Staunton, January 21 – Azerbaijani officials played down an opposition demonstration in Baku on Saturday, saying that it had attracted only 2800 participants; but activists said in fact many times that number took part. If their claims are confirmed, they would make this the largest demonstration there in years and potentially “a turning point” in that country’s political life.
The meeting was organized by the National Council of Democratic Forces with the support of the Musavat and Republic Alternative parties to demand the release of political prisoners and step up the fight against corruption. Significantly, it was held with the approval of the Azerbaijani government (kavkaz-uzel.eu/blogs/83772/posts/36228 and kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/330564/).
It was overshadowed, of course, by the national commemoration on Sunday of the anniversary of Black January when Soviet forces entered Baku, killed and wounded many Azerbaijanis and arrested without cause hundreds of others. (On this event, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/01/black-january-in-baku-time-and-place.html.)
But such a mass meeting is something new in recent times, and it suggests that opposition groups there may be picking up support even though they remain marginalized by the authorities. As a result, one can only agree with those who say that the Azerbaijani government would be making a serious mistake if it ignores the concerns of those who took part.
Were it to do so, it could find itself not only subject to more criticism from abroad but also facing rising popular anger that could manifest itself not in meetings the authorities have agreed to but in demonstrations that the powers that be in Baku would oppose but not be able to prevent without the use of massive force.
In that event, Saturday’s protest could truly be a turning point, albeit one that could have truly unpredictable consequences.
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