Despite a rapidly growing economy and a large influx of oil money, Azerbaijani youth are far from being jubilant. Amid fears that the wave of democracy may never reach the shores of the Caspian Sea, many young, educated people seek ways to start a fresh life, preferably far away from the state borders.
He introduces himself as Khan, a 27-year old blogger. But neither his name nor age are certain of being true. He carefully weighs every word before replying to the questions. Khan is determined to protect his identity, worried that the authorities may want to take their revenge on his family and friends he left behind in Azerbaijan. Journalists, after all, are the last to be trusted.
It must make him truly uneasy, observing from afar, how Baku-wired activists take every effort to track down the real name of the lucky guy who has been recently granted political asylum in the US, a dream destination for many of his peers. Khan, who has been involved in anti-government actions since 2005, fled to America, not only out of fear but also in hope of a better future. He believes that the United States, unlike Azerbaijan, will safeguard his personal freedoms. As an asylum seeker, he vows to continue struggling for democratic change.
“I really think we [blogger-activists] are more productive here abroad than in Azerbaijan. Here I can criticise the regime without any fear of being arrested on fake charges. I could have written articles while I was in Baku, but I am sure that I would have shared the fate of Adnan [Hajizade], Emin [Milli], Bakhtiyar [Hajiyev], and others who were arrested and went to jail for their criticism of the government,” Khan argues.Murad Gassanly, an Azerbaijani political exile with a British passport, reveals that he is contacted by scores of young people who seek advice on how to emigrate abroad. Gassanly left Baku with his parents 17 years ago, after the former communist secretary and father of the incumbent president Heydar Aliyev rose to power to re-introduce an iron fist rule in the country. He returned to Baku in 2005 to assist the opposition in the parliamentary elections but found himself deported and blacklisted a few months later.
Gassanly is hardly surprised that the youth may prefer to live abroad. He describes Azerbaijan as a “mature authoritarian capitalist system based on autocratic politics and corrupt economics” where success is proportional to the level of ties one enjoys with the ruling family. “Poverty, corruption, abuse of law and persecution of the opposition are the chief characteristics of the Aliyev regime,” Gassanly says. “This is augmented by the total absence of free speech, total control over the media, especially television, and the ridiculous cult of personality built around the late President Heydar and his son Ilham Aliyev (and increasingly his wife and children). Essentially it is a neo-feudal monarchy”.
In the context of rapidly shrinking freedoms, an exodus of active and productive citizens, in his view, is inevitable. “In Europe, Russia and the US there is a growing Azerbaijani diaspora made up of political exiles like myself, political refugees and economic migrants”.
Gassanly adds that the emigration issue may soon turn against the country’s development. “I recently carried out an unscientific poll and found that more than half of young Azerbaijani professionals (highly qualified and skilled experts and specialists) listed on the social network LinkedIn are in fact based outside Azerbaijan, working for global multinationals or having emigrated permanently. The brain drain is a reality which is only accelerating”.
Rodion, age: 24.
“You can call me Rodion Raskolnikov. Please, don’t forget to use this nickname. Do not reveal my real name. I am a lawyer. I was dismissed from my previous workplace for political reasons, which is why I can’t tell you the name of my current employer. I was detained several times. Last time they detained me in connection with demonstrations on March 11th, 2011 before the protest even started. The authorities harass me, my family and my friends. My parents fear losing their jobs, it’s a real threat. I am 24, and it should be the best years of my life. I want to spend my youth as I dreamed; being free, in a democratic country. I want to live abroad but not for good. I would need to return because my goal is to democratise Azerbaijan”.
On the rise, downward
Equipped with vast energy resources, Azerbaijan managed to weather the global economic crisis. Fueled by a large influx of oil money, the Azerbaijani economy is on the rise. The official unemployment rate runs at six per cent. Investments are booming. President Ilham Aliyev has said that 800,000 new jobs have been created within the last five years.
Yet, Zohrab Ismayilov, a Baku-based economist who runs a watchdog NGO, paints a less optimistic picture about the economy’s efficiency in the country. Ismayilov reckons that underdevelopment of the private sector and the service industry may jeopardize the job market. That, in turn, may encourage people to seek work elsewhere. “The private sector can’t stand on its feet due to rampant corruption and strong monopolies. In addition, the investment climate is not that good,” the economist says.
