Azerbaijan has had a history of popular protest as far back as 1918 when it declared independence from the Russian Empire. More recently in 1990 citizens rallied for independence from the USSR, Soviet troops moved into the capital Baku and opened fire on civilians in what would become known as Black January.
After independence protests against then-president Heydar Aliyev were regular but muted. Many Azerbaijanis were willing to tolerate rampant corruption because they believed that after the country had stabilized and grown economically, Aliyev would be able to bring reform. As time wore on, this belief came to be held by fewer and fewer people as Aliyev made moves to secure more wealth and power for himself and his associates.
Before his death in 2003, Aliyev set in motion a transfer of power to his son, Ilham who remains in office to this day. This culminated in the 2003 presidential elections that saw Ilham Aliyev win by a large margin. The process was widely condemned as being a fraud, with various international organizations citing examples of corruption from before campaigning had even begun, right up until the final results were announced.
This widespread fraud served as a catalyst that saw the ranks of reform-minded groups and political parties swell, their aim was democratic reform and the moment that they chose for this were the 2005 parliamentary elections.
The run-up to and aftermath of this election is detailed in the excellent BBC Documentary How to Plan a Revolution, which was broadcast on CBC several years ago.
The film follows the efforts of young activists Emin Hüseynov and Murad Gassanly as they try to organize popular support for democratic reforms. The film has an incredible amount of access to the reform movement, camera crews follow the pair at night as they spray graffiti, drop leaflets into public spaces, and organize protests – all acts which could land them treason charges and life imprisonment.
It’s also an excellent document on the various kinds of corruption an autocratic regime engages in order to suppress popular will during an election and de-rail reformists. Some methods used include using government-sponsored volunteer clubs to provoke protestors into shoving matches, thus justifying use of force by riot police, seizing ballot boxes, arresting election officials who witness fraud, and refusing to register opposition candidates without reason.
In one of the film’s most absurd moments, a bag of hand grenades and explosives is found out in the open in the building that houses the offices for various youth movements. Murat speculates that Azerbaijani security forces employed an old KGB tactic: planting weapons to try and link the movement to violence, discrediting them and giving police grounds for mass arrests. Activists immediately phone journalists to the scene and proceed to call the police to report the explosives. A few officers arrive, take a quick look at the weapons, and leave without making any statements. This prompts the group to turn in the explosives to the police themselves, accompanied by journalists.
The protests against the Aliyev regime culminated with a rally following the announcement of the election results (which saw Aliyev’s NAP and his “independent candidate” supporters win a large majority), and soon after that a day of protest on November 27th. This rally was attended by a cross section of Azerbaijani society: women, men, young, old, elites, the poor and working class. It was brutally crushed by riot police who used tear gas, water canons and beat protestors indiscriminately.
It was difficult enough to watch the final minutes of the film and seeing the hopes of many Azerbaijanis dashed by brute force. What makes it worse in my opinion is that it happened within the context of a deeply hypocritical US foreign policy in the region.
When the neighbouring state of Georgia had it’s Rose Revolution in 2003, and Ukraine had it’s Orange Revolution in 2004, then US president George W. Bush not only supported the reform movement with words, but also with diplomatic initiatives, and cash for activist groups. Perhaps most importantly for the reform movement: Bush pressured both governments to allow peaceful protest and the security forces largely stood aside. This allowed protests to build quickly into a critical mass over the course of only a few days, much like what happened in Egypt during the early days of its recent revolution.
The Bush administration gave the appearance that it was supportive of democratic reform throughout the region. In May of 2005, six months before the Azerbaijani elections, Bush visited Georgia’s capital of Tblisi to give a speech. He congratulated that nation’s reformers and reaffirmed the United State’s commitment to spreading democracy, saying: “Now, across the Caucasus . . . we see the same desire for liberty burning in the hearts of young people. They are demanding their freedom – and they will have it.”
Many Azerbaijanis took this as a sign that the US, and even Bush himself, would back their efforts for democratic reform. They were to be profoundly disappointed.
The Bush administration did not even acknowledge the reform movement’s existence, it did not comment on abuses of power by Ilham Aliyev’s regime, and it ignored a report by election observers and resolution by the European Council that condemned widespread election fraud. By turning a blind eye to the situation, the US showed that it was willing to let Aliyev crush the opposition, thus allowing him to send in the riot police during the November 27th protest of 2005.
To add insult to injury, just over a year later, Bush held talks with Ilham Aliyev at the White House. Bush looked on as Aliyev remarked at how he looks to the US as a model of a secular, democratic nation that he wished to emulate. Bush also remarked about Aliyev’s key role in energy security, which was telling.
As I pointed out in my last post, Azerbaijan is a major oil exporter. But more specifically, Aliyev was a key figure in the construction of several crucial oil pipelines that serve Western markets. It’s pretty clear to most observers that energy politics determined Bush’s foreign policy in the region, and not the spread of democratic reform, as he claimed in his Tblisi speech. He had a leader in Aliyev that was receptive to Western energy demands and an early ally in Bush’s War on Terror. Whatever leader emerged from an Azerbaijani revolution may not be as warm to the U.S. as Aliyev was. They may build the next pipeline to service southern Russia or Central Asia instead of Europe.
Much like elsewhere in the world, The U.S. was willing to overlook an autocratic leader’s corruption so long as they aligned themselves with Western interests.