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Orange Revolution in Ukraine, 2004. Photo: artdiamondblog.com
Orange Revolution in Ukraine, 2004. Photo: artdiamondblog.com

In 2005, Azerbaijan was preparing for the parliamentary elections scheduled for November. This was to be the first parliamentary ballot since Azerbaijan's accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001 and since Ilham Aliyev's ascendance to presidency in 2003. With the exception of the 1992 presidential elections which brought Abulfaz Elchibey to power, none of the elections in post-Soviet Azerbaijan had met democratic standards. But this time, things promised to be different.

The Azerbaijani opposition, fractured and humiliated after the defeat in the October 2003 presidential elections, took a major step forward in May 2005 by forming an electoral bloc called Azadliq (Freedom). The bloc united three key parties - Musavat, the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, and the Democratic Party. Azadliq, inspired by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, adopted the orange colour as a symbol of protest and political change. The Azadliq campaign "attacked the Aliyev regime as a 'corrupted dictatorship that continues to rob the Azerbaijani people.'"[1]

The logo of the oppositional Azadliq electoral bloc - the motto translates as ' chose freedom, be free'
The logo of the oppositional Azadliq electoral bloc -
the motto translates as ' chose freedom, be free'

Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Azadliq (Freedom) bloc, casts his ballots at a polling station in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, November 6, 2005
Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Azadliq (Freedom)
bloc, casts his ballots at a polling station in Baku,
capital of Azerbaijan, November 6, 2005

Adding to the intensity of the pre-elections expectations was also the palpable change in the political environment throughout the post-Soviet region. This was exemplified in the emerging phenomenon of so-called "colour revolutions", which had already changed the governments in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).

In the course of the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, non-violent protesters, proclaiming their commitment to democracy and freedom, succeeded in challenging the official results of the rigged ballots. In both cases, the "revolutionaries" had a markedly pro-Western orientation, and in both cases youth organizations (in Georgia, it was Kmara (Enough) and in Ukraine, Pora (It's time) played an important role in the events. In these countries, youth activists drew on the experience of the Serbian youth movement Otpor which achieved the resignation of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in October 2000. The colour revolutions also drew an unprecedented amount of attention from the international media.

Rose Revolution in Georgia, 2003. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Rose Revolution in Georgia, 2003. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The two post-Soviet leaders who were brought to power by the colour revolutions – Viktor Yuschchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili – were warmly welcomed in the US and European capitals. In what was a historic visit, George W. Bush traveled to Georgia and spoke to the crowds in Tbilisi on 10 May 2005, praising the Georgian "Rose Revolutionaries":

"we are living in historic times, when freedom, from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and to the Persian Gulf and beyond … the seeds of liberty you are planting in Georgian soil are flowering across the globe."[2]

George Bush and Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, May 2005
George Bush and Mikheil Saakashvili in
Tbilisi, May 2005

The media attention to the colour revolutions was high and manuals for activism were aplenty.

The supposed formulate for success emerged soon after Serbia's deposition of Milosevic in October 2000 and hinged upon several factors. Independent media and especially television played a great role disseminating the message of the protesters. The opposition needed to present a unified front and rally behind one leader. NGO's (many of them Western-funded) kept the topic of elections and possible violations high on the agenda. There was also a need for a dedicated group of young people willing to participate in demonstrations.

In April 2004, the Popular Front party created its youth wing, Yeni Fikir (New Idea) led by activist Ruslan Bashirli. The movement campaigned for free and fair elections on behalf of the Azadliq bloc. In early 2005, Maqam (It is time) commenced its activities, led by Emin Huseynov, a journalist who had covered the October 2003 presidential elections and was himself beaten up during the demonstrations. The mission of the 200-member organization was to increase the level of interest and engagement of the population in the parliamentary elections.[3]

Activist Ruslan Barshili, leader of the Yeni Fikir youth movement
Activist Ruslan Barshili, leader of the Yeni Fikir youth movement

Finally, in April 2005 the newly established Yox! (No!) also joined the preparations for the elections. Yox! described itself as

"a nonviolent political group that wishes to assist the democratic forces in Azerbaijan to be able to stand for the just and fair elections … We use the strategy and tactics of nonviolent actions, which so far has proved to have been successfully working in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan."[4]

The organization's motto was "YOX! to Antidemocratic actions! "YOX! to violence!" YOX" to dictatorial regime!

The logo of Yox! (No!), an oppositional youth movement in Azerbaijan
The logo of Yox! (No!), an oppositional youth
movement in Azerbaijan

The activists interested in colour revolutions would not find themselves in short supply of suitable material and manuals. They read the works of Gene Sharp, who has been named "Machiavelli of non-violence". Gene Sharp had published manuals on how to organize non-violent protests. One of the best-known works was From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (2002), freely available online. Originally published in 1993 to support Burmese dissident, From Dictatorship to Democracy has been translated into over 30 languages, including Azeri.[5]

Gene Sharp, a retired Harvard researcher, is considered the godfather of nonviolent resistance. Photo: Mary Knox Merrill /Staff
Gene Sharp, a retired Harvard researcher, is considered the godfather of nonviolent
resistance. Photo: Mary Knox Merrill /Staff

Members of Yeni Fikir were in contact with Pora! activists in Ukraine.[6] In the midst of the electoral campaign, Murad Hassanli, an LSE-educated youth activist, traveled to Georgia to meet with the representatives of the youth movement Kmara (Enough!). Hassanli had come back to Baku to become spokesperson for the oppositional Azadliq block, writing speeches and producing press statements.

