


First, and most importantly, they were “organic.” Neither the formal opposition parties nor the youth opposition groups announced that demonstrations would be held in Ismayilli, the Bina Market, or Quba. These events—sudden, unexpected, and violent—erupted from the ground up.


This is hugely significant, since it means the opposition party apparatus, beleaguered by years of government pressure against it, is no longer necessary to motivate ordinary people.


Second, the explosions in the regions and at the Bina Market were viral and attracted thousands of participants almost immediately. Thus, these demonstrations were much larger than anything the opposition have tried to arrange since the Arab Spring or at any time since 2005, when an attempted Azeri Color Revolution was snuffed out by the police and internal security forces. 


Third, the outbreaks have not been anti-Aliyev, and their goals were not ambitiously over-arching. Last year’s rioters in Quba didn’t torch the governor’s house because they wanted to topple the president. They, and the protesters this year, were reacting to local, accidental tripwires – the intemperate comments of an arrogant apparatchik in Quba and a random car wreck in Ismayilli. The real issues are economic burdens that lead people to sell their land out of desperation and a deep, simmering resentment over systemic corruption that pervades every aspect of life in Azerbaijan.[12]


Fourth, the two largest riots happened not in Baku, but in the “regions,” which is Azeri-speak for any province (“region”) outside of the Absheron peninsula, where Baku is located. The Bina Market incident took place on Baku’s outskirts, far from the city center, where the opposition prefers to stage its poorly attended demonstrations. 


Finally, despite number three above, a critical mass may be developing that threatens to destabilize the national government on a fundamental level, rendering the president’s rule illegitimate in the eyes of many ordinary Azeris. This is because the recent incidents were breathtakingly swift, and the violence that followed was both surprising and carefully targeted. This implies a deep reservoir of pent-up anger, and where it has expressed itself in one region, it may emerge in others.



The government’s sense of fear


The continuing arrests of journalists and opposition figures on dubious charges speak to a very real sense of fear at the highest levels of government. And it’s the fear, along with a mentality that the power structure must be maintained at any cost, that has been responsible for retarding democratic and economic development in Azerbaijan.


Why the president, an intelligent man, would react as he has—hurling at his opponents a set of rather blunt weapons such as imprisonment on hooliganism charges and stiff penalties for attending unsanctioned rallies—has perplexed many foreign analysts. But Ilham Aliyev, for all his skills, is apparently unable to react in any other way—largely because his conception of government and his role in it is so foreign to both his friends and critics in the West.


One of the most salient aspects of rule by the Aliyev family (which includes the influence and wealth of his wife Mehriban’s family) is how similar it is to a sultanistic regime. Such regimes tend to be non-ideological and rely on a support system of kinship ties, semi-independent oligarchs and other allies to stay in power and enrich themselves. As Jack A. Goldstone wrote during the Arab Spring, these regimes “may preserve some of the formal aspects of democracy -- elections, political parties, a national assembly, or a constitution -- but they rule above them by installing compliant supporters in key positions and sometimes by declaring states of emergency, which they justify by appealing to fears of external (or internal) enemies.”[13]


While the Arab Spring sultanates were overthrown, there is no national effort to bring down the government of Ilham Aliyev.


The reason may have something to do with the implied contract that has existed between the Azerbaijani people and the President Aliyev since he came to power after a flawed election in late 2003.


All societies have such contracts between the governed and the ruling elite. Elections, in democracies or quasi-democratic states, tend to confirm or slightly alter those contracts. And for nearly a decade, the contract between the people and the Aliyev government has been something like, “Mr President, we understand that our ‘elections’ are not exactly fair, and we know that democratic norms in Azerbaijan are very superficial. But as long as you better our lives materially and provide a level playing field so that we can realize our ambitions, we will continue to support you.”


The importance of the explosions in places like Ismayilli is that many people in the regions are beginning to view the “contract” as null and void.


And when that sort of thing happens, ruling regimes everywhere get nervous.


Another symptom of fear is the familiar accusation that “foreign forces” are to blame for the unrest, with the angry assertion by an advisor to the president that the Ismayilli riot was triggered by forces working “against Azerbaijan’s statehood,”[14] and an influential member of Azerbaijan’s parliament charging that the March 10 protest  “was supported and instigated by anti-Azerbaijan forces abroad and the radical opposition.”[15]


Normally, “forces abroad” is a transparent code for Armenia, but hints in the press reveal that the Aliyev government might have Russia in mind this time, with a number of sources speculating that the “Moscow Billionaires’ Club”—a group of wealthy Russians of Azeri ethnicity—is involved in destabilizing Azerbaijan.[16]


The best-known proponent of this theory isn’t from Azerbaijan or even Russia, however. After a visit to Baku in late February, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili warned reporters that the Russian government, acting in collaboration with certain members of the Billionaires’ Club, is planning to “arrange a change of power in Azerbaijan using a large amount of money.”  The Ismayilli incident was so sudden and violent that, according to some, Russia and the billionaires must have played a role.


