Azerbaijan: A political education
|Publication Date||22 October 2006|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Azerbaijan: A political education, 22 October 2006, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46f258d22d.html [accessed 23 April 2014]|
Leyla Amirova 10/22/06
A EurasiaNet Partner Post from Transitions Online
In January 2006, Turan Aliev and Namiq Feiziev thought they had won a battle for the opposition in Azerbaijan. They gave up a three-week hunger strike, believing they had overturned their university expulsions and wrenched from authorities a concession that students should not be punished for their political views.
"Today was a victory for justice," Aliev said.
By August, the two young men were in Norway, hoping to win political asylum.
What happened in between, critics of President Ilham Aliev's government say, shows just how concerned the regime is with the emergence of a new generation of young activists.
"Azeri leaders fear the expansion of youth movements and showed their resolve to punish any dissent by the example of the two young expelled students," says Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, a civil-society group close to opposition circles.
Today, instead of "victory" for opponents of Aliev's heavy-handed rule, it looks like business as usual in Azeri universities. For students and teachers alike, that means avoiding opposition activity and professing public support for the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party.
STARVING FOR JUSTICE
Although open dissent is rare in Azeri academia, universities are a potential center of activism. Some youth groups work closely with opposition parties, and during the 2005 parliamentary election campaign a number of young activists were arrested.
As the 2005 – 2006 academic year began, Turan Aliev was a fourth-year student at Baku State University; Feiziev was in his fourth year at Azerbaijan State Pedagogical University. They were also active in the opposition, Aliev in the Popular Front party and Feiziev in the Yeni Fikir youth organization.
Popular Front, along with Musavat and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, was part of the Azadlig coalition, the largest opposition group to compete in the November 2005 parliamentary election. The governing party won nearly half the seats, well ahead of Azadlig, prompting sharp opposition protests. Yeni Fikir – one of the largest youth organizations in the country, with a claimed membership of 2,000 – often cooperates with Azadlig. In August and September 2005 its leader, Ruslan Bashirli, and two of his deputies were arrested on charges of plotting with Armenian security agents to overthrow the Azeri government. Bashirli was sentenced to seven years in prison; the others received shorter terms.
By the end of 2005, both Aliev and Feiziev had been kicked out of university. Claiming the expulsions were politically motivated, they joined other opposition activists in a hunger strike.
The protest attracted international calls for the students' reinstatement. After a Jan. 19 meeting attended by U.S., British, and Norwegian diplomats and representatives of the Council of Europe and Azeri civil society, Education Minister Mardanov said Aliev and Feiziev would be allowed to resume their education, although they would have to repeat a year to make up for missed classes.
"This victory demonstrates that a new generation has appeared on the political scene," opposition supporter Hikmet Hadjizade said, EurasiaNet.org reported.
But Mardanov's decision was ignored by the heads of the two universities. Instead of returning to his study of international relations, Aliev was ordered to join the army.
"The Narimanov district military registration and enlistment office called me up for urgent military service," he said. University students are exempt from conscription; Aliev appealed to the university to clarify his situation, without success.
"It turned out that I was not a student after all," he said.
Aliev said the expulsion order issued by Baku State Rector Abel Maharramov cited his urging fellow students to join in street protests, truancy, posting unlawful documents on bulletin boards and "gross violation of university rules."
Maharramov was quoted by the Trend news agency as saying Aliev was expelled for violating internal university rules. The rector also reportedly mentioned the student's on-campus political activity, such as distributing materials and putting up posters.
Maharramov said Aliev was expelled "for having violated discipline. But before that he had been warned several times," Trend reported.
"I had good examination results and had no problems on the academic side," Aliev said. "Students who have close contacts with opposition parties are subjected to unreasonable pressure; they are challenged by invented academic difficulties. All these measures aim to suppress youth movements that always stand at the vanguard of the democratic fight."
Feiziev, who had been studying history at the pedagogical university, did fail an exam in the summer of 2005, but he claimed he was expelled without the requisite three warnings. He also said he was fined the equivalent of $20 for having insulted and threatened to kill the dean of his university's philological faculty. Like Aliev, he says his political activity was the true reason for the university's action.
According to a EurasiaNet.com report, Education Ministry spokesman Bayram Huseynzade said the students' participation in opposition rallies and distribution of leaflets violated university rules, but he insisted they were expelled for poor grades and disciplinary problems.
"Hopefully, they will be able to continue their studies at a Norwegian university," says Seymur Gaziyev of the Platform of Azerbaijan Youth coalition.
Opposition figures and advocates for democratic change in Azerbaijan believe Ilhan Aliev's government is concerned by the activities of young opponents of the regime.
"The authorities put obstacles in the way of the activities of dissenting youth, trying things like expulsion from university," says Emin Alisoy, head of the Musavat party's youth branch.
Despite the watchful presence of the ruling party, the number of youth groups in Azerbaijan keeps growing. One of the most vocal called on supporters to rally against corruption and police violence on Oct. 18, the anniversary of Azerbaijan's independence from the Soviet Union.
"As the new academic year starts we will try again to get youth actively involved in the social and political life of the country," despite Baku city officials denying permission to hold the event, said Ali Ismayilov, chairman of the Yox ("No") organization.
But the march never happened. On 17 October Ismayilov was detained by police for several hours. He claims to have been warned by a high-ranking police officer that he would face severe punishment if the march took place.
Cases like these and the reprisals against Aliev and Feiziev appear to have dampened some students' enthusiasm for open opposition.
"I share the views of Musavat and even participated in their protest acts. But I was lucky that no one in the university knew that I had participated in the meetings, like Aliev," says one student who requested anonymity.
"After Aliev's expulsion from our university, I stopped attending opposition events," this student says. "I didn't want to put my career at stake."
Many students are active on behalf of the ruling party, chiefly because they feel there is no choice. Sabina Mammadova, a 2005 graduate of Baku State University, recalling having to walk out on a lecture to attend a mandatory party meeting.
"We were afraid not to go [to the meeting] because it might have reflected on our exams," she says.
Teachers have also reportedly lost their jobs for their political activity. Opposition parliamentary deputy Nasib Nasibli alleges that three professors at Baku State, Kamil Vali Narimanoglu, Khaladdin Ibrahimli, and Jahangir Amirov, were fired for their political views after last year's elections.
Educators at all levels are expected to toe the ruling-party line. Independent-minded university teachers can sometimes find a haven in one of Baku's private institutions, such as Western University or Khazar University, which enjoy far more leeway in personnel policy than state schools.
Still, even at private universities opposition sympathizers seldom make an open show of their beliefs. "The state sometimes has reason to be dissatisfied with oppositionist teachers," says Islam Gahramanov, a professor at the pedagogical university and an opposition supporter.
"I agree that young people needn't be involved in political activity. We are at university to teach and not to pursue politics."
Posted October 22, 2006 © Eurasianet