Michael McFaul, an expert on colour revolutions in the post-Communist context, identified several factors that are essential for a successful color revolution:

  • a semi-authoritarian rather than authoritarian regime
  • an unpopular incumbent
  • a united, organized opposition
  • independent media, to report on electoral fraud
  • an opposition capable of mobilizing thousands of people to protest election fraud
  • divisions among the regime's coercive forces.[7]

Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, Azerbaijan satisfied few of these criteria. Ilham Aliyev, while unpopular with many, could still not be compared to the deeply unpopular incumbents in Georgia and Ukraine – Eduard Shevardnadze and Leonid Kuchma. Many in Azerbaijan believed he brought stability and rising incomes to the country. The opposition's ability to mobilize large crowds to protest against election fraud was limited; police brutality was much higher in Azerbaijan

The attention of the West also could not compare with the cases of Ukraine and Georgia.

Emin Huseynov, journalist and founder of the Maqam youth movement
Emin Huseynov, journalist and founder of the Maqam youth movement

While young Azerbaijanis were optimistic, the debate in the United States itself showed uncertainty about the preferability of regime change in Azerbaijan. Bush's exuberant "Freedom on the march" rhetoric was up against the old familiar dilemma: what to choose, democracy or stability, in the strategic region that Azerbaijan was? An article by David Sanger in The New York Times spelled it out:

"Every week, the White House seems to find itself in a balancing act between promoting democracy, on one hand, and supporting friends in combustible but strategically important parts of the world."[8]

Analysts in Azerbaijan commented on the West's reluctance to spoil relations with a "strategically important ally". As Leila Alieva described it,

"With Aliyev cooperating with the United States and Europe in areas such as security, counterterrorism, and energy, Western policy makers felt little desire to see power change hands in Baku. The typical position of Western officialdom, then, became praise of Ilham Aliyev as "young and well educated," combined with vaguely expressed hopes that the regime would gradually liberalize and "allow" the opposition and other parts of society to play a role in the new parliament."[9]

The government's stance

Ilham Aliyev
Ilham Aliyev

When questioned about their attitude toward the brewing protests and the opposition's rallies, the Azerbaijani authorities would send an ambivalent message. On the one hand, the common response received by Western interviewers was to brush aside the rallies and protesters as weak, dishonest, and unpopular. In an interview with the Economist, Ilham Aliyev stated that his regime was 'more popular" than the regimes that fell victim to the colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan and that he didn't perceive the protesters as a threat to his party's victory in the elections. [10] Interviewed by BBC shortly before the elections, Aliyev stated, "There is no doubt that the elections will be free and fair and will reflect the will of the people of Azerbaijan."[11]

These words squared poorly with the government's actions before, during and after the November 2005 elections. In particular in the post-election period, contrary to the proclaimed indifference, the authorities unleashed the police and internal forces on the protesters with brutality and launched a wave of arrests of key opposition activistsThe Azerbaijani leadership seemed to be following the example of Russia, where many remained convinced that US-sponsored NGO's had instrumental in funding the opposition, organizing street protests and ultimately effecting regime change in Georgia and Ukraine.

The government arrested a number of youth activists, including Yeni Fikir's leadership, accusing the latter of plotting a coup and conspiring with Armenian intelligence.[12] Ukrainian youth activists who had taken an active part in the Orange Revolution were banned from entering Azerbaijan. Journalists who were known for criticizing the government were, too, targeted in the time leading to the elections. Smear campaigns and violence abounded.

The opposition was only allowed to organize rallies in certain locations as the elections neared, with the city centre being off limits, allegedly for security reasons. Nevertheless, throughout September and October Azadliq decided to hold rallies in central squares in violation of the prohibition, having to deal with violent police crackdowns as the consequence. The crackdowns and arrests were filmed by BBC as part of the documentary "How to Make a Revolution". The government's reaction was put into question the motives of the protesters. Filmed by BBC, Ilham Aliyev said that "their [the protesters'] intention is to be beaten and then to present themselves as victims, to be shown on international TV and in newspapers and to create a wrong image [of] the government of Azerbaijan."[13]

Stills from the BBC Documentary How to Plan a Revolution. Photo: BBC
Stills from the BBC Documentary How to Plan a Revolution. Photo: BBC


How to Plan a revolution: A story of two opposition activities
to launch an orange revolution in Baku, Azerbaijan after
parliamentary elections of 2005. Copyright: BBC World