One of the problems with blaming the billionaires for Ismayilli or the spate of demonstrations in Baku is that Azerbaijan’s entrenched graft, along with the persecution of activists, was in place long before the creation of the club. The group may represent a new and worrisome factor for the Aliyev government, but its existence is not necessary to account for the explosions of anger we have seen recently in Azerbaijan. 


If the unrest continues, the president will find that he has few options, since there is no mechanism in place such that the government can respond in a calm, mature fashion and engage in a rational discussion of issues such as corruption and democratic development. Because he does not see these topics as legitimate issues for examination in the first place, President Aliyev does not appear to have the conceptual tools to respond by engaging the very people he is imprisoning.



The opposition “new wave”


Pitting itself against the Aliyev government is a new, loose-knit group of liberal, educated youth activists and others, some of whom have ties to the two main opposition parties – the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) and the Musavat Party. But many in the Azeri new wave see no reason to support a party apparatus that, to them, is exhausted after a successful multi-year effort by the Aliyev government to render it impotent.


Two of the more significant new wave organizations are REAL (Republican Alternative) and NIDA (the Azeri word for an exclamation point), both of which have attracted the attention of the prosecutor’s office. Ilgar Mammadov, who was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Ismayilli unrest, is REAL’s presidential candidate for the upcoming election. At press time, he was languishing in jail awaiting trial.


NIDA[17] is more youth-oriented than REAL and has been singled out in the last year as the government’s chief target for prosecution. By early March, seven NIDA activists had been arrested, with two of them confessing on national television to planning the use of Molotov cocktails against police during the March 10 protest discussed below.[18] Many observers have commented that the “confessions” appeared to be staged, raising concerns about improper police coercion and lack of due process.


Ol! (“To Be!”) is another group being harassed by the government, although it does not have the same sort of political agenda as NIDA or REAL. Creative and multi-faceted, Ol! was instrumental in the creation of Azad Fikir (“Free Thought”) University[19], funded by foreign partners such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Another of the university’s partners is the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is under intense scrutiny by the prosecutor’s office for alleged financial irregularities. Azad Fikir University was recently shut down by the Azerbaijani authorities.[20]


By far the most visible and talked-about figure in the Azeri new wave is Emin Milli, who as of April was living in Berlin, where he had founded a new TV station dedicated to bringing down the Aliyev government. Milli spends an enormous amount of time in the west, being feted in places such as Berlin, Stockholm, and Prague, where he makes “historic” speeches.


Milli has paid a price for his pro-democracy efforts, spending 16 months in a squalid prison after his involvement in promoting the now-famous “donkey blog” video, which ridiculed the Aliyev government.[21]


Since his release from prison and subsequent sojourn to the UK, where he earned a master’s degree, Milli has become the rock star of the opposition new wave, in no small measure due to his talents at engaging with audiences and an articulate, telegenic persona. But he engages best with adoring foreign audiences who tend to be captivated by the dramaturgical element in his personal story. For Milli’s more skeptical Azeri audience, he continues to promote a two-pronged approach that is clearly not working: an overemphasis on Baku, where the opposition has focused its efforts, and an infatuation with social media as a key ingredient of regime change. A glance at how this model has performed should indicate just how feeble it is.


During 2011’s Arab Spring, both the new wave and the formal opposition parties promoted the expectation that President Aliyev would, like Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, be overthrown. A series of demonstrations was planned, the most significant of which was the “Great People’s Day,” when protests would take place across the country. Milli and a few other ex-pat Azeri youth living in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere were among the major proponents who spread the word via Facebook.[22]


But the Great People’s Day was a bust, largely ignored in the countryside, and attracting no more than a few hundred participants in the capital. The police responded with their usual modus operandi of swooping down on small groups of demonstrators as soon as they gathered, arresting a handful, and scattering the remainder while roughing up a few people in the process.[23]


Likewise, the day after the Quba riots in 2012, Milli called for mass protests across Azerbaijan in an interview from the UK with Voice of America.[24] The country shrugged, and life went on as usual.


Once again, after this year’s Ismayilli incident, the opposition called on Facebook for a solidarity demonstration in Baku that would take place on January 26. And once again, several hundred people showed up, with the police easily dispersing the protesters.


Not long afterwards, a major demonstration was announced by Milli and his supporters which would take place on March 10, ostensibly in response to widespread abuse of conscripts in Azerbaijan’s military. This would be the most significant event in years and would, Milli insisted on Facebook, involve “all the cities of Azerbaijan,” attracting more than 16,000 people in Baku alone who would flood the streets in a mass action.


On the 10th of March, some five hundred protestors marched in downtown Baku, with several dozen arrests.  


