Azeri activists look to past for vision of a democratic future

Opposition party supporters and activists gather to remember Mammad Rasulzade who oversaw Azerbaijan’s first truly independent and democratic period between 1918 and 1920

AS the high of holding the Eurovision Song Contest turns into a hangover, Azerbaijanis could be forgiven for their independence day celebrations appearing somewhat muted.

But in a small village 50km from the capital Baku several hundred people gathered before a statue of the man who symbolises their hopes for the future.

Mammad Rasulzade oversaw the creation of the first democratic Azerbaijani state on May 28, 1918, during a brief two-year window between the collapse of the Russian Empire and the emergence of the Soviet Union.

It was also the world’s first democratic secular Muslim state that gave women the vote before much of Europe.

Since its independence from the Soviets in 1991, the country has been controlled by former communist leaders and their offspring – bar a brief calamitous reprieve in 1992 – who’s notions of democracy are more in-line with Russian President Vladimir Putin than Rasulzade.

So every year opposition figures, pro-democracy campaigners and human rights activists come to the coastal town of Novkhani, the birthplace of Rasulzade, to wave flags, listen to speeches and rally for a return to his ideals.

The small gathering in a seemingly far-flung village was a romantic but sad sight and reflective of the strength of opposition politics in Azerbaijan that failed to win a single seat at the last parliamentary elections – although this was down to rigged elections rather than a lack of popularity.

Years and fears of harassment, beatings, dismissals from work and prison sentences have taught a tired opposition to fall into line leaving only the most energetic to continue the fight.

One of those is Osman Kazimov, a human rights lawyer who says he has been threatened, beaten, almost kidnapped and eventually kicked out of the bar association last year for defending political prisoners.

He said: “I could find an easier life if I was dishonest, but I must listen to my heart. While it’s hard defending people against the government at least it shows the justice system isn’t fair.”

The two main opposition parties Musavat and the Popular Front have united, for now, to create The Public Chamber in a bid to pool their limited resources and rally support across the country.

But their respective newspapers have a circulation of little more than 10,000 copies in a country of nine million with sales restricted, according to activists, by kiosks too afraid to stock them or government representatives buying up the copies making it hard to get their message out.

Youth activist and pro-democracy campaigner Turgat Gambar subverts the Eurovision logo from Light Your Fire to Fight Your Lies

However, new youth movements have surfaced which are finding new ways, with the help of the internet and social media, to engage with their peers and unite against the dated communist-era politics and business practises having grown up with an eye to the west.

Turgat Gambar, who helped set up the NIDA youth movement in 2011 following the rigged presidential elections of 2010 and who’s father, Isa, was briefly acting president for the Popular Front in 1992, said: “Until huge crackdowns of democratic opposition in 2003 and 2005 there was a very strong and popular movement for democracy here. Then there was silence for four or five years and the process has started to build up again.”

Fuad Hasanov, the director of civil organisation Democracy Monitor, believes the graphic and increasing economic and political polarisation of society is re-invigorating people into challenging the status-quo.

Nigar Yagublu, press officer for the opposition Musavat Party.

However, Nigar Yagublu, a young press officer for the Musavat Party, believes it wont be through elections that change will happen.

She said: “If we want to get democracy it wont be through elections, I have never seen real elections. People must stand up and demand what they want.”

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