That’s the question facing anyone covering today’s protests in Baku. Is the opposition too weak or is the ruling YAP party too strong?
The question for me as a journalist is how to cover these actions. On the one hand, the story seems to be that the protests have no traction and no visible public support. Aside from the darting yellow jacketed media that ran from street to street hoping to see something happening, most people went about their business without much interest. I assume it was an uncomfortable feeling for other reporters to see so many of their colleagues and so few of the protesters. I’d guess it was at least 5 police and 3 reporters for every protester I saw today. Some Bakuvians watched the occasion dramatic arrest, others walked away, but all in all I’ve seen much more public anger at protests in New York City than here.
On the other hand, people are being forcibly detained for no reason. There are widespread claims of abuses in the jails, including beatings. Of those I saw being arrests, which are reported to be in the dozens, some were immediately seized because I assume the police recognized their faces, others were quickly thrown into a police van for clapping their hands or marching in a group. Most people were quickly grabbed and whisked away to a waiting bus or police car, without any provocation I could see.
It was a beautiful day outside and afterward I walked through Fountain Square watching locals and visitors alike enjoy the sun, eat ice cream and take photos. The occasional journalist could be seen walking around, maybe hoping there would be some follow-up or something unexpected. But so far, no surprises.
In my opinion, which I’ve bounced off of local friends and journalists, the public really does not support protests and an overthrow of the regime. But there is also a widespread sense that government is not legitimately elected. It seems Azerbaijan, taken as a whole, has chosen stability over democracy, but many thoughtful, brave people I know see this is as a necessary step to keep peace and order – and to remain united enough to retake the territory Azerbaijan lost in a war in the mid-90s to Armenia.
I also wonder about those the police arrested. They are brave – that seems undeniable. But are they relevant? Whatever the result of their seemingly hopeless protest, do their critics really want an Azerbaijan where no one willing to risk their comfort for principles?