Election day

The election day was 6 November 2005. The voting process was generally assessed as "calm", yet the situation deteriorated markedly during the subsequent vote counts. As OSCE/ODIHR observers reported, "a wide range of serious violations were observed during the vote count at the polling stations (in 41 per cent of counts observed)."[14] In addition, the CEC failed to consider many of the numerous complaints received after the election day (in excess of 1,000). [15] All in all, the elections were judged as not meeting "a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections."[16]

The final results were as follows: the ruling party, YAP, won 56, the Azadliq bloc had 6, while "independents" (many of them in reality associated with the YAP) had 40 seats, and other, smaller parties, received 13 seats[17]. Only 115 out of 125 seats in the parliament had deputies though, as results in 10 constituencies were voided: in six constituencies by the Constitutional Court and in the remaining four, by the CEC.[18]

The Azadliq bloc organized repeated protests against the elections results viewed as rigged. The protesters carried posters saying "Stop selling our democracy for oil!" "Youth activists were a ubiquitous presence at the opposition rally. With orange bandanas -- symbolic of Ukraine's Orange Revolution -- wrapped around their heads, they led the chants and distributed leaflets and banners".[19]

The protest rallies took place on 9, 13 and 19 November, as well as one on 26 November, after the observer mission had already left. [20] The November 19 rally was especially well-attended, drawing crowds of up to 30,000 people, according to BBC. In a pattern familiar from the Orange Revolution, many protesters wore orange and called on Aliyev to step down.[21] In what some analysts saw a strategic mistake, however, the demonstrators did not put up tents to stay on the streets overnight, as the Azadliq bloc called on the people to go home in the evening, possibly fearing police violence. By doing so, however, the momentum was lost, and the story of the Orange Revolution did not repeat itself.[22] The scale of the protests was also smaller than in Ukraine or Georgia.

Here, again, the internal divisions within Azadliq prevented the bloc from mounting effective protest. There was no agreement about the right strategy to respond to election fraud: whereas the Popular Front and Democratic Party called for more radical measures, Musavat took a milder position. At the November 26 rally, the first two parties called for a sit-in, while Musavat called on its supporters to go home. Brutal police intervention broke up the sit-in.[23] Disagreements also took place on the issue whether to agree to take seats in the new parliament, with Musavat maintaining that it was the lesser evil, while the other parties refusing, arguing that the parliament was illegitimate. In February 2006, the Azadliq bloc broke up.

On 13 May 2006, repeat elections were held in the ten constituencies where the vote outcomes had been judged invalid due to fraud. This fell far short of the demands of the opposition, which was challenging voting results in nearly a hundred constituencies. Most opposition parties, with the exception of Musavat, refused to send candidates for the repeat elections.[24] Musavat, however, did not gain any votes within the group of 10. Five votes went to the ruling party YAP, three to non-partisan candidates, and the remaining two votes to candidate from the parties which are believed to constitute the more "loyal" opposition.[25]


[1] Anar Valiyev, Parliamentary Elections in Azerbaijan, A Failed Revolution, Problems of Post-Communism vol 53 no 3, May/June 2006 p 22

[6] Anar Valiyev, "Parliamentary Elections in Azerbaijan: A Failed Revolution" (Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 53, no. 3, May/June 2006), p. 24-25.

[8] New York Times, David Sanger, May 2005, The World; There's Democracy, and There's an Oil Pipeline

[9] Leila Alieva, "Azerbaijan's Frustrating Elections" (Journal of Democracy, Volume 17, Number 2, April 2006, p. 152.

[10] Economist, "A Watermelon Revolution: Azerbaijan and Democracy – Might Azerbaijan be next in line for a democratic revolution" (4 June 2005).

[11] BBC Documentary, How to Plan a Revolution.

[12] Shahin Abbasov and Khadija Ismailova, "Verdict against Azerbaijan youth raises concern", 18 July 2006

[13] BBC Documentary, How to Plan a Revolution.

[14] OSCE/ODIHR, Final Report, p. 2.

[15] OSCE/ODIHR, Final Report, p. 2.

[16] OSCE Election Observation Mission Results published on 2 February 2006. More information at Election monitoring center analysis.

[17] OSCE/ODIHR Final Report.

[18] Rufat Abbasov and Mina Muradova, "New Azerbaijani Parliament Convenes, But Opposition Stays Away", EurasiaNet, 2 December 2006.

[19] Murad Hasanli (who features as main character of How to Plan a Revolution documentary) is presented as "spokesperson for Azadlyq (Freedom) bloc" in RFE article (check)[19] which describes the protests.

[20] ODIHR report, Azerbaijan Parliamentary Elections, November 2005,  p. 24.

[21] BBC, "Thousands in fresh Azeri protest", 19 November 2005.

[22] This is the argument made by Anar Valiyev, p. 33, and in the BBC documentary "How to Plan a Revolution".

[23] Fariz Ismailzade, "Musavat Decides to Join New Azerbaijan Parliament". Eurasia Daily Monitor, vol. 3, issue 29, 10 February 2006.

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