Revolution Fades, Youth Emerges

Opposition parties are struggling to keep momentum going in Azerbaijan. The results of the recent Azeri parliamentary elections left the 125 seat legislature in control of the ruling Yeni Party. The Opposition received only 10 seats and claim that the elections were rife with fraud, a claim that has been supported by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, among others. There is no doubt that this is true, but it seems that the Opposition’s hopes of staging its own “Orange Revolution” are fading. Despite yesterday’s presence of 15,000 supporters in a protest against the elections, the crowd was thinner than the initial protests a week ago.

One problem it seems is that the Opposition does not have the will to risk a government crackdown on demonstrators. This lack of will has the potential to alienate and disillusion younger radicals who want to take more direct action. As one Azeri journalist named Shain Abbasov, told Radio Free Europe (RFE):

“The opposition leadership are trying to operate at least until 26 November, when the CEC [Central Election Commission] should announce the official results of the elections, they are going to operate exactly within the law. So, no unsanctioned rallies, no clashes with the police, etc. They remember their experience in 2003 elections, when Isa Gambar [Ed. an opposition leader who lost against Ilham Aliyev in the presidential election] moved his supporters to the streets and then they were cracked down. . . Young people want to stay at the square [in central Baku] after the next rally, to put up tents, to put [up] orange tents, to repeat the Ukrainian events, as they call them. So, stay and attract more attention of the Western international community to falsification and maybe provoke police violence. They want [a] more radical struggle. They think the carefulness of the leadership will help the government confirm the falsified results.”

Such a clash of generations can be death to an opposition movement. Many Azeri youths understand the vital role their Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts played in forcing their “revolutions.” It appears that Azeri youth organizations are ready to fight. As Murad Hasanli, a spokesperson for the main opposition bloc, Azadlyq (Freedom), told RFE.

“If you look at what happened in Georgia and Ukraine, it was the youth movements that provided the catalysts for political change. They were the foot soldiers of the revolution — and the opposition has recognized that here in Azerbaijan, and from early on began to engage with young people, and a whole plethora of youth organizations has developed in Azerbaijan very quickly. We had Yeni Fikir (New Idea), Maqam (Opportunity), Yokh (No!). Some of them were single-issue organizations, some were broader political movements and they did engage the young people.”

At the same time, young Azeri activists should learn yet another lesson from their Ukrainian counterparts: Revolution does not mean automatic changes. Sometimes it simply means putting the other guy in power.

This is a feeling settling in on the first anniversary of the “orange revolution.” The Moscow Times reports a deep sense of dissatisfaction among those who come from afar to join Viktor Yushchenko and his orange believers. One such believer is Natalya Simonenko, a 26 year old business woman from Odessa. Now a year later she tells the Times of deep disappointment, “I was one of the few in Odessa to support Yushchenko; I traveled to Kiev to demonstrate. I used to argue with my family and my neighbors who supported Yanukovych. I wanted the country to change, but after a year I see that nothing has, corruption is still high, and the oligarchs are still running things.”

Even members of Pora (It’s Time), the youth group that occupied tents for weeks in freezing weather, have taken Yushchenko’s backtracking as a signal to extend their political participation. Pora has since split into two wings. One, black Pora, is focused on being a pressure group and committed to staging demonstrations. The other, yellow Pora, looks to run candidates in next March’s parliamentary elections. Such a move shows that Pora activists will not simply be the “shock troops” for their father’s political party. They are seeking independence to assert their own political agenda. As the head of black Pora, Nadya Prudyak, 24, reminded the Times,

“Much of the old system we were fighting has remained. We were fighting not because we liked Yushchenko but because we hoped for big political changes. We wanted to get rid of the players of Kuchma’s era, but nothing has changed.”

Pora in the Ukraine. The National Bolsheviks in Russia. Emerging youth organizations in Azerbaijan. Something is in the air in the CIS in regard to youth politics. While all of these groups, and the many others within these countries vying for influence, share different views, all of them see extra-parliamentary, and in some cases, extra-legal means to achieve political change. And as the Ukrainian case shows, even despite the disillusionment that has followed, youth organizations do play a very powerful rule in this change. After all who else but young people can spend days, even weeks, holed up in the tent in the freezing temperatures? Who else but youth risk their bodies against the bludgeon of police batons? Who else but youth are on the barricades of social change? The naivet? of the ruling parties, whether they are the “opposition” or not is that they think these young people are merely their political pawns. Youth are merely bodies to be mobilized for instrumental purposes. But political experience breeds consciousness. Coming out into the streets en mass gives an immense feeling of collective power. The youth in the CIS know the power they have and could have. The question remains is whether they will take it for themselves.