The situation becomes particularly difficult for young people who lack higher ducation and have no connections. A low income would often push them toward Russia where they try to make ends meet by working as street vendors.
Their better educated peers also face challenges. Blogger and new media specialist, Ali Novruzov, believes that the Azerbaijani market is of little attraction for those who hunt for career advancement. “The problem is that there are no prospects for young, educated professionals to achieve something here. There are no adequate career and financial opportunities”.
To some extent, however, there is. Yet it’s all about picking the right lot. Those who find themselves loyal to the ruling elite may not experience any trouble in finding an attractive, well-paid position, provided they accept that their comfort of living is worth paying the price.
“There are other aspects of comfort in Baku that money can’t buy…and in general it lacks a meaningful quality of life, a respect for human dignity from the political administration and all other things that the middle class values, but can’t obtain in an increasingly authoritarian country,” Novruzov says.
Rustamli, age: 19.
“Hi. My name is Rustamli, I’m 19. I help coordinate activity in the Popular Front Party [one of the main opposition movements]. I have been detained by the police many times, always during protests. I would like to live in Germany or another European country because they respect their citizens. In Azerbaijan they treat you like an animal. But I wouldn’t stay in Europe permanently – I want to see European values in my country. Azerbaijani youth dream of democratic change. I dream that one day Azerbaijan will also become a democracy, like Georgia or Ukraine. I believe it will happen one day”.
Dwindling in numbers
Although the authorities constantly assure that Azerbaijan steadily follows the path of democracy and liberty, its human rights record remains very poor.
Intiqam Aliyev [no relation to the incumbent president], a human rights lawyer, argues that there are serious infringements on legally protected liberties, ranging from the freedom of speech, elections, to independence of the judiciary. “Despite the fact that the Constitution of the Azerbaijani Republic provides a long list of rights, in reality, the situation is still very frustrating,”Aliyev explains, adding “Azerbaijan ratified most of the international treaties on human rights, reformed a number of laws in consultation with the Council of Europe, and even released some political prisoners, but many of its commitments have remained paper commitments… the government continues to be engaged in concerted efforts to limit freedom of expression, using criminal defamation, legal action and violence to intimidate dissenting journalists and activists, frightening many into silence”.
The situation deteriorated in the wake of the March 11th campaign inspired by the peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. What started as an online Facebook campaign launched by a group of Azerbaijani diaspora quickly turned into real demonstrations on the streets. Frightened that the Egyptian scenario could be repeated in Azerbaijan, officials responded with a heavy crackdown on the activists. Although the demonstrations were not large in numbers, hundreds were detained and dozens arrested.
“Since the beginning of 2011, some 50 people have been arrested on political grounds. This list includes opposition and youth activists, as well as members of the Islamic party. The legal proceedings show that they all are potential political prisoners,” Rasul Jafarov, Baku-based human rights defender, reveals.
Jafarov points to the example of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a 29-year old blogger. Hajiyev was detained and violently interrogated in connection with the March 11th Facebook campaign. Recently, he was charged and sentenced to two years in prison on charges of evading compulsory military service.
Cases like Hajiyev serve as a reminder that breaching the level of freedom allowed by the government may trigger serious consequences. Thus the circle of defiant and audacious democratic activists is dwindling. There are still a handful of devoted activists who are determined to stay in the country. They argue that leaving Azerbaijan will not help them escape the reality of life in the country. Some, however, have switched sides to help boost their professional career. Others have come to the conclusion that there is no other way but to struggle for Azerbaijani democracy from beyond its borders.
Rovshan, age: 26.
“My name is Rovshan. I want to go abroad for studies or work. I am 26 years old; I am a member of the Musavat party [main opposition movement]. I have been detained five times. I am jobless with an MBA diploma in my pocket. I don’t know why I can’t find a job, but this unemployment may have to do with my activities as a dissident. I lost my job with a bank after attending the March 11th demonstrations. I would like to learn English and get a PhD in economics or social sciences from a university abroad. My dream is to have freedom in Azerbaijan, just as they do in the Netherlands or Denmark. You ask me if I regret taking part in the demonstrations, yes, sometimes I do. We risk everything, we have to advance change and society just sits by. They don’t assist us. I am sorry. Can you please help me leave Azerbaijan?”
Anna Żamejć is a US-based, freelance correspondent with the Azerbaijani Service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. She is a member of the editorial staff of the monthly Liberté! specializing in politics of the South Caucasus and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.