‘The appearance of change’ — Azerbaijanis question if the government is opening up

27 February 2019
President Ilham Aliyev on a meeting with martyrs’ families. (Official photo)

The Azerbaijani government has reacted swiftly in recent months to complaints in the media and online. While many speculate this may be a sign of a more open government in the country, others point to external factors and say they have seen it all before.

Society was not indifferent to the announcement of a mass hunger strike after new charges were brought against imprisoned blogger and activist Mehman Huseynov. Other prisoners and members of civil society joined the hunger strike in support Huseynov and several protests were organised in Azerbaijan and throughout the world.

The strike led to many ordinary citizens to complain about Huseynov’s prosecution on social media, and on 22 January, after an appeal by the president himself, the Prosecutor General’s Office dropped the new charges.

[Read on OC Media: Charges dropped against Huseynov after thousands rally in Baku]

In another case, rallies were held in front of the Presidential Administration and parliament by those left off a list for lump-sum compensation payments of ₼11,000 ($6,500) for families who had lost relatives in the Nagorno-Karabakh War.

President Ilham Aliyev met with the protesting families, speaking with them privately, and then agreed to pay them the indemnity.

The disappearance of a monument to the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic’s founder, Mahammad Amin, from the wall of the house where he was born in the village of Novkhani caused much discontent on social media. This public dissatisfaction was quickly taken into account and the monument was returned to its previous position.

A decision on 6 February by the Cabinet of Ministers on forestry led to condemnation on social networks and was abolished by the president a day later.

In addition, in February the president issued decrees increasing pensions, student scholarships by 15%–20%, and upping the minimum wage from ₼130 ($75) to ₼180 ($105).

And on 12 February, the president gave an interview to the media, something that had not happened for many years. Although the interview was met with some scepticism, the fact that it happened at all was widely welcomed.

These actions have not only followed discontent on social media but also after reports from local media.

On 14 February, independent journalist Aynur Elgunesh wrote on Facebook that ‘generally, the government’s focus on the problems that have been published in the critical media in recent days is remarkable. Finally, they realised that critical media is not the enemy, but a mirror.’

An editor at Meydan TV who did not wish to be named said that many recent complaints and accusations by citizens had been immediately resolved.

‘Twelve employees were re-employed because we broadcast the Metro Workers’ protest in a live broadcast’, the editor told OC Media. ‘We published a report about a lonely woman living in the Barda region and after that, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation was involved in the case and took that woman into their care.’

‘After a live broadcast on 5 February in front of the State Committee for Refugees, the chairman welcomed those who had complained [about housing conditions for IDPs] and solved their problems.’

A more personal government

Many on social media and in mainstream Azerbaijani media have speculated that this is a sign that political discourse and the country’s governance is changing for the better.

Rauf Arifoglu, the editor-in-chief of New Musavat, wrote on Facebook on 6 February that ‘The president follows Facebook and focuses on the processes here and takes into account public opinion. This is one of the reasons the government has been taking operative and generously commendable steps in a number of issues in recent days’.

Vusala Mahirgizi, Head of the ONA news agency, wrote on Facebook the same day that the president ‘feels public opinion, engages in issues that directly concern society, and most importantly, believes in public opinion!’

On 7 February, political commentator Azer Rashidoglu hailed on Facebook a ‘political transformation’.

‘Ilham Aliyev goes directly to contact people, takes into account the opinions on social networks, and gives instant reactions’, Rashidoglu said.

Even some long-time critics of the government hailed what they described as a change in the government.

On the same day, activist Baktiyar Hajiyev, who was handed down prison time in 2012 for evading military service after he voiced support for upcoming protests, praised the new approach.

‘A completely different line was selected in the Azerbaijani management’, Hajiyev wrote on Facebook.

‘The president chose a different position on Mehman Huseynov’s case and met with martyrs’ families who were demanding compensation for months and months. We saw him not with the bodyguards, not on the red carpet, not in the grain and cotton fields, not the opening of luxurious state facilities. We saw him next to the ordinary district and village men.’

Is real change occurring?

Chairman of opposition group the National Council of Democratic Forces, Jamil Hasanli, does not agree that the government is changing its political course. Hasanli links the latest steps by the government with the 19 January rally in support of political prisoners.

‘The authorities managed to learn some lessons from what was seen at the rally. There were a lot of people in that rally and there were reasons bringing them there’, Hasanli told OC Media.

According to him, the authorities did everything they could to prevent the rally from taking place, and so the fact that so many people still came was unexpected for them.

Hasanli said that 21,000 people were identified as being involved in the protest. The government called these people to ask about their participation, which Hasanli says shows how worried the government was.

‘The authorities were forced to retreat from their previous actions. These are not serious concessions. They had to retreat from a neglectful attitude towards the people.’

Hasanli said the authorities had been very cautious, realising that this wave of protest could expand in a short time even grow to a nationwide movement.

Political commentator Zardusht Alizadeh, on the other hand, does not link the latest steps by the government with the 19 January protest. According to him, the government previously only took into account their external image. He said that the deterioration of Azerbaijan’s image abroad had now forced the government to look for support within its own borders.

‘The authorities were indifferent to the Azerbaijani people. But […] increasing pressure from the outside has forced [the president] to look for some support from within. The authorities have been forced to change their indifferent attitude towards the people’, Alizade told OC Media.

He links this with speculation that there could be snap parliamentary elections this year, arguing that the government can no longer rely on their previous methods of falsifying elections.

‘There must be real results. That's why the government has changed its policy somewhat’, Alizadeh said.

Mehman Aliyev, head of the Turan Information Agency, told OC Media that while some aspects of the government’s behaviour may have changed, the country’s politics have largely remained the same.

According to him, the authorities are now trying to show that they are closer to their people. He said the West’s attitude towards Mehman Huseynov’s case was a part of this, but that the main factor was the opposition on display during the 19 January protest.

‘Previously, protests were attended by only oppositionists. At the 19 January rally, there was a large group of people who were not members of opposition parties. That is, ordinary people who were dissatisfied with the situation were also involved in the rally’, Aliyev said.

This, he said, led the government to ‘consider revising the relationship between the people and the government’, but added that this did not mean that all the issues with the government had been solved.

‘Independent media and independent NGOs play the role of bridging the gap between the authorities and the people. These institutions should be established. Realistic steps must be taken to show that the current power is the power of the people’ Aliyev said.  ‘Only then could we see that there is a new policy’ he added.

‘The appearance of change’

The chairman of the opposition REAL party, Ilgar Mammadov, told OC Media that this was not the first time the authorities had tried to create the impression they were making real changes. According to him, during the wave of protests in the Arab world in 2011, all state structures in Azerbaijan cracked down on bribery.

‘But this did not last long’, Mammadov said. ‘As the Arab Spring slowed down, the system reverted to its previous activity.’

Mammadov links the processes that are currently taking place with other events in the Caucasus — ‘the democratisation of Armenia and the strengthening of democratic institutions in Georgia. Moreover, Azerbaijan is losing the economic competition with its neighbouring countries, Armenia and Georgia.’

Mammadov said that Azerbaijan’s negotiations for a partnership agreement with the EU were another factor.

‘The Azerbaijani authorities see that the European Union’s pressure on the situation in the country and in the region could make these negotiations meaningless’, he said.

Read on OC Media: EU Parliament says no deal until Azerbaijan frees political prisoners]

The party chairman also linked the recent changes to internal factors.

‘In spite of repression, people began to express their dissatisfaction on social networks. When these factors coincide, a situation arises in which the government tries to create the appearance of change’, Mammadov said.

He also pointed to disagreements within the government.

‘The authorities seem to be divided. There is news and commentary on tensions between two groups in power. In this situation, President Ilham Aliyev attempts to show himself as an entrepreneurial leader, as a person who can influence the competition between these groups.’

President of all Azerbaijanis

But despite speculation of a change in government policy, not everyone agrees that there has been a change at all.

MP Aydin Mirzazade, head of the Political Analysis and Forecasting Department of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party’s Executive Secretariat, told OC Media that the president has always been as one with the people and regularly reports to the public.

‘The activities of the President are for the people, for every citizen. The strengthening of our independence, ensuring our territorial integrity, and resolving the social problems of our citizens have always been the central part of the President’s activities.’

Mirzazade said that when the president was first elected in 2003, he announced that he would be the president of all Azerbaijanis. According to him, the president has once again shown this to be true.

‘All the steps taken by authorities are for one reason alone. Let our independence become stronger, let our citizens live well. This has always been so, and it will be so’, Mirzazade said.

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