Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

Economic and social frustration spills onto Baku’s streets

Ali Karimli, Chairman of the Popular Front Party being detained. Baku, 19 October

On 19 October, Azerbaijani opposition group the National Council tried to organise a rally in the centre of Baku to highlight corruption and economic and social issues. The authorities warned that the rally was unsanctioned and would be dispersed by police. In recent years, the ruling establishment has persistently denied the constitutional right of peaceful assembly. The majority of participants were ordinary citizens with no political affiliation. Even though the rally was prevented from being held, at least the organisers and participants gave it a try.

Society is so dissatisfied with the government’s policies because of a range of problems: lack of accountability, state level corruption, bureaucratic obstacles, social issues, unemployment and most of all not having a state institution to address those issues. Families with three or more children demand social allowances from the state, pensioners want to see an increase in pensions, people who cannot finance health services are keen to see state support for medical treatment, while housing and joblessness are very serious concerns of participants in the recent rallies.

With the significant fall in oil prices in 2015, the Azerbaijani government realised that without addressing the economic stagnation in the country, mostly due to its mismanagement of the economy and monopoly over it, it would be very difficult to satisfy its citizens. Talking about economic diversification has become an indispensable part of President Ilham Aliyev’s speeches, as he knows it is vital for the survival of his regime. Easing visas for foreigners from certain countries was intended to create a boom in Azerbaijan’s tourism sector, and foreign visitors to the country have increased markedly over the last three years. In his latest meeting with members of the government, President Aliyev talked about the importance of the implementation of reforms. It seems as though he is willing to reform the economy to a certain extent and to do so Mr Aliyev will have to crush his loyal oligarchs who acquired immense wealth during the oil boom era. Some of those oligarchs have already been fired from their jobs and had their assets confiscated. However, the main problem in implementing economic reforms particularly lies with his family. As a matter of fact, Mr Aliyev’s family members control the biggest share of the economy from oil to restaurants and the stores of high-end international clothing brands in Baku. It is practically impossible for an ordinary Azeri citizen to build up a business without facing bureaucratic obstacles, extreme taxation and most of all bribery from various state institutions. How the president is going to address these problems remains unknown.

WHY POLITICAL REFORMS ARE NECESSARY

Azerbaijan’s political system remains untouched as an authoritarian dictatorship, however. As a result of the 2016 constitutional referendum, Mr Aliyev appointed his wife first vice-president, the second most powerful post in the country. Perhaps the move was also intended to boost his own position when confronting the powerful oligarchs in order to facilitate economic reforms. Elections are rigged and the citizens are deprived of their rights to elect their representatives. Mr Aliyev controls the parliament and almost all the MPs are appointed by him based on bribes or political loyalty.

In an environment of economic and social frustration, it is very important to allow the people to elect their own representatives in the parliament. Next year, Azerbaijani parliamentary elections should be held. They provide a chance to reform the parliament and make it more accountable to the people. Mr Aliyev should realise that opposition members being elected as MPs are not a threat to his government; on the contrary it would create an opportunity to solve the pressing issues the county is facing. In that regard it is going to be crucial to start political openness and reforms with the parliament. At the end of the day, the alternative is chaos, anarchy and confrontation, which had a very deep negative impact on Azerbaijan back in the 90s. Nobody wants to see Azerbaijan turn into a failed state like Syria. Therefore, the implementation of economic reforms requires first of all political reforms and respect for human rights.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East, including for the website www.astna.biz. I have a Masters' degree in International Politics & Human Rights from City, University of London.
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