Baku Metro Demo Gains Support

Youth protest could be sign of new opposition in Azerbaijan.

Baku Metro Demo Gains Support

Youth protest could be sign of new opposition in Azerbaijan.

Saturday, 10 October, 2009
The protest outside a Baku metro station looked small, with just 30 participants or so – though it may have sown the seeds of a new Azerbaijan opposition.

The Vanguard of the Red Youth, AKM, had assembled to protest against a rise in the price of tickets on the metro, and its activists held posters saying “the metro belongs to the people”, “lower prices” and demanding the resignation of the metro management.

Ticket prices were tripled to 15 qapiks (around 20 US cents) on October 1 in a major blow to residents of the capital, 70 per cent of whom rely on the metro for transport.

“We are expressing our protest against the policy of social repression against the population conducted by the Tariff Council. In a country where the minimum wage does not exceed 75 manats (around 95 dollars), a journey on the metro must not cost 15 qapiks,” said Rufat Abbasov, 23, an activist from the AKM, whose initials are also those for the Kalashnikov automatic rifle.

Azerbaijan’s state institutions are entirely controlled by allies of President Ilham Aliev, and opposition-organised protests over the last few years have been crushed by the police. Analysts say the future of protest could well lie in the hands of the young activists who turned out in protest over an issue of genuine concern to the population.

"The opposition parties expressed their dislike for the metro price rise only with words. To hold any kind of demonstration, you need permission from the authorities. The youth set the goal of holding a non-sanctioned demonstration and succeeded,” said Gabil Huseynli, a political analyst.

“Young people have often led protest demonstrations. The increase in prices is another such case. They are politically more active, and I welcome their initiative.”

The traditional opposition also praised the bravery of the activists in protesting.

“Although these young people are not inclined towards any particular party, they are the centre of politics,” said Igbal Agazade of the opposition Hope party, who said the activists had risked their careers as students by speaking out.

“Despite this the young people continue to protest against injustice. Young people are in the ring now, and I support their entry into politics.”

The police did little more than take the protesters’ posters while the protest was going on. Three of the AKM activists were arrested later, however.

“Two of them were arrested when they tried at the end of the action to go through the turnstiles into the metro for free, and a third, when he wanted to photograph them,” Abbasov said.

One of the arrested activists, Logman Gasimov, told IWPR that they were held for three hours, then found guilty of hooliganism, fined 51 manats and released.

“In the police station they put psychological pressure on us. We are students and they warned us that the rectors of our institutions would be told of our actions, so we would be expelled,” Gasimov said.

The increase in prices is widely unpopular in Azerbaijan, which has substantial oil wealth but where the population live on an average monthly wage of just 280 manats. The fare increase particularly affects those, like students or pensioners, who rely on a limited stipend or pension from the state.

“How could they raise the ticket prices threefold, when we have such miserly pensions? I can already personally feel how much my expenses have gone up. I am already sorry that I cannot visit my grandchildren as often as I could,” said Garanfil Khudaverdiyeva, a pensioner.

With broad support from various segments of the population, the AKM activists can consider their protest to have been a success, but the metro management was unrepentant.

“We suggested making the price for one journey 20 qapiks but the Tariff Council set a price of 15 qapiks. However, we are still sticking by our first suggestion. There are no 15-qapik coins in circulation. Therefore, the machines run out of change, which has to come from the ticket windows, and as a result there are long queues at the entry to the metro,” said Tagi Akhmedov, head of the Baku metro, in an interview with IWPR.

“The Baku metro already does not meet its costs, and we are appealing to the government for financial support from the budget. Despite the price increase, the Baku metro is the cheapest in the former Soviet Union.”

The metro already swallows up large sums of state money, said economist Gubad Ibadoglu, who said its subsidy had risen from 12 million manats in 2007 to 33 million this year, and its administration was squeezed between its own financial needs and the means of the population. He said the managers had failed to explain their actions to their passengers, and that protests could well continue as a result.

“The price increase could lead to alternative problems. Because of the high prices, the population could stop using it [the metro] and take the bus. And this would create an even bigger squeeze in the already full city buses,” he said.

Seymur Kazimov is a journalist from the SIA news agency.
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