(Eurasianet.org)–As Azerbaijan’s November 6 parliamentary elections draw closer–opposition and youth organization representatives say they are feeling increased pressure from the government. Their concerns have been fueled by the recent arrests of youth activists–one of them a Ukrainian citizen.
On September 12–Yeni Fikir Deputy chair Said Nuri was detained for 48 hours on suspicion of conspiring to stage a coup against the Azeri government. While attending a training session in Poland that was sponsored by the National Democratic Institute–Nuri allegedly received instruction on organizing anti-government protests with the aim of overthrowing the established order–Azerbaijani officials contend. Nuri had assumed responsibility for running Yeni Fikir–a youth group loosely aligned with the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan–shortly after the August arrest of Ruslan Bashirli–the group’s leader. Bashirli was charged with conspiring with Armenian special services to foment unrest in Azerbaijan. The same day as Nuri’s detention–Ramin Tagiyev–another Yeni Fikir deputy chairperson–was sentenced to a three-month prison term for his role in a supposed coup plot.
The US State Department has sharply criticized Nuri’s arrest. In a September 15 interview broadcast by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azeri Service–Terry Davidson–a US State Department official–expressed concern that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s administration was trying to squelch legitimate domestic political opposition. "The US government is concerned [by] the arrest of youth leaders in Azerbaijan as well as the campaign against the Popular Front Party," Davidson said. ?We urge the Azeri government to provide basic civil liberties in preparation for the parliamentary elections–including freedom of assembly–equal access to the media and not being a subject of pressure."
In an interview with EurasiaNet–Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli stated that the arrests were motivated by the authorities’ fear of Yeni Fikir’s increasing popularity and the related need to reduce youth activism in Azerbaijan. "They [authorities] think that the only way to make these young people stop the struggle is to isolate them," Kerimli said "However–the opposition’s rallies demonstrate that–more and more–orange-clad youth have joined the nationwide struggle against dictatorship."
The scandals surrounding Yeni Fikir show no signs of abating. On September 15–organization members reportedly discovered three hand grenades and a cartridge of TNT in the group’s main office in Baku. Media reported that the police officer called to the scene to investigate refused to remove the explosives. The building also houses the offices of the opposition newspaper Azadliq and the Popular Front. Azadliq Editor Ganimat Zahidov–reportedly accompanied by foreign and local journalists–eventually took a bag with the explosives to the local police station. Zahidov claimed that the explosives were deliberately planted by authorities to provide justification for another Yeni Fikir arrest–and to search the organization’s headquarters. Zahidov has since ordered all individuals entering the building to be checked. Police pledged to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident–but have not issued any updates.
Some human rights activists believe that the arrests of Yeni Fikir members are designed to reduce the potential for an election-related protest in Baku akin to those that occurred in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Those protests resulted in regime-change in Tbilisi and Kyiv. Georgian and Ukrainian youth groups played key roles in organizing those demonstrations. "The former leaderships of Georgia and Ukraine never took such tough action against youth leaders," said Saida Gojamanli–director of the Bureau of Human Rights and Law Observance.
The arrest of a representative of the Ukrainian youth group Pora in Baku has helped fuel speculation that the government plans to discourage such organizations from playing any role in Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections. Azerbaijani authorities detained Sergei Yevtushenko–an advisor to the Ukrainian foreign minister–and a Pora leader–at Baku airport on September 15.
Two days later–he was forcibly returned to Ukraine. Yevtushenko had traveled to Azerbaijan at the invitation of the opposition election bloc Azadliq to attend a conference on democratization in Azerbaijan and Belarus.
No official reason was given for Yevtushenko’s detention. The Ukrainian consul was allowed to meet with Yevtushenko only after the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry lodged a formal diplomatic protest. In a September 16 interview with Trend news agency–the country’s ambassador to Baku–Igor Kizima stated that Azerbaijani officials had violated international agreemen’s by making the Ukrainian consul wait five hours before seeing Yevtushenko. Ukrainian officials also accused Azerbaijan of violating bilateral agreemen’s that provide for a no-visa entry to Azerbaijan for Ukrainian citizens.