Election protests - Baku, Azerbaijan, 2003 (photo: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)
At first glance, you might think the above photo was a lead-in to another post, about another recent democratic uprising against an autocratic leader, in yet another Arab nation.
The people in the photograph are protesting a disputed election win by a corrupt autocratic leader, they are mostly Muslim, but they aren’t Arab and their country isn’t in the Middle East or North Africa. What’s more, they’ve been protesting this regime on and off for several years now. Welcome to Azerbaijan, the most important country you’ve never heard of.
Baku, Azerbaijan (photo: David Davidson)
Azerbaijan is a country located on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus between Iran and Russia and has been fought over by both of those nations for centuries. When it declared independence following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1918, it became the first secular, democratic, Muslim-majority country in the world (five years ahead of Turkey). When the Soviet Union was established, it immediately invaded and absorbed Azerbaijan because, according to Vladimir Lenin, it couldn’t survive without it.
So why was Azerbaijan so important, and why does it continue to be a vital country today, even if we don’t hear about it often? You may have guessed it – oil.
SOCAR Oil Fields #9 - Baku, Azerbaijan (photo: Edward Burtynsky)
One of the first oil wells in the world was built in the capital city of Baku in 1871, and the petroleum industry has been raking in money for the state ever since. Oil has been the biggest driving force of international interest in Azerbaijan and has shaped its own domestic and foreign policies.
Azerbaijan shares many demographic similarities with several North African states that have been or are currently undergoing popular uprisings. It has similar rates of internet usage, urbanization, and the average age of citizens is about the same as in Tunisia and Egypt. Most importantly, there is a large gap in living standards between the elite and the rest of the population.
The country also has a history of being ruled by autocratic strongmen.
Former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and former President George W. Bush at the White House. Washington, 2003 (photo: Eric Draper)
The former ruler of Azerbaijan when it was a Soviet Republica, and then again when it became independent after the collapse of the USSR, Heydar Aliyev is a polarizing figure. During his time as a Soviet leader He used his influence as a former deputy chairman of the Azerbaijani KGB to go after political opponents with corruption charges. Ironically enough, he was also known for showering lavish gifts paid for with state money on officials from Moscow, who then awarded him high-ranking positions within the Soviet government.
When former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched his anti-corruption initiative, Aliyev and his associates were a prime target. Interestingly, several mafia figures and government officials with ties to Aliyev died of mysterious circumstances or committed suicide while investigations were underway. After the Soviet Union fell there was turmoil within Azerbaijan for several years with no one figure solidly in charge of the country. Aliyez emerged from this unrest as an elected president and presided over a period of great economic growth, and as such is remembered fondly by some of the population.
His later years in office were marked, again, by corruption and abuses of power, and his regime became increasingly autocratic. Before he died in 2003 his son, Ilham Aliyev, became president in an election widely condemned as a sham, sparking massive protests. In the years that followed, the opposition movement, spearheaded by many young activists organizing via the internet, would work to follow in the “colour revolutions” of many countries close to Azerbaijan.
In many ways, their aspirations and methods mirror what is currently underway in the Middle East and North Africa. Tomorrow I’ll be taking a closer look at the protest movement in Azerbaijan and reviewing an excellent documentary released several years ago that had an amazing amount of access to the activist community.