Observations of an American journalist in Azerbaijan, Russia and USA.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Referendum approaches, and opposition grows
The signs are going up. Yes, in a couple of months, Azerbaijani citizens will have the chance to voice their approval of a measure that would remove the two-term limit from the president. But while President Ilham Aliyev was credited with reaping 89 percent of the vote in the November election, the proposed constitutional changes are stirring up real opposition.
The opposition to Aliyev has been fractious in the recent past, although the real opposition groups did agree to boycott the last election (hence - contributing to the Ilham’s landslide). Now, however, the referendum to remove term limits appears to galvanizing opposition groups, who might not see eye to eye on much but can agree that an limitation of the current regime is a bad thing for democracy.
But - as always the case, expressing opposition in Azerbaijan is costly. A reminder: the trial of human rights activist Leyla Yunus is scheduled to begin today. She is accused of "insulting" the ministry and causing "moral damage" to the reputation of the police after she questioned the conduct of a kidnapping trial in which a defendant had alleged police involvement. Human Rights Watch is calling for the government to drop its charges. But the prosecutor charges that she caused “moral damage” to the police by her comments during an interview.
It’s a reminder for journalists who are used to working the West, that our conventional understanding of libel laws aren’t really applicable in most countries. Truth, for example, is not a defense.
Leyla has been chosen to lead a coalition opposition groups called the Civil Movement for Karabakh and a Democratic Republic. The opposition is even growing on-line, with the creation of the Lale Movement, named after a little girl holding a sign in a recent protest. The group now has its own Facebook and Yahoo groups.
All of this is encouraging for those of us who favor more democracy in Azerbaijan, but the opposition is likely to face considerable pressure from a government that appears increasingly less tolerant of dissent. Earlier this week, seven activists were arrested after 20 members Musavat protested a government policy that closed BBC and Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasts on Azerbaijani frequencies. Here's another little article with a photo.
(Above is a photo of little Lale - and a photo of one of the many signs advertising the referendum.)