One would think that after such paltry results, the new wave might engage in a period of reflection, asking if perhaps they have failed to connect with ordinary Azeris. And while a survey I conducted in February[25] reveals that a number of new wave activists acknowledge that they have not done enough to reach out to those in the regions, Milli recently doubled down by telling a foreign newspaper that Azerbaijan is now teetering on the brink of “civil war,”[26] an astonishing declaration given the lack of interest displayed by the very people he claims to represent.



No revolution ahead, but a fragile status quo


Continuing comparisons to the Arab Spring and predictions of imminent regime change are heady stuff. But as is often the case, reality is less dramatic and requires both hard work and analysis of unpalatable facts. One of these facts is that President Aliyev has been, for most of his tenure, relatively popular – Azerbaijan’s deplorable human rights situation notwithstanding.[27] The failure to recognize this, together with the “two-pronged” approach discussed above, leads to blind alleys and false conclusions.


Evidence of the public’s attitude can be found in polling data released in early 2010 from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation[28] revealing, among other things, that if protests occurred, a little over 10% of respondents would join the protesters. Sixty one per cent would remain neutral, and roughly 22% would “help the authorities to establish order.”


In a more recent poll (released in May of 2013), the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) found that 29% of Azeris believe that “people should participate in protest actions” – the lowest percentage by far of the three South Caucasus states.[29] By contrast, some 43% of respondents said that people should not participate. (The wording here is significant. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation asked if respondents “would join” the protests, while CRRC asked three years later if respondents thought people “should” protest – which may account for the 19% difference. Merely believing that other people should participate in demonstrations and asserting that one would actually join in are two different things – as are clicking the “I’m going” button on a Facebook protest page and actually showing up to get tear gassed.) 


The 61% neutrality figure from the 2010 survey is consistent with what I’ve observed in Azerbaijan, and while that can’t be terribly reassuring for President Aliyev, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the opposition new wave, and flies in the face of their extravagant claims to represent the aspirations of “the people.”


Despite the hyperbole of those who warn that Azerbaijan is heading toward a revolution, this outcome is unlikely. Ideological rhetoric about freedom of speech mouthed by university-educated activists from TV studios in Berlin or on Facebook is lost on people in rural Azerbaijan who have no jobs, no computers, and no toilets in their homes. The internet “penetration rate” is thus meaningless to most people in the regions, where the actual resistance to government corruption and abuse is taking place.


Though many of the new wave dismiss the opposition old guard as irrelevant, the latter have done a much better job of connecting with the regions, mainly due to the simple fact that they have been around longer and can still utilize the remnants of their party infrastructure. Both Musavat and the Popular Front Party have a recognized history and presence in the regions that the new wave lacks.


Azerbaijan’s voiceless and powerless may yet produce something that resembles an uprising, although more frequent, uncoordinated eruptions are probably where the country is headed. They will occur in isolated geographic pockets and won’t be “virtually inspired.” The interactive twitter maps with dazzling nodes of color stretching over national boundaries and continents will be about the observers, not the participants.


A civil war is not in the offing, but the near-term future looks to be increasingly unstable as an election approaches. 



About the Author


Karl Rahder first came to the Caucasus in 2004, when he was a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellow, teaching Cold War history and US foreign policy at Baku State University and Baku Slavian University. He then worked as the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch (Zurich) from 2005 until 2011. Based in Baku, Tbilisi, and the US, he has covered regional conflict, geopolitics and human rights in the former USSR and the Balkans. Karl has been interviewed as a regional expert by the Voice of America, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and other news organizations. In 2009, he taught at the Georgia Institute for Public Affairs in Tbilisi, and until recently, wrote the South Caucasus blog for the Foreign Policy Association. His MA in international relations is from the University of Chicago.

[1] The troubling human rights situation in Azerbaijan has been well documented. For a primer, readers can consult “Human Rights in Azerbaijan,” Human Rights Watch,, accessed April 16, 2013, as well as “Azerbaijan,” US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012,, accessed April 19, 2013, and “Azerbaijan,” Freedom House,, accessed April 16, 2013. Freedom House has consistently ranked Azerbaijan as “not free” for many years.

