|Azerbaijan brings in $50 million in oil and natural gas revenue per day, but the majority of people live in abject poverty [AFP]
Campaigners are asking the Azerbaijan government to introduce radical reforms early to avoid a popular uprising sweeping the Arab world.
Opposition leaders and rights activists have mobilised large protests in March and early April, and plan more - despite the official restrictions on public rallies. Many demonstrators have been detained.
Dr Leila Alieva, who heads the Baku-based think tank Centre for National and International Studies, said:
|"The majority of the enlightened population is outraged by the systematically falsified elections, absence of freedom of thought and assembly, opposition activists being held as political prisoners, beating and harassment of journalists, politically dependent and corrupt courts, and absence of rule of law."
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus region. Located at the crossroads of eastern Europe and western Asia, it has the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west, and Iran to the south.
Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas, which bring it $50mn a day. About 99 per cent of its population of eight million is Muslim.
President Ilham Aliyev took over from his father Heidar Aliyev in disputed elections in 2003. The regime is widely seen as corrupt; a US diplomatic cable that surfaced on Wikileaks describes Aliyev as a mafia boss. Election monitoring organisations have pointed to fraud.
Despite its oil wealth, the majority live in abject poverty. Official salaries are unrealistically low, says Alieva, and the education sector and health system are almost collapsing under increasing demands for bribes. But not unlike Libya, the oil and gas resources allow the government to buy political and social support.
Alieva says up to a quarter of the Azerbaijan population works in Russia due to the worsening economic conditions.
"The government severely restricts freedom of assembly", said Giorgi Gogia, Caucasus researcher for the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"They have not authorised a single rally in central Baku for a few years, and police quickly and often violently disperse unauthorised protests. The crackdown on peaceful protests intensified this year after the opposition and youth groups announced their intention to hold rallies calling for a change of government."
Human rights violations documented by HRW include torture and ill- treatment and deaths in police custody, and near complete impunity for the police.
"The recent protests in Azerbaijan were inspired by the popular uprising in Middle East and North Africa, but I cannot comment on the level of grievances of Azerbaijani and their readiness for regime change. One thing is clear: the government takes those protests seriously, and they seem determined to crush any attempts at peaceful protests against the regime."
The Council of Europe (a grouping of 47 nations to promote human rights) has appointed a special rapporteur to study the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. "But Baku refuses to cooperate with the rapporteur and has not given him access to the country", Gogia said.
"This is one of the very rare instances when a CoE member-state flatly refuses to cooperate with the special procedures."
Sam Patten from Freedom House told IPS that "the parliamentary elections held late last year showed no signs of improvement, and there is now the prospect of increased regulations further restricting the independent activity of civic organisations."
Further arrests following demonstrations earlier this month do little to suggest that the government may be loosening its grip in the wake of "the Arab spring"; rather, it is tightening it even further, Patten said.
Street protests may be stepped up despite the threatening messages the government has been sending would-be protesters, Patten said. Azerbaijan’s population is strikingly young and the most Internet-savvy in the South Caucasus.
In response the government has been warning Azeris to stay off social networking sites. One government television programme suggested that excessive time spent on Facebook would lead to impotence.
"Another sign to watch out for is the government's official position with respect to Islam. In the past, Azerbaijan has repressed religion citing fears about extremism. But religiosity in Azerbaijan is on the rise, especially among the young who view the government as insidiously corrupt and unable to respond to public and community needs.
"Further repression of religious groups could lead to even greater instability. Aliyev, however, is reported to have recently met with a large gathering of clerics – unusual for him – in a tacit recognition of the need to allow for greater religious freedom in view of events throughout the Middle East."
This article was first published by Inter Press Service news agency.