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BERİL DEDEOĞLU

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BERİL DEDEOĞLU
January 08, 2013, Tuesday

Azerbaijan’s new law on public gatherings

If, in a country, crowds pour into the streets more frequently now than they used to, the government ought to think carefully about the reasons for this change.

Some governments’ first reaction is often to accuse foreign powers and intelligence services of being behind these demonstrations in order to weaken the government. Sometimes the “enemies” are, indeed, supporting such incidents, but what is important is trying to understand why the country’s political climate is pushing people into the streets.

Governments’ decisions or attitudes may from time to time provoke the people, and they may want to express their grievances by organizing rallies. When this happens, the worst thing a government can do is to suppress the protestors and punish them severely. It is an old but frequent mistake to believe that suppression will put an end to opposition. As a matter of fact, suppression only reinforces it. Unfortunately, it seems that the government of Azerbaijan has decided to commit this same mistake.

In undemocratic societies, the future of the country’s regime depends on the political reactions of the great masses. When negative reactions and opposition intensify, governments may try to quiet them, but this doesn’t mean that the problems that made people unhappy will simply disappear. In other words, the fact that the opposition cannot express its views doesn’t mean there is no opposition. Trying to silence the opponents will only ensure that sooner or later they will be tempted to express their demands through violence.

Azerbaijan’s parliament has recently adopted amendments to the law on public gatherings that have significantly increased fines for “illegal” (which means anti-government) demonstrations. From now on, every person who participates in such gatherings will have to pay $1,000 instead of $10. We don’t know how many people in Azerbaijan will be willing to and/or capable of paying this sum when they want to support an opposition protest. Those who cannot pay this fine will undoubtedly find themselves in jail.

The fines have also been increased to up to $40,000 for the organizers of unauthorized public gatherings. In other words, before calling for a rally, opposition parties or NGOs must first check their bank accounts to see if they have enough money to afford the fines. They’d better start saving up money as soon as possible.

We don’t know yet if these measures will be enough to prevent opposition groups from organizing protests, but the amendments prove that the government would prefer that the opposition not protest anything. If Azerbaijan’s rulers have decided that these new, tougher measures are necessary, they are probably expecting important opposition demonstrations in the near future. So the Azerbaijani government is perfectly well aware that there are many people in the country unhappy with the way the country is governed, and they are getting ready to pour into the streets. Maybe their version of an Arab Spring really is approaching, who knows.

It is a mistake to believe that what is happening in one country will not be repeated in other countries. One has to think carefully about the reasons for popular uprisings in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Even at first glance it is possible to see that people in those countries were particularly angry at a class of privileged people who grew rich just because they were close to the governing circles. When people are struggling with economic problems, it is only normal that they ask for a fair distribution of wealth. The Arab Spring also proves that security measures will never be able to stop determined people from pouring into the streets. Especially at a time when technology allows people to organize from their homes without even being detected.

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