The Guban Crisis in Azerbaijan

The Guban Crisis in Azerbaijan
By Elmar Chakhtakhtinski
March 3, 2012

The events of March 1 in northern Azerbaijani town of Guba seem to
have caught everyone by surprise. The protests were sparked by a
YouTube video showing the provincial governor issuing insulting
remarks about the locals during a public meeting
But the rather unexpectedly strong reaction apparently reflects a deep
simmering popular discontent with the ruling Aliyev regime. It also
reveals the disastrous results of government policy towards the
country’s regions. Finally, it has serious implications both for
Azerbaijan and the international community’s approach to that country.

Azerbaijan’s regions (`rayons’) are run very much like feudal fiefdoms
by the local administrative governors (called `head of executive
power’) – unelected officials appointed directly by president Ilham
Aliyev, who can also remove them at his will. Thus, these individuals
serve and show personal loyalty only to the ruling regime, with no
accountability to local people whom they govern. Unquestioned
obedience, huge portraits and statues of the president and his late
father, the regime’s founder Heydar Aliyev, at every major highway and
city center, opening and ending all public speeches with prayer-like
standard praises towards the ruling family – are the hallmarks of this
system. In return, the governors get to single-handedly rule the
regions, plunder the riches, collect bribes from the population,
appropriate public funds and assets, as long as they share the loot
with the heads of the regime in Baku.

Some of the powerful minister-oligarchs, themselves under Iham
Aliyev’s tight control, are assigned to a `patronage’ over certain
regions, with the president appointing their close associates to the
governorship. This mafia-like setup is further strengthened by the
fact that almost all of the regions are ruled by individuals from
other parts of the country, to estrange them from local population and
keep their allegiances exclusive to the regime. One notable exception
is the remote Nakhchivan region, but there the local native despot
Vasif Talibov has already passed the Aliyev `loyalty test’ by
implementing policies so repressive, brutal and bizarre that
Nakhchivan has been dubbed `Azerbaijan’s North Korea’ by international
observers [].

The object of protesters’ fury, Guba governor Rauf Habibov, is a close
associate of the minister of transportation Ziya Mammadov, who was
named in Wikileaks reports as one of the most powerful corrupt
oligarchs and the head of the third richest family clan in Azerbaijan.
His family’s name was also made known by the media reports about the
adventures of his son Anar Mammadov, cited for paying one million
dollars to grill and eat a bear from a zoo in one of the local
restaurants and for being kicked out of Dubai for debauchery. As a
side note, in a bizarre twist, lately Anar Mammadov has become
involved with lobbying activities in the US and heads a
Washington-based NGO Azerbaijani-American Alliance

While Habibov’s houses in Guba have been torched by protesters, Ziya
Mammadov still owns large properties in that region. Perhaps
attempting to avoid a further escalation of anger from the locals and
the ensuing threat to his own holdings, he was seen on a YouTube video
personally apologizing for any insults that his protégé Habibov might
have uttered.

However, neither Habibov’s own apologies nor the ones offered by
Mammadov satisfied the residents of Guba. Not only protesters in this
provincial town came out in thousands, in numbers greater than any
public protest held since 2005 even in capital Baku where over three
million people live, but they also stood up to the attacks by security
forces against peaceful demonstrators, with some groups within the
crowds responding to police violence by burning down houses belonging
to Habibov and forcing him to flee and resign from office.

Some videos posted online show the furious residents destroying
household items and setting the buildings on fire
[]. Nobody
is seen attempting to rob the place – only an angry act of destruction
inflicted to the possessions of the regime’s regional head. The scale
and depth of resentment seem to go way beyond a mere reaction to the
insulting remarks, but rather present a boiling point for the people
long fed up with the current state of affairs.

As a confirmation that the regime comprehends and tries to hide the
broader causes for Guba protests, another YouTube video clearly shows
that persons inside the police forces have been holding portraits of
the president Aliyev, while no such pictures can be seen among the
crowds of local protesters. This might indicate a desperate (and
poorly implemented) attempt by the authorities to display the events
in Guba as a limited discontent with a `bad local vassal’, while
people are still `admiring the benevolent leader’ of the regime.

Guba events dispel the claims about the perpetual stability and
content of Azerbaijani population with the current political system –
the line that the regime, its apologists and some analysts have long
propagated. Regardless of what happens next in Guba, Ilham Aliyev’s
angry assurance that `you will not see it [Egypt events repeating in
Azerbaijan] regardless of your desires’ in response to a question
posed to him at the World Security Conference in Munich in February,
might now seem further from being guaranteed.

These developments demand proper attention from the international
community, particularly from the Western powers. As Arab spring
showed, even seemingly the most stable regimes can quickly crumble,
causing considerable bloodshed and uncertainty for the regional and
global stability. The calls for restraint, threats of diplomatic
repercussions, followed by sanctions and isolation seemed to have been
coming one step too late to be able to stop further escalation. In
Egypt this led to hundreds of deaths, in Libya – to a full scale civil
war with foreign military intervention, and in Syria, with thousands
killed and demonstrations turned into an armed conflict, the world
powers are debating how to respond.

Therefore, in case of Azerbaijan, to make sure that words and
diplomacy reach any desired preventative effects, perhaps it would be
wise for the US and the European governments to come out early on with
very strong statements and appropriate pressure on Azerbaijani
government indicating zero-tolerance for any violence against the
protesters in Guba or elsewhere in the country.

* Elmar Chakhtakhtinski is the chairman of the Azerbaijani Americans
for Democracy

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