Azerbaijan: testing the boundaries of the political space.

Five young activists were jailed on 26 January for protesting peacefully in the centre of Baku.

Azerbaijan imprisoned five young activists over the weekend and heavily fined several dozen others, after they participated in an unsanctioned public protest in the centre of Baku on Saturday, (26 January 2013).

Those arrested included the well-known blogger and dissident Emin Milli who a few years ago was imprisoned for seventeen months on trumped up charges of hooliganism, who was sentenced for fifteen days. Abdulfaz Gurbanli, Rufat Abdullaev, Turkal Azerturk and Tuncal Guliyev were sentenced for thirteen days each. Several other protestors were given heavy fines. They were part of a crowd of several hundred that converged on Baku’s Fountain Square in solidarity with protests that had been held in previous days in the town of Ismaili, 150 kilometers northwest of Baku.

The protesters in Ismaili, some of them throwing stones, had taken to the streets over several days demanding the resignation of the local governor, Nizami Alekberov. They also wanted the release of dozens of men who have been arrested during the rioting. Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the latest protests.

Public outbursts of protest are rare in Azerbaijan, but the demonstrations in Ismaili were the second this month, following a similar protests by traders in Baku earlier.

Opposition and rights activists have also taken to the streets several times during the month in an effort to challenge recent legislation that has increased substantially penalties for unauthorised public protests. Police in Baku have on the whole tried to manage the protests with minimum violence, but in the protests on Saturday several women protestors were reported injured.

A diplomatic source in Azerbaijan told CEW that the young protesters in Baku are testing the political space ahead of the Presidential elections scheduled for October. The government is also testing the extent to which it can allow protests in the centre of the city without risking an escalation of public protests. The problem seems to be that the government itself seems to be unaware of the extent of public discontent under the surface. Many of the grievances, especially outside Baku, are of a local nature, and are usually related to corrupt local officials. A convergence of these local grievances, the mobilisation of the traditional opposition, and the input of a much more media savvy alternative opposition groups using mainly social media tools can pose a serious challenge to the government.

The opposition has yet to decide if and how it will challenge the candidacy of Ilham Aliev who is seeking his third term as president. Some are in favour of putting a unified opposition candidate, whilst others want a boycott of the process in order not to legitimise what they fear will be an election flawed as much as the previous once, if not more.

Source: CEW staff team with local media.