17 April 2012Azerbaijan’s embattled opposition parties held their first officially-sanctioned rally in seven years, but turnout was low and pro-government politicians dismissed it as irrelevant.
The April 8 protest was called by the Public Chamber, an umbrella grouping of the main opposition parties, and took place on the outskirts of the capital Baku. The municipal authorities had in the past offered to allow opposition groups use this location, but they had turned it down and demanded instead to be allowed to hold a protest in the city centre.
Ali Kerimli, head of the Popular Front party, admitted that the opposition had climbed down on the location for the rally.
“We have yielded not to the government, but to the people. Nothing has changed in our relations with the government,” he said in a press statement, adding that since potential demonstrators feared arrest or assault if they took place in an unsanctioned rally in central Baku, “we are simply forced to agree to the location the authorities have offered us”.
Speakers at the rally focused on the problems facing journalists, freedom of assembly, and corrupt officials. Some protesters chanted slogans calling on the government to resign, but won little support from opposition leaders.
“That slogan will become realistic only when the number of participants at our events rises to hundreds of thousands,” Isa Gambar, head of the Musavat party, said.
Protest organisers said the rally was attended by over 10,000 people, whereas police put the numbers at only 1,200.
Siyavush Novruzov of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party was dismissive, saying, “The funeral of any well-known individual would be attended by three times the number that took part in this protest. So few people took part in it that I wouldn’t even call it a protest.”
Activists said the numbers were curtailed by obstacles created by the authorities. People who turned up at the central city bus station said public transport to the site of the rally was cancelled.
Popular Front member Dadash Dadashov said bus company staff said the service had been suspended on orders from the transport ministry. He travelled to the underground station nearest the rally site, but was still frustrated.
“Normally there are lots of minibuses leaving from the May 28th Metro Station. But that day it turned out they weren’t operating. I couldn’t even get a taxi, because as soon as the drivers heard where I wanted to go, they refused to take me. So I was forced to go there on foot, and I missed the start of the protest.”
A transport ministry spokesman, Namig Hasanov, denied that bus services were disrupted or that instructions had been issued to restrict travel on the route.
Igbal Agazade, head of the Umid party, which used to be seen as part of the opposition but is now regarded as more aligned with the government, said the protest was an irrelevance.
“People aren’t even talking about it. And when I say people, I don’t mean politicians or people who are active in public life, I mean ordinary people. That shows that the protest was insignificant,” he said. “In general, though, I support the idea of holding protests. The government should not interfere with the opposition, although they [opposition leaders] should have agreed to the venue from the start without wasting seven years.”
Agazade said he did not attend the rally since his party is not part of the Public Chamber.
“But if it’s suggested that we join in next time, we’ll discuss it,” he said.
Seymur Kazimov is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.