Youth Groups in Azerbaijan Encounter Difficulties During Run-up to Parliamentary Elections
By Mina Muradova and Rufat Abbasov: 11/03/05

News that representatives of the Ukrainian youth movement Pora (It’s Time) are planning to arrive in Azerbaijan to monitor the November 6 parliamentary elections have put officials in Baku on guard.

Youth groups, such as Pora in Ukraine and Kmara in Georgia, are widely viewed by incumbent authorities across the Commonwealth of Independent States as the shock troops of the “color revolution” phenomenon, which has produced regime changes in Tbilisi, Kyiv and the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek over the past two years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Given the perception of youth activists as revolutionaries, Azerbaijani officials are sure to keep close tabs on the Pora members when they show up in Baku.

The Pora activists are expected to be part of a Ukrainian monitoring delegation, the Regnum news agency reported. Their primary mission is to promote a free-and-fair election. "Pora activists intend to stay in Baku after elections as well and share their experience on carrying out a peaceful fight against [vote] falsification," the Regnum report stated.

A representative of the Azerbaijani youth movement Magam, Emin Huseinov, confimed that Pora activists will attempt to enter Azerbaijan on November 5. Whether they are allowed into the country or not remains uncertain, however. Huseinov added that a member of the Ukrainian delegation will be Serhiy Yevtushenko, who was at the center of a diplomatic incident in September, when Azerbaijani officials refused to let him enter the county, prompting a diplmatic protest by Ukraine. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Yevtushenko spent two days in custody before flying back home. [For additional information click here]. The Azerbaijani diplomats described the incident as a "misunderstanding." Since then, Azerbaijan and Ukraine have maintained amiable relations.

Yevtushenko’s detention was apparently prompted by Azerbaijani official concerns that Pora activists intended to provide training and advice to youth groups in Azerbaijan in how to organize popular protests and other democratization-related activities. During the Yevtushenko incident, Pora representative Serhiy Taran dismissed the notion that the youth group was trying to export its revolutionary strategy. "First of all, the people in the country should want a revolution,” Taran told the Azerbaijani television station ANS back on September 16. “Rumors are circulating that we might have come here to stage a revolution. The forces that are really afraid of a power change in Azerbaijan are involved in spreading the rumors. Pora's stance toward Azerbaijani authorities and the opposition is the same."

Azerbaijani authorities have demonstrated little tolerance for the activities of domestic youth groups – especially those linked to political opposition organizations. One such group, Yeni Fikir, which is associated with the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, became embroiled in a scandal, in which its leaders stand accused of plotting with Armenian agents to carry out actions to destabilize Azerbaijan.

Yeni Fikir was established April 2004, just months after the Rose Revolution in neighboring Georgia. The group’s stated aims are fighting corruption and advocating democratization. The group scored an important early success when it organized a hunger strike that secured the reinstatement of one of its members, Namiq Ferziyev, at Azerbaijan Pedagogical University. Ferziyev had earlier been expelled from the university, reportedly due to his affiliation with Yeni Fikir.

The scandal involving Yeni Fikir began with the arrest of its leader Ruslan Bashirli in early August. He was formally charged with conspiring with Armenian agents during a meeting in the Georgian capital Tbilisi in late July and accepting a $2,000 payment. Government critics were widely critical of Bashirli’s arrest, characterizing it as politically motivated.

Bashirli’s lawyer, Elchin Gambarov, claimed that authorities tried to pressure his client into publicly implicating Popular Front leader Ali Karimli in conducting illicit activity, supposedly promising the youth group leader that he would be released from custody if he did so. Bashirli refused to comply.

In the weeks after Bashirli’s arrest, other Yeni Fikir leaders, including Said Nuri and Ramin Tagiyev, were detained and/or harassed. According to Fuad Mustafayev -- deputy chief of the Popular Front Party, and a major figure in the Azadlig opposition bloc – the government’s action was designed to hinder Yeni Fikir’s from involving itself in any aspect of the parliamentary elections – campaigning, monitoring or potentially helping to organize mass rallies.

"Authorities were aware of the power of the youth movement, and therefore decided to strike a preemptive blow,” Mustafayev claimed.

The Azerbaijani government’s action toward youth groups caught the attention of international human rights groups. In a briefing paper issued October 31 on the parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch stated: “The authorities' persecution of these groups has increased throughout 2005. The effect of the government’s recent actions has been to significantly hamper youth groups’ activism, forcing them to focus mainly on their own survival.”

Despite the group’s difficulties, Yeni Fikir activists say that membership has increased in recent months from approximately 1,500 to 2,500. Mustafayev said that young people are playing a key role in conducting the Azadlig opposition bloc’s campaign, noting that 90 percent of the bloc’s activities rely on volunteers.
“We do not have big financial resources and a large number of volunteers are young people, who love to use their energy in fighting for democracy,” he said.

Huseinov, the representative of the Magam (It’s Time) youth group, emphasized that most young activists are not as concerned about who wins the parliamentary elections, as they are about how the vote is conducted and how the winners govern. "For us, it does not matter who is in power – [the governing] Yeni Azerbaijan Party or the opposition,” Huseinov said. “We are for establishing rule of law in society, where all citizens, without any exclusion, have equal rights."

Huseinov indicated that Magam activists would not stand by idly if they perceive the November 6 elections to be rigged. "If there are a lot of violations during the elections, we will [encourage] people to protest,” he said.

Editor Note: Mina Muradova and Rufat Abbasov are freelance journalists based in Baku

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Emin Huseynov, coordinator of the youth group "Meqam!" (It's Time!), stands in the courtyard of the headquarters of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. Like the rest of the youth movement in Azerbaijan, Huseynov's group has remained small and has struggled to make an impact in the election. (Yigal Schleifer for Eurasianet)