Strategic Political Shift in Azerbaijan

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmed Makhmoudov

Shawwal 27, 1440 2019-07-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmed Makhmoudov (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 5, Shawwal, 1440)

This month it will be exactly one year since the turbulent events in Azerbaijan’s second largest city Genje, erupted. They were not only noteworthy because Elmar Veliyev, the notoriously oppressive governor of Genje, and his bodyguard were shot and wounded followed by a bloody protest, but as analyzed by Crescent International and others, the events were significant because a large percentage of Azerbaijan’s population openly supported political violence against the unelected Aliyev regime.

The Baku regime resolves all crucial political and social issues through its brutal security apparatus. The Genje uprising was the first manifestation of the changing landscape where the population did not hesitate to defend itself against the regime’s thugs.

One year after the bloody events and the regime’s exploitation of them to crack down on politically active citizens, the case became synonymous with torture and forced “confessions.”

Last year’s events exposed the weaknesses and strengths of the ruling kleptocracy in Azerbaijan. However, as the trial of those arrested after the Genje events continues, manifestations of a new socio-political reality is slowly becoming public and foreshadows a significant shift in the balance of power between the regime and the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan. This prediction has to do with lengthy prison sentences handed down to five Azeri citizens on June 10: Elmir Zahidov, Habib ─░brahimli, Taleh Goyushov, Parviz Musayev and Vusal Nuriyev. What was their crime? They were charged with fighting against Daesh and al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria as part of the newly formed Azeri Islamic military formation known as Huseyniyyun. The sentencing of the five fighters was barely reported in Azerbaijan; some even doubted the existence of the Huseyniyyun organization, until video of the five sentenced youth while fighting in Syria was released online by a popular Azeri Islamic YouTube channel.

After the released video received wide viewership and reposts online within the Azeri Internet community, it became clear that the Aliyev regime did not want to publicize the existence of an organized military formation. Why? It is a strategic long-term challenge to the regime’s monopoly on force.

Since 1995, the Aliyev regime was the sole political faction with an organized security and military structure. This is no longer the case. There is now an Islamic-oriented security structure led by Azeri Islamic scholars. What is known so far is that the Huseyniyyun organization is led by Sheikh Tohid Ibrahimbeyli who has been studying in Qum for several years. He is an outspoken critic of the Aliyev regime. Details about Huseyniyyun’s structure, socio-political program and leadership are scarce but at present, such details are not crucial. It is the broader aspect that matters most.

Considering the wider socio-political picture in Azerbaijan, the very existence of Huseyniyyun as an organized military formation, which can be clearly noticed from the short video released on YouTube is a significant long-term political blow to the oppressive regime in Baku.

For now, the Huseyniyyun movement has declared that its sole goal is to confront takfiri terrorists in Syria and it has no plans to expand its activities into Azerbaijan. This position certainly seems realistic, as at the present time there is a geopolitical consensus between Russia and Islamic Iran to not disrupt the South Caucasus. Nevertheless, the mere existence of this type of organization is a slap in the face of the regime that cannot be concealed, no matter how much it is ignored by the country’s tightly controlled media.

Our analysis points to the direction that at some point the regime will overplay its hand by going after the Huseyniyyun movement and trigger a response, thus unintentionally breaking the fear barrier of Azeri society. Persecution of the Huseyniyyun will become imperative for the regime’s credibility, but it will undoubtedly trigger many unintended consequences.

It is also important to note that sentencing of the five Azeri citizens was condemned by Elchin Qasimov, Deputy Chairman of Azerbaijan’s most popular and most active socio-political Islamic organization, Muslim Unity Movement. Taking into account how in many democratic European countries, anti-Daesh fighters are allowed to operate freely, the Aliyev regime’s harsh persecution of anti-Daesh fighters is also exposing its long known pro-Wahhabi tendencies. The Baku regime always made sure that Wahhabi-minded groups had enough socio-political space within the country so that they, through their regressive narrative, could discredit the authentic process of Islamic revival in Azerbaijan.

Considering the above-mentioned security and political factors, it appears that the events initiated after Genje’s uprising a year ago are snowballing into myriad political inconveniences for the regime. From a short-term perspective it appears that the regime had managed to subdue the wave of unrest generated by its brutal tactics against the Genje uprising. The long-term analysis points to a trend where the regime is now even more hated and the forces opposing it are scoring long-term strategic political gains.

One indicator that the regime is sensing long-term problems is that in March, Ilham Aliyev announced that he would initiate political “reforms.” While seasoned observers of Azerbaijan do not take these words seriously, the fact that Aliyev made this announcement is one manifestation of the reality that the regime can no longer ignore popular dissatisfaction. It seems that Yunis Safarov, the man who is accused of shooting Elmar Veliyev in July 2018, opened a pandora’s box. The regime will not be able to contain it anytime soon.

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