Azerbaijan’s youth groups are poised to play a central role in the fast-approaching parliamentary election campaign. Opposition leaders believe the participation of young activists in get-out-the-vote efforts could sway the election’s outcome. The government seems to share this view, underscored by the fact that arrests of pro-opposition youth activists have become routine in recent months. At the same time, authorities are taking steps of their own to court support from Azerbaijani young people.
An opposition party coalition in Azerbaijan has embraced a strategy that aims to follow the Georgian and Ukrainian examples, and it already has organized two public protests in Baku in recent weeks to exert pressure on President Ilham Aliyev’s administration to hold free-and-fair elections.
Four youth groups – Yokh! (No!), Yeni Fikir (New Thinking), Magam (It’s Time) and the Orange Movement of Azerbaijan – hold center stage in the opposition’s plans to get out the vote. Several foreign groups – specifically Ukraine’s Pora (It’s Time), Georgia’s Kmara (Enough) and Serbia’s Otpor (Resistance) – are cited by all four Azerbaijani organizations as role models for fostering democratic change. Representatives of all four Azerbaijani groups also consider US President George W. Bush’s February meeting in Bratislava with Pora leader Vladislav Kaskiv as a sign that Washington supports their cause.
All four Azerbaijani youth groups claim that their popularity is growing rapidly. Yokh and Yeni Fikir, the two largest and most visible organizations, report that their membership numbers have soared in recent months. In February, Yokh claimed less than 40 members. Now, the group says that it has over 2,000. Meanwhile, Yeni Fikir says it also has about 2,000 members. The numbers, however, could not be independently verified.
Whatever their membership levels, the groups’ activism appears to have set off alarms in the corridors of power in Baku. Group members are frequently detained, though usually released the same day or shortly thereafter. In an e-mailed statement, Yokh claimed that two of its members were beaten by police in Baku as they handed out leaflets two days ahead of a massive opposition protest rally on June 4, which was sanctioned by the government. At a May 21 opposition rally, and in the days leading up to May 25 ceremonies in Baku marking the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, police also rounded up scores of youth activists and opposition members, including Yokh leader Nurullayev.
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