BAKU, Azerbaijan – Opposition parties mustered their biggest rally in years on Saturday, bringing about 10,000 protesters into the streets of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to call for free elections after authorities backed down and gave them permission to hold a demonstration.
Just two weeks ago, police had beat back opposition protesters who tried to hold a rally in Baku despite an official ban, and dozens were arrested. In October 2003, one person was killed and nearly 200 were injured in clashes between police and demonstrators who were protesting allegations of vote-rigging in that month’s presidential election in which President Ilham Aliev replaced his late father, the long-reigning Geidar Aliev.
The government last year announced restrictions on opposition rallies, citing the possibility of violence similar to the 2003 riots — and further roiling relations with the opposition.
This time, about 400 police in full riot gear stood guard around a central square where protesters gathered, but they didn’t intervene, and the rally ended peacefully.
Tensions have been steadily building in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation in the run-up to parliamentary elections set for November, leading some observers to predict that Azerbaijan could see an uprising similar to those that toppled unpopular regimes in three other ex-Soviet nations — Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan — over the past 18 months.
Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country of 8.3 million, is the starting point of a new, key pipeline that Washington says will reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East. The country also is a U.S. ally in Iraq and has troops there.
Supporters of several opposition parties marched in Baku on Saturday, chanting “Freedom!” and “Free Elections!” They held placards with slogans like “Down with the robber government!” and carried pictures of President Bush with the words: “We want freedom!” [emphasis mine]
Wow. It looks like President Bush’s words are really resonating throughout the world. Much like Ronald Reagan’s powerful anti-Soviet speeches (and actions) that helped lead to the collapse of the USSR and freedom for Eastern Europe.
Which corrupt government will be next to feel the wrath of its suddenly-emboldened people? Cuba, perhaps? Iran, maybe? Or possibly Syria?