As Mark Impomeni described, in December Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev released scores of political prisoners. Although he retains tight control over his nation, his people are growing more restive.
This year January “has been a time of revolt,” reported RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Some protests were sparked by the death of an army conscript. Baku storeowners also gathered to protest rent increases tied to the government. Elsewhere, Azerbaijanis demonstrated over the failure of the town of Ismayilli to close an alleged brothel.
Opposition activists are looking toward the October presidential election. However, observed Baxtiyar Haciyev, with the youth movement Positive Change: “People may not be willing to wait until October. If the government does not immediately adopt social, political, and economic reforms, if it does not give people—especially young educated people—a voice, these protests may spread across the country in upcoming months. Then it will be very difficult to control this process.”
Growing protests could tempt the government to crack down, as it has in the past. But that would be a mistake. Ilan Greenberg of the Woodrow Wilson Center warned: “A troubled oil sector, an upcoming presidential election, and the potential for rising tensions with archenemy Armenia portend a challenging year for Azerbaijan’s ruling class.” In fact, Baku plans to increase military outlays in response to troubles with Armenia, which occupies the long-disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In this world, Azerbaijan would benefit from improved relations with the West. That is most likely to come in response to domestic liberalization. As long as the Aliyev government allegedly violates democratic norms, the U.S. and Europeans likely will maintain their distance.