Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeri Opposition Backs Kiev Protests, Can't Replicate Them

Sustained, regime-shaking demonstrations seem out of the question in Azerbaijan.
  • Azerbaijani opposition leader Isa Gambar addressing protesters in central Kiev, December 2013. (Photo:
    Azerbaijani opposition leader Isa Gambar addressing protesters in central Kiev, December 2013. (Photo:

An Azerbaijani opposition leader has told IWPR that Ukrainians’ struggle for democracy is a test case for other Soviet nations seeking freedom from autocratic rule. Analysts note, however, that Azerbaijan is in a different position, as the opposition is much weaker than Ukraine and protests are put down ruthlessly before they gain momentum. 

Isa Gambar, head of the Musavat party, said events in Ukraine would decide the future of all the countries in the former Soviet Union. If Ukraine became a democracy, then liberal activists everywhere would gain confidence in their own effort to create more open societies.

“It is a good lesson for the Azerbaijan government to realise that regimes which ignore the will of the people cannot stay in power for long,” he told IWPR.

The Azerbaijani government has refrained from saying much about the demonstrations in Kiev that led to President Viktor Yanukovich fleeing his post, followed by Moscow’s military occupation of Crimea and sabre-rattling along Ukraine’s eastern border.

But while officials in Baku may have been dismayed at the speed and ignominy with which the once-powerful Yanukovich fell, they have taken a different line from Moscow on the future of Ukraine.

Speaking after talks in eastern Turkey on March 14, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov called for negotiations and the restoration of stability in Ukraine.

"Unfortunately, the situation in that country remains tense, and Baku is calling for stabilisation. The situation cannot be allowed to escalate," he said, in remarks quoted by Turkish TRT Haber television.

On March 16, a referendum will be held in Crimea to decide whether it should join Russia or become a quasi-independent state. Maintaining Crimea’s current status is not offered as an option.

The significance of a post-Soviet state having part of its territory sliced off is not lost on Azerbaijan, which still holds out hope of regaining control of Nagorny Karabakh, which has operated as a de facto independent entity since war in the early 1990s left it under Armenian rule.

Mammadyarov said the principle of territorial integrity was of great importance to Baku, whose position he re-stated.

"Azerbaijan supports the preservation of Ukraine's territorial integrity," he said.

The Ukrainian protests have been an inspiration to pro-democracy groups in Azerbaijan and elsewhere. Gambar himself appeared on stage in the Maidan on December 15, with a message of solidarity from the “democratic forces of Azerbaijan”.

“We are cheering you on. We understand that today is not only crucial for the future of Ukraine, but also for the future of all post-Soviet countries,” he told the crowd. “In Azerbaijan we are now protesting against the authoritarian Aliyev regime, against corruption and against violations of human rights. Azerbaijanis, too, are demanding European integration.”

He was followed the next day by Rasul Jafarov, head of the Human Rights Club of Azerbaijan, who said he was also speaking on behalf of Ilgar Mammadov, head of the Republican Alternative political movement, and of Anar Mammadli, head of the Election Monitoring Centre, both of whom are under arrest in Azerbaijan.

“They fight for democracy and human rights in their country, just as you are doing today on the Maidan, and as many others are doing in cities in Ukraine,” Jafarov said.

The possibility that Kiev-style demonstrations could be replayed in Baku appears remote. There have been mass protests in the past, particularly against the presidential election result in 2003, in which the incumbent Ilham Aliyev defeated Gambar, and again in 2005. But opposition groups have never managed to sustain the kind of prolonged demonstrations that brought down Yanukovich.

As Gambar pointed out, “The Ukrainian government started dispersing protesters long after they had organised themselves on the Maidan [central square]. In Azerbaijan, it’s impossible to hold any action in downtown Baku. The government deals too aggressively with any kind of protest. Sustained mass protests like those in Ukraine are out of the question in Azerbaijan.”

Farid Guliev, a PhD student specialising in Azerbaijani politics at Jacobs University in Bremen, agrees that there is little prospect of the Ukrainian protests being repeated in his country.

He said the government’s silence on the Ukrainian protests probably indicated that it was sure they would not inspire copycat demonstration s in Azerbaijan.

“It seems plausible that the government has been watching events on the Maidan closely but has not been alarmed by them, because these events aren’t really spreading to Ukraine’s immediate neighbours like Belarus and don’t pose an imminent threat,” he said. “Given their limited organisational resources and the general state of public apathy, the opposition parties would have a hard time mobilising the population to a Euromaidan-type protest if they decided to do so,” he told IWPR.

Guliev also noted that in contrast to Ukraine’s Orange revolution of 2004, the unrest of recent weeks had been marred by violence. As a result, he said, “The participation of extreme radical groups has made the ‘Euromaidan model’ culturally and symbolically less attractive for framing protests in other post-Soviet regimes.”

Students interviewed by IWPR in Baku said they feared the turbulence seen in Ukraine more than the prospect of Azerbaijan remaining as it was.

“It seems to me that those events were organised by Nazi-like groups. They are struggling against a Russia, a great power, and want to be part of a rival power, Europe,” said Mahir Dashdemirov, a first year student at Baku State University. “I am glad Azerbaijan’s government supports a balanced policy in dealing with these powers.”

Elshan Nasibov, studying for a PhD in politics at Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences, said there were no lessons to be learned from Ukraine.

“We don’t want chaos here. We don’t need revolution. Democratic elections are the best way to build the system,” he said. “As the economy grows, Azerbaijan will become more democratic, society will become more liberal, and gradually the liberals will take over the government.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.