The ripples of the Arab revolutions have reached the Caspian Sea. Inspired by youth-led uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, activists in the oil-rich, former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan used Facebook to announce Azerbaijan’s own “day of rage” on March 11. It’s unclear how many people will heed the call, but, as in other authoritarian states made jittery by the protests in the Middle East — most notably China — the government in Baku has cracked down ruthlessly, allegedly arresting and torturing a number of dissidents.
Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, 29, a graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who is one of the core organizers of the March 11 protests (and one of few moderators on the Facebook page not living abroad), has been detained by security forces for the past month. In a statement released yesterday, Amnesty International claims Hajiyev “passed a letter to his lawyer… saying he had been beaten, tortured and threatened with rape by police while in custody. He has gone on hunger strike in protest against his treatment.” In recent years, he has agitated against the regime of President Ilham Aliyev, documenting purported electoral fraud and government corruption. Other activists and opposition leaders have been arrested or intimidated by police. The government warns the dissidents will be “resolutely dispersed,” says Radio Free Europe.
Aliyev has ruled since 2003 (his father, Heydar Aliyev, governed for a decade before then) and while the country can claim a nominal democracy with opposition parties allowed to compete in polls, it’s hard to disguise Azerbaijan’s authoritarianism. U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks depict a country rife with corruption, carved into fiefs loyal to Aliyev and his family. One January 2010 cable says:
Observers in Baku often note that today’s Azerbaijan is run in a manner similar to the feudalism found in Europe during the Middle Ages: a handful of well-connected families control certain geographic areas, as well as certain sectors of the economy.
Not unlike the regimes in trouble in the Middle East, Aliyev and his cohorts justify their grip on power by pointing to cosmetic signs of growth and stability. Despite harnessing Azerbaijan’s considerable oil wealth, few in the country see Aliyev guiding the country toward real democracy — a source of pronounced frustration for activists like the detained Hajiyev.
Another U.S. cable describes Aliyev as a scheming Corleone from the Godfather trilogy, contrasting the “cosmopolitan image he presents to Western visitors, with his tailored suits and flawless English, and the unpleasant reality of his approach to domestic issues.” And there are others in his family whose appearances also deceive. Aliyev’s wife, Mehriban, styles herself as an 80’s era glamor model — here’s what one of the more snarky U.S. missives in the tranche leaked by Wikileaks has to say:
Lady Mehriban Aliyeva appears to have had substantial cosmetic surgery, presumably overseas, and wears dresses that would be considered provocative even in the Western world. On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression.
At least there — in lacking a full of range of expression — some members of the regime share something in common with a bright, young dissident locked behind bars.