[2] “Two More Azerbaijani Activists Face Weapons Charges,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), March 31, 2013,, accessed April 2, 2013 andm” CPJ urges Azerbaijan to halt its crackdown on the press,” Committee to Protect Journalists, March 12, 2013,, accessed April 20, 2013

[3] “Azerbaijan opposition leader ambushed amid pre-election clampdown,” Amnesty International, January 14, 2013, , accessed April 18, 2013

[4] Zulfugar Agayev, “Azerbaijan Shuts Down Free Thought University Funded by West,” Bloomberg, April 11, 2013, accessed April 12, 2013

[5] Kenan Aliyev and Robert Coalson, “Baku Leans On NGOs As Presidential Election Nears,” RFE/RL, March 21, 2013,, accessed April 12, 20

[6] Karl Rahder, “Azerbaijan: the Government Campaign Against Dissent,” ISN Security Watch, December 28, 2011,, accessed April 3, 2013

[7] Andrew Kramer, “Azerbaijan’s Leaders Yield After a Rare Public Protest,” New York Times, March 1, 2012,, accessed April 2, 2013

[8] “Protesting Shopkeepers, Police Clash In Baku,” RFE/RL, January 19, 2013,, accessed April 12, 2013

[9] Andrew Roth and Shahla Sultanova, “Officials in Azerbaijan Claim to Restore Order to Rioting City,” New York Times, January 25, 2013,, accessed April 10, 2013 and “Popular Uprising in Ismayilli!”, January 24, 2013,, accessed April 2, 2013

[10] Kenan Aliyev, “’Don’t Be Obnoxious,’ Azerbaijani President Warns Officials’ Children,” RFE/RL, February 12, 2013,, accessed April 10, 2013 and “Azerbaijani President Aliyev Fires Regional Governor After Riots,” RFE/RL, February 14, 2013,, accessed April 10, 2013

[11] Shahla Sultanova, “Two Opposition Leaders Arrested in Azerbaijan,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), February 5, 2013,, accessed April 5, 2013

[12] For an excellent examination of the economic causes of the unrest in Ismayilli, see Khadija Ismayilova, “Azerbaijan: Examining the Economic Sources of Ismayilli Discontent.” Eurasianet, accessed April 3, 2013

[13] Jack A. Goldstone, “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011,, accessed April 1, 2013

[14] M. Aliyev, “Top Azerbaijani official: Perpetrators of incident in Ismayilli to be punished,” Trend News Agency, January 24, 2013,, accessed April 5, 2013

[15] Mina Muradova, “Pressure on Domestic Opposition Increase in Azerbaijan,” CACI Analyst, April 3, 2013,\e/5955, accessed April 18, 2013

[16] “Saakashvili Speaks of 'Threat' Facing Azerbaijan and Georgia,” Civil Georgia, March 1, 2013,, accessed May 2, 2013, and Mina Muradova, “Georgia’s President Alleges Planned Power Shift in Azerbaijan,” CACI Analyst, March 6, 2013,, accessed May 2, 2013.  For more background, see Shahin Abbasov, “Azerbaijan: Is the Kremlin Up to Old Tricks?,” Eurasianet, March 12, 2013,, accessed April 3, 2013 and Vugar Masimoglu, “Union of Azerbaijani Organizations in Russia – The “friends club” who don’t want to follow the fate of Khodorkovski,” APA, November 16, 2012,, accessed April 3, 2013

[17] NIDA’s home page is at

[18] “Azerbaijan: Authorities Targeting Youth Activists,” Human Rights Watch, April 3, 2013,, accessed April 17, 2013

[20] Ol!’s home page is at

[21] Karl Rahder, “Donkey Bloggers and Press Freedom in Azerbaijan,” Foreign Policy Blogs, May 15, 2010,, accessed April 17, 2013

[22] Facebook page at, accessed April 17, 2013

[23] Farangis Najibullah and Arife Kazimova , “In Azerbaijan, Young Protesters Take To Streets Despite Police Crackdown,” RFE/RL, March 16, 2011,, accessed April 4, 2013

[25] Survey conducted via Fourteen opposition figures living in Azerbaijan and abroad were approached to take part, with ten participating. Respondents were members of NIDA as well as other opposition groups and independent activists. Nine of the ten respondents indicated that the opposition has spent “almost no time” or “some time, but not enough” in the regions collecting information and listening to local concerns. Five of the ten said that people in the regions view the opposition as “not very relevant to their needs and aspirations,” while one said that the opposition is “totally irrelevant.” Emin Milli did not respond to several requests to take part in the survey.

[26] Fatih Gökhan Diler , “Azerbaycan’da kan dökülmeden Türkiye uyanmalı,”, April 12, 2013,, accessed April 16, 2013

[27] The president’s popularity is difficult to gauge accurately; election numbers are almost meaningless given Azerbaijan’s poor track record of election administration. For independent data on the president’s popularity, see “Azerbaijan in 2006-2010,” Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung,, accessed March 31, 2013.

It should be noted that the Friedrich Ebert Foundation reported to me on April 22, 2013 that the confusing table on page 11 of their study is in error, and that in 2010, 70.5% of respondents said that they “fully trust” President Aliyev. It is, however, debatable as to how reliable such data are when a poll is taken in a country where individual freedoms are limited and people may not be fully candid in sharing their views.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “A Contradiction Between Civil Liberties and Democracy in Azerbaijan,” CRRC: Social Science in the Caucasus,, accessed May 1, 2013