“The Arab Spring” in Azerbaijan: Similarities and Differences
Article 2: Tunisia and Azerbaijan
In countries with totalitarian regimes, revolutions often happen suddenly, when the ruling power is weakened by overconfidence. The spark that ignited the Arab Spring, not only in the Arabic countries, but also in Africa, came from Tunisia: a dark horse no one had expected to change history. On 17 December 2010, the 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi stood in the middle of traffic outside the Governor’s office, doused himself in gasoline, and lit a match. This event triggered a chain of protests, which quickly escalated to riots, then a revolution that swept the entire nation.
It’s quite possible that the majority of Azerbaijanis have little knowledge of what happened in the Tunisian revolution. The facts are simple: the young Tunisian was a regular Joe who couldn’t find work and tried to open an unlicensed retail shop. With no money to bribe the cops, he quickly saw his only source of income raided and shut down. In despair, having lost all hope, the young man set himself on fire. And the 15 percent of Tunisia’s population who live in the same conditions as Mohamed took to the streets. And a mere 27 days later, Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime crumbled.
Today, more than 55 percent of Azerbaijan’s population lives in much worse conditions than those that drove the young Tunisian to self-immolation. Data compiled by international organizations paint a bleak picture. But I think no one knows this better than regular Azerbaijanis behind the chilling statistics.
In 1986, Tunisia’s first President Bourguiba appointed Ben Ali to the post of a Minister, and then quickly promoted him to Deputy Secretary of the Socialist Destourian Party (Tunisia’s equivalent of the New Azerbaijan Party). In October, Ben Ali took the post of Prime Minister. Tunisia’s Constitution states that in the absence of the President, the Prime Minister assumes the leadership position. Ben Ali rode this article of the Constitution all the way to the Presidential Palace: on 7 November, he declared President Bourguiba incompetent on medical grounds, claiming that the old man was not of the sound mind. With Bourguiba impeached, Ben Ali constitutionally took his place as President.
The same scenario was replayed in Azerbaijan. In August 2002, on the basis of a so-called referendum, the Constitution was amended to say that in the event the President is incapacitated, the country’s leadership passes to the Prime Minister. Twelve months later, the press was fed the line about Prime Minister Artur Rasizade’s “illness”. The media swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Newspapers and newscasts were suddenly filled with speculations about his alleged retirement in 2004 and bets on his possible successor: would it be Farhad Aliyev, Ali Insanov, Ramiz Mehdiyev, or Kamalladin Heydarov? The later quickly emerged as the favorite. And this rumor mill keeps spinning today.
I was fated to know the majority of people currently in power. Some sought me out for advice; some have even been good friends. I’m talking specifically about Abdurrahman Vazirov and Ayaz Mütallibov. In the days of the Azerbaijani Popular front, both found themselves on the receiving end of widespread hostility. Any contact with Vazirov and Mütallibov could potentially blow up in my face. But I refused to turn my back on them. Being close to so many powerful people, I cringed at every new cycle of speculations about a new Prime Minister. Can’t you understand, I wanted to tell the public, that even if Arthur Rasizade wanted to retire, he simply wouldn’t be allowed? As long as he remained in office, the “Ben Ali option” would be off the table.
What would have happened, for example, had Rasizade had the strength of character to veto the suspicious decree supposedly signed by President Heydar Aliyev in August 2003, appointing his son Ilham Aliyev to the post of Prime Minister? (That’s aside from the fact that no one has ever been able to find the original decree or prove its authenticity.) A president who spends a third of the year (the exact number of days can be checked easily enough) “improving his health” abroad could hardly endanger his past, present, and future by handing the title of Prime Minister to a man with even the slightest of ambitions. So barring truly extraordinary circumstances, Rasizade will stay where he is. And when the day comes, he will be replaced with another, even more obedient, pliant, and unambitious figurehead. Had I been so sure that our present rulers can turn the tide of the ever growing scorn of their people, I could name a few other people who would be great Prime Minister material…
Similarities between Tunisia and Azerbaijan
In 2002, the article of the Tunisian constitution that limited a president’s rule to three terms was removed following a nationwide “referendum”. It’s hard not to think back to the Azerbaijani referendum that took place on 18 March 2009. The last Presidential election saw 90 percent of Tunisians allegedly casting their vote for Ben Ali – standard numbers for “elected” dictators. This was his fifth term as President.
In the course of Ben Ali’s five Presidencies, corruption and bribery in Tunisia grew by leaps and bounds. Ben Ali’s own numerous relatives, and those of his wife Leïla, became heads or shareholders of private companies. Leïla Ben Ali continued to head humanitarian organizations right up until the uprising, patronizing hospitals and donating a great deal of funds to put a nice face on her corrupt family. She has even received state honors in several Arabic countries and in France.
Members of the ruling party accounted for 85 percent of the Parliament formed by Ben Ali. The other 15 percent were made up of so-called opposition parties which in reality supported the regime. The fact that real opposition leaders weren’t allowed to enter the race served as one of the main triggers of national unrest. As usually happens in these cases, the Socialist Destourian Party expelled Ben Ali in a bid to distance itself from the unpopular figure. But even this disgraceful step couldn’t stop the party from crumbling.
Without specifying any dates, without mentioning any names, Azerbaijani readers will doubtless recognize their country.
The two regimes share another feature: both use Islamic fundamentalism to prop up their power. Ben Ali made a show of battling what he branded as Islamic fundamentalism: he was, or so went the story he continuously sold to the West, personally responsible for stopping foreign extremists at the Tunisian border.
Differences between Tunisia and Azerbaijan
Tunisia holds the 59th place among the world’s most corrupt countries, nestled between Italy at 61 and Turkey at 56. With its 140th place, Azerbaijan lags considerably behind Tunisia. In other words, things are three times better in Tunisia.
Some so-called patriots try to justify this low rating imposed by international organizations, feeding the people a story about conspiracies and “the Armenian lobby”. I have to point out, however, that the list of countries without corruption includes countries without any lobby: the countries of Scandinavia, New Zealand, Holland, Canada, and Singapore. The country with the biggest army of lobbyists in the world – the United States – occupies the 22nd spot.
On the other hand, no one ever asks the Azerbaijani government and its supporters why a Eurovision victory earned by young, talented performers is touted as the country leaders’ achievement, while the fact that these leaders’ policies drove the country into a feudal state is somehow somebody else’s fault?
We know that population growth is used as one indicator of a nation’s development. Life expectancy is another. Between 1970 and 2011, Tunisian population increased from 5 to 11 million. In Azerbaijan, it grew from 5.1 to 9.1 million. Even here, we lag behind Tunisia by 2 million babies.
Tunisia’s life expectancy, meanwhile, increased from 62 to 76 years, while in Azerbaijan it went up from 58 to 63. The reason for this negligible increase is that gains in life expectancy were due to new medications and technologies, rather than social improvements.
Tunisia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) at its inception in 1995. Our neighbor Georgia joined in 2000; Armenia – in 2003. And Azerbaijan still languishes among countries with reactionary regimes: Belarus, Uzbekistan, and 25 similar states.
Tunisia’s per capita income has increased tenfold every year since 1984. The number of Tunisians living below poverty line fell from 14 to 3 percent.
In Azerbaijan, per capita income has stayed the same, while the number of poor people has surpassed 45 percent. Proselytizers on every corner scream themselves hoarse about Azerbaijan’s supposedly unprecedented growth since 2006. Some even go so far as to say it’s in “first place”. All these declarations aren’t worth a thing, because regular Azerbaijanis see none of the effects of this alleged growth in their daily lives. The government has done nothing to improve the lives of its people – and couldn’t, even if it wanted to.
Now let’s turn to production. Every year, Tunisia produces 9,100 dollars per capita worth of products. Of them, 32 per cent is industrial, 30 percent is agricultural, and the rest belongs to services and tourism. In Azerbaijan, per capita production is at 11 thousand dollars, 6,600 of which come from the oil sector.
In other words, Azerbaijan has made no strides in the last 20 years: the country produces only 3,400 dollars worth of products per capita – one-third of Tunisia’s numbers.
Some countries don’t even take into account production of deposits like oil and gas extracted at minimal expense. Natural resources given by Allah (God) to a certain country can hardly be called achievements. But totalitarian regimes exploit them as such, until these achievements quickly dwindle.
It’s true that compared to Algiers, Libya, and other countries, Tunisia didn’t seem to be headed for a revolution. And when the country finally exploded into insurrection, Ben Ali spent a week puzzling over what those people complained about. “What do they want from me?” he told anyone who’d listen. “Tunisia has the highest standard of living in the region! It’s the most liberal country, with pretty much the lowest unemployment rates in the world.” Ben Ali never did figure out why Tunisians had so much hatred for his wife. Just as the events began to unfold, he told a foreign reporter that his wife was a philanthropist whose organizations helped the disabled and the unemployed. To this day, Woman of the Year titles are still bestowed on her; foreign countries still decorate her with orders, and she is a constant presence on the list of the world’s 50 most influential women. “Mr. President,” the reporter answered, “when Tunisians hear the name Trabelssi (Leïla Ben Ali’s maiden name), they want to kill somebody.” “But her name is Ben Ali!” the President countered. To which the reporter shook his head, smiled, and concluded the interview.
And this, despite the fact that Leïla Ben Ali’s charitable foundations drew their money from other Arabic countries, and she really did help a lot of people in the region.
Our public money, on the other hand, is being spent to help France – a country with the economy that’s 30 times stronger than ours. This is nothing short of absurd. The government of a country with an impoverished population and a million refugees is steering public money towards France – and no one is asking why. Who knows, maybe they’re trying to buy an Order of France.
Can’t we see that the processes that led to a rebellion in Tunisia are already much further along in Azerbaijan?
Nicolas Sarkozy decorated the Presidents of Georgia and Armenia with the Order of France for strengthening ties between their countries. On an official visit to Baku, he thanked Azerbaijan for its “charitable donations to France”. It takes a special talent to take the money that would buy a million refugees a few months of food, and spend it on restoration of some Parisian statue or painting.
Tunisian Prime Minister and his cabinet were free to govern as they wished. For the most part, Ben Ali, his wife Leïla, and their army of descendants and relatives stayed out of the government’s way. In Azerbaijan, however, ministers can’t take a step without the ruling clan’s approval.
When some bodyguard with family connections can punish any minister, take anyone’s property or business, we have to question the sanity of those “brilliant minds” who see decades of stability in Azerbaijan’s future.
Telephone calls to or from Azerbaijan are twice as expensive as calls to and from Georgia; 1.5 times more expensive than calls to and from Armenia, and 10 times more expensive than calls to and from Russia. To understand this state of affairs, all we have to do is see who owns Azerbaijan’s communications networks. From there, it takes ten minutes to calculate how much of the nation’s money has ended up in the presidential relative’s pockets.
A comparison between Azerbaijan and any Arabic country except Yemen makes one wonder why the Azerbaijani people haven’t rebelled yet. It’s hard to believe that these are the same people who lived in this country 20 years ago, when a million people took to the street to protest the destruction of three trees in a Karabakh forest. These days, Azerbaijanis watch listlessly as more and more hotels, tourist centers, and roads are built in Shusha, refusing to understand that Armenians have no intention of leaving.
Every three months, the government rolls out the tried and tested rhetoric of “taking up arms to liberate our nation’s lands”. Armenians simply laugh at these threats, even tell jokes about them. The consensus among them is that Azerbaijan doesn’t even have the capacity to mount a propaganda campaign. And in the meantime, we are constantly teased with footage of new Shusha streets, highways, and luxury hotels.
This should, by all accounts, galvanize Azerbaijanis – and the government must lead this movement. People turning out in hundreds of thousands would convince the international community to take a more aggressive stance towards Armenia for spilling the blood of Azerbaijani people and stealing their land. TV networks should talk daily about how Armenia attacked Azerbaijan and occupied the ancient Azerbaijani town of Shushsa. We must be cultivating intolerance against the invaders, following in the footsteps of Palestine. Today, the entire world is demanding that Israel declare a moratorium on construction of new settlements. This was the result of many years of work, led by Hamas. Similarly, Shusha must become a symbol, a higher aim of all Azerbaijanis.
Instead, the government doesn’t even try to put together a demonstration ten thousand strong. Our leaders are scared that instead of protesting against Armenian aggression, any demonstration would turn against its own government. A regime that lives in this much fear of its people could never liberate stolen lands.
The state of apathy that has gripped the Azerbaijani people certainly goes far to assuage this fear. Our leaders think that as long as the salaries of police officers are double those of university professors, the police will continue to loyally drink the people’s blood while the leaders rob the country blind.
Ben Ali was thinking the same thing, until part of the police force joined the rebels 10 days into the revolution, with the rest of the cops following them across the barricades 5 days later. Ben Ali couldn’t remain in his country one more day.
Every minute brings Azerbaijan closer to similar events. One day, students will stand up against the dismissal of a highly respected professor; innocent people will refuse to quietly accept another frame job or murder committed by the police; drivers who languish in Baku’s endless traffic jams will stop fighting with each other and realize that the government is their common enemy; patients will take doctors to task for misdiagnosing them or refusing to treat them because they are too poor to pay; parents will stop forking over bribe after bribe to teachers in return for their children’s good grades; and so on, and so forth, until the country is engulfed in a bloody revolution.
Azerbaijan has turned into a powder keg that can blow at the smallest provocation. But no one can predict where this provocation will come from.
P.S. The next article will focus on a comparative analysis of Azerbaijan and Libya. We will look at how the oil money is distributed, where it ends up, and who benefits.