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Opinion | Cosmetic touch-ups won’t break Azerbaijan’s cycle of crisis

2 September 2019
(Mockup pictures credit: Mikroskop Media, Meydan TV)

In a country in need of far more profound reforms, cosmetic changes simply won’t do. The Azerbaijani government must address the underlying issues instead of buying time with occasional raises and lip-service amnesties.

Three years ago, when Azerbaijan’s economy tanked as a result of a global fall in oil prices, a wave of protests swept across the country.

From Siyazan, through Lankaran, Fuzuli, to Aghsu, people called on the authorities to reduce inflation and address price hikes and soaring unemployment.

Still, the authorities refused to take the blame. Instead, they found scapegoats in the opposition and a small town just north of Baku. The ultra-conservative town of Nardaran was allegedly home to religious extremists planning to overthrow the government in Baku and set up sharia law in the country.

Diverting attention, along with heavy-handed police intervention, quickly silenced growing discontent, and a few arrests of some low to medium level functionaries brought back order. But so too did the decision to remove taxes on flour and bread and a 10% increase in pensions.

At the time, many of the country’s independent analysts and critics said that real structural reforms were needed. Most importantly, a diversification of Azerbaijan’s oil-based economy was key, they said.

Fast forward to 2019, and none of the expected reforms or diversification was carried out. At the same time, the riot police are no longer enough to silence growing disillusionment with the government.

2019: the year of unrest

In May, a group of Ganja residents arrived in the capital Baku to demand that those who tortured their imprisoned family members be brought to justice. The group’s earlier attempt to demand justice ended abruptly when local police in Ganja broke up their protest on the grounds that it violated ‘public order’ (a legislative amendment introduced in 2016).

The arrests took place exactly a year ago, after a botched assassination attempt against then-mayor of Ganja Elmar Valiyev, who had been in power for seven years. The arrest of a suspect by the local police was followed by further protests and violence, in which two police officers were killed and one more wounded.

[Read on OC Media: Protest in Azerbaijan’s Ganja against prosecutions over 2018 unrest]

Also in April 2019, residents of Kurdamir tried to block the Baku–Gazakh motorway in protest at the seizure of pasture lands. In Jalilabad, local residents of three villages rallied against an export tax on potatoes; in a bid for attention to their plight, they attempted to dig through the Baku–Astara motorway.

In both cases, residents were promised by the local city officials that their concerns would be addressed and no arrests were made.

Perhaps it was in hearing these and other signs of disappointment that President Ilham Aliyev, while attending the opening of the Mardakan–Gala motorway, insisted in his remarks that it was the duty of all state officials to serve the citizens of Azerbaijan.

‘You know that I am in constant contact with citizens. I hear from them about both the problems and about the positive things. Therefore, every government official should know that their main task is to serve citizens. This is also my obligation’, said Aliyev, arguing for stricter public control in order to achieve this.

In May, residents of Zabrat, a village on the outskirts of Baku, blocked several roads demanding the authorities resolve a gas access issue, a problem the village has been suffering for years, while residents of Khirdalan took to the streets because of a lack of water and electricity supply.

In an attempt to save a century-old historic building, a community of artists, filmmakers, and photographers in Baku called on all responsible government institutions to preserve the building from demolition. Known as the Molokan House, the building was recently rented to a new alternative art space the Salaam Cinema and it was this group that has so far managed to save the building from living its final days.

[Read on OC Media: Activists occupy ‘historic’ building in Baku to prevent demolition]

For weeks the group occupied the building, withstanding pressure from the owner. They were eventually able to secure the necessary documents to classify the building as a historical one, and thus bring it under the government’s protection.

Finally, on 3 August, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to include the building in the list of protected architectural buildings.

In June, shop owners in the Sadarak shopping centre came together to protest against a spike in rents and new taxes. Many shop owners lack paperwork indicating their rights to their shops as owners, which they have purchased at high costs, and still have to pay rent and other fees to the shopping centre owners.

A similar protest took place in 2013 when shop owners ended up clashing with the local police. At the time, it was also reported that the owner of the shopping centre was connected to high-ranking government officials. But in contrast to the protest in 2013, no one was arrested this time around, and the police did not intervene using tear gas either.

In yet another contrast to previous years, for the third time this year, the authorities have announced increases in the minimum wage and benefits. In February 2019, the government almost doubled social security benefits and in March, the minimum wage was raised from ₼130 ($76) per month to ₼180 ($110). In June the minimum wage went up again to ₼250 ($150) and pensions were raised from ₼160 ($94) to ₼200 ($120).

[Read more: Azerbaijan increases minimum wage]

A re-run of 2016

Much of what is happening in Azerbaijan today bears a resemblance to the events the country witnessed in 2016.

When the country was hit by currency devaluation and financial crisis in 2016, the country’s leadership was forced to soften its hostility towards its embattled civil society, including signing a pardon decree that saw the release of many of its high profile political prisoners.

Similarly this year, in March, ahead of Novruz celebrations, President Ilham Aliyev signed a pardon decree that saw the release of some fifty political prisoners — the highest number yet.

[Read more: Aliyev frees 52 ‘political prisoners’ as part of Novruz amnesty]

In 2016, the authorities decided to tackle the problem of corruption. Its first target was the customs system. At the time, the Financial Times wrote that ‘revenues from customs increased 30% in the first six months of 2016 from a year earlier, in spite of the contraction in the economy’.

But the pardons in 2016 and 2019 were nothing but lip service to western concerns over Azerbaijan’s still poor human rights and freedoms record.

Phantom reforms

Following his re-election in 2018, President Ilham Aliyev vowed to pursue more reforms.

In an interview with pro-government TV station Real TV (President Ilham Aliyev’s first-ever interview with a local news outlet), the president said that ‘extensive work has been carried out since the second half of last year to specify, identify, and sequence reforms and new reforms were launched early this year’.

Aliyev added that the goal of the reforms was ‘to transform Azerbaijan into a modern and developing country, and in the future into a developed one’.

But what concerns people across the country is their poor living conditions, lack of access to water, electricity, and gas, inflation, and unemployment.

Among the groups speaking up and calling for help from the authorities are internally displaced people, who live in destitute conditions in dormitories and other buildings that lack access to even basic services or have even become refuges for drug addicts. This 25 years after their displacement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

But 26 years after the Aliyev family came to power in Azerbaijan, significant social and economic progress has yet to be seen — while real political reform remains as distant as ever.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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