Street Protests Are Now a Craze in the Caucasus

The Moscow Times
Tuesday, Apr. 20, 2004. Page 11

Street Protests Are Now a Craze in the Caucasus

By Chloe Arnold

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Georgians do it outside parliament. Azeris do it along
the Caspian Sea coast. And last week, Armenians were doing it in Freedom
Square in their thousands, until the police sent them home.

I’m talking, of course, about demonstrations — the latest craze to take
hold in this neck of the woods, from Lenkaran to Yerevan, and most places in

The Azeris started it last fall after a presidential election, the rigging
of which astounded even the world-weariest of observers. At the age of 80
and with a quadruple bypass operation under his belt, Heidar Aliyev decided
to relinquish the helm after 30 years and hand the country over to his son.

There was the minor issue of an election to be held, but officials up and
down the country made sure the vote came out overwhelmingly in favor of
Aliyev’s son, Ilham.

Outraged at the result, opposition groups took the streets of Baku,
demanding a revote. But the government was having none of it. The protesters
were beaten soundly and sent to prison, where many of them are still holed
up to this day.

The Georgians fared better. Their parliamentary vote a month later saw the
same cunning tricks used to ensure a victory for the ruling party.
Opposition supporters camped outside parliament for three weeks in protest
before storming the building and forcing the president, Eduard Shevardnadze,
to throw in the towel.

Then last week, it was Armenia’s turn. Not to be outdone by their neighbors,
the Armenian opposition marched in the center of Yerevan, demanding the
resignation of their president, Robert Kocharyan.

Police let them have their say for a few hours before rounding up the
ringleaders and sending everyone else home. The rally came a year after a
presidential election that — wait for it — saw massive violations and a
landslide victory for Kocharyan.

Opposition groups say they will continue their protests until Kocharyan
resigns, but I can’t help feeling the wind is out of their sails.

So why did demonstrations work in Georgia and not Azerbaijan or Armenia?
Mostly, I think, because the Georgians had television on their side. In
Azerbaijan and Armenia there are no opposition stations to call on the
nation to come out and demonstrate — although Armenia is so small, you
could practically do the job just by shouting.

Georgia now has a young, vibrant government with grand ideas. People have
high hopes for their new leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. But if he doesn’t live
up to his promises, I guarantee the Georgians, like the Azeris and the
Armenians next door, will be out on the streets again with another excuse to
hold a demonstration.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.