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Jun 25, 2012

Republic of Facebook vs. Republic of Azerbaijan

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Ali S. Novruzov

Under the authoritarian rule of the President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijani youth activists and opposition politicians have turned to the Internet and social media as a new recipe for democratization.  They flock to social media networks to evade government control and crackdown, and to employ the benefits of new technologies to bring much-needed change to the country. However, Azerbaijani experience shows that reality is more complex than putting an equation between the social media and political revolution.

The Republic of Facebook

There are no exact and reliable statistics on Internet users in Azerbaijan. Even official statistics are based on estimates and thus, are doubted by most Internet experts. Officials explain this situation by the fact that Internet penetration in the country is expanding very quickly, which makes it impossible to arrive at more reliable numbers.

According to official statistics for 2010, 36% out of 9 million people living in Azerbaijan have an access to the Internet and only 19% of all Internet users have an access to broadband. 37% of Internet users are still in dial-up while 42% have only mobile access to the Internet. Mobile Internet in Azerbaijan is in pre-3G stage and 3G technology has been introduced by one of country's cell networks operators only in 2010.

Acess to Internet outside capital Baku remains extremely limited. Even in Baku, where outdated infrastructure doesn't allow higher Internet speed, a standard package of 2 Mbps costs around $40.

In short, Azerbaijan is not a sophisticated high-tech country, and an average Internet-, not least social media- user happens to be a young, relatively well educated and wealthy urban resident.

Today, Internet plays an important role in Azerbaijan's political and civic life. It has become almost the only avenue for free flow of information, dissenting opinion and activism.

Since Ilham Aliyev became the President of Azerbaijan in 2003, situation with civil liberties, especially with freedom of expression has deteriorated significantly. In the Press Freedom Index compiled annually by the Reporters Without Borders, Azerbaijan dropped from the 113th place in 2003 to the 152th in 2010. President Aliyev himself has been enlisted among 40 predators of press freedom.

During these years, Azerbaijan has been one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world. Opposition parties were degraded to dissident clubs, and activities of civil society organizations decreased significantly.

In severe financial, managerial and creative crises, under constant political pressure and control, country's traditional media have failed to perform their basic function, that is to provide the public with basic information. Real circulation of biased and no longer pluralistic newspapers have gone well below 10,000. Popularity of national and local TV channels has plummeted significantly too.

As the government closed streets, squares, universities and TV channels for any kind of dissent and activism, liberal youth groups as well as other civic and political movements have moved on-line in an effort to escape government control and to reach wider audiences.

In this gloomy circumstances, taking advantage of being free from censorship and filtering, the Internet and social media have filled the niche left by traditional media. Azerbaijan's youth activists and opposition politicians have increasingly turned to the Internet and social media also as a potential tool for political change.

As a result, there is a stark contrast between the content in the Azeri segment of the Internet and daily life in Azerbaijan. While everyday life in tightly-controlled country becomes dull, routine and free from politics, many people in their on-line life turn to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter for advocacy and activism. Cumulative effect of all these actions has led to a situation dubbed by Azerbaijani activists “The Republic of Facebook”.

As one now-defunct Internet journal put it back in 2009 (in my translation from Russian):

What today happens in Facebook can be compared only to the Matrix. As if you lived in a fine and fluffy world where opposition may revolt from time to time. And you do not pay any attention to them. It was always like that, and thus, it is sound and reasonable. So was always, it is self-evident.

But then you enter Facebook and see that quite affluent and successful people talk about those acute problems, which you already knew about, but could not accept their existence - all of these were beneath the fog for you. As if Morpheus had called you, and gave you a pill. Take it if you want to learn the truth, don't take if you don't. The choice is yours.

The Republic of Facebook is just like the Republic of Crimea – a utopian republic created by a writer Vasily Aksyonov – “not grasped by the Red Army and moving on his own way of development.”

“But the Cat Came Back...”

The Internet in Azerbaijan is almost the last remaining segment of public space that is free from the government control and the government desperately attempts to find ways and means to curb its power. Occasionally, some statements or rumors pop-up betraying officials' intentions to control the Internet. One top presidential adviser once likened the Internet to “a black cat without an owner that jumps over every fence and enters every house without permission.” Rumors about registering bloggers in the Ministry of Justice haunts online communities continuously.

No-one knows exactly why the government does not resort to Internet filtering – the easiest way of control over the Internet. Everything from critical blogs and websites to social networks where online dissidents established a separate “republic” can be accessed without any restrictions. Blocking access to a website is an exception rather than a norm in Azerbaijan. In recent years, only one petition site and two satirical blogs have been blocked (the same happened with a website of an Iranian state broadcaster).

Having exiled all political dissent from public space and from daily life, the government seems unable to stop political discussions, scandals and exposures in the Internet. As Miklós Haraszti once noted, the Azerbaijani government goes through a painful process – they want to control the Internet, but also understand that they can't do it in practice. The Internet is such a big universe that the government of a small country like Azerbaijan can't have a control over it, unless it decides to be another North Korea.

Therefore, the government resorts to traditional ways of cracking down on dissent - they arrest cyber-dissidents and hand them harsh prison sentences.

For example, in 2009, two video-bloggers and youth activists Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were assaulted and subsequently jailed for hooliganism, but as many believe, for posting a satirical video which mocked the authorities on Youtube. Three years later another two activists - Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a Harvard alumnus and Jabbar Savalan, a 19-year old student are in jail for their activities on Facebook.

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan's cyber-dissidents continue unequal struggle for their rights and freedoms despite government’s crackdown on on-line activism.

The Few Braves

Where some people see a government impotence and despair, other people see a deliberate policy. They think that political dissent is intentionally exiled to Facebook where it's effectively walled off from general public and lost among huge information debris. People criticize the government and engage in online activism, but these rarely transform into real actions. Most government critics let their steam out and thinks it's enough. Real political and civic life has been gradually replaced by virtual one and most people are content with it. And those who want to challenge this vicious circle, get an old-fashioned heavy-handed treatment, like those bloggers put in jail.

On the other hand, the nature of social networks and limited access to Internet in Azerbaijan make this dissent visible to only few. You have to be not only a sophisticated Internet user, but also a Facebook friend of a cyber-dissident to get acquainted with alternative opinions. Low Internet penetration stemming from a lack of adequate infrastructure and relatively high prices, limits ability of opposition groups and civil society to have broader influence over the society in general.

Thus, dissent and freedom in Azerbaijani society have become a luxury for those who live mainly in the capital Baku, have a decent income to afford a stable Internet connection, spare time to be in Facebook,  and most important, have enough courage to take the risk. As one contemporary Azeri philosopher says: “In Azerbaijan, only the brave can enjoy their freedom.”

These few braves armed with the Internet and social networking, are a nightmare for the government. The smallest misconduct of those in