Police tactics in dealing with street protests are often subject to criticism, in democratic countries as much as in totalitarian ones. The use of water cannon and rubber bullets is allowed under standard operating procedures in many countries. Usually it means that either the number of demonstrators was so huge that the police felt that they were losing control and that there was a threat to public order, or that the protest had become violent and there was danger to safety of citizens or property. It could also mean that the police were unprofessional or under instructions to use heavy handed tactics.
The protest held in Baku on 10 March was neither huge nor violent yet the police responded with tear gas, water-canon and rubber bullets, and arrested around eighty protestors.. The use of overwhelming force to break up a protest mainly by young people angry at the number of deaths in the Azerbaijani Army as a result of abuse by senior officers is a sign of the jittery mood in the Azerbaijani leadership ahead of presidential elections in October. The protestors were calling for the resignation of the Defence Minister. Amongst them were relatives of some of the hundreds soldiers who died in the Azerbaijani military in non combat situations over the last years.
Azerbaijan is at a crossroads. The government has a choice: dialogue and reform or confrontation. It seems it has opted for the latter. If things do not change very fast the October election will be an irrelevance. The squeeze on the opposition continues; a leading Presidential contender, Ilgar Mammedov, is in jail; and the space for peaceful dissent shrinking by the minute.
The international community, particularly the EU and the US, are in a dilemma. Should they remain engaged with Azerbaijan, a country with which they have close political, security and economic ties, or should they ostracise it for its democratic failures and human rights shortcomings? Both the EU and the US need to avoid making the mistake of waiting for the October elections and should concentrate on urgent efforts to try to ensure that conditions are created now for those elections to be meaningful. The emergence of a determined group of people who are ready to challenge the government and who the government has failed to intimidate is against the odds, becoming a game-changing factor in Azerbaijani politics. Both sides need to show restraint and avoid violence. But the government needs to provide wise leadership in the form of a credible political reform programme. Otherwise it will only have itself to blame if a situation that is today a problem, becomes tomorrow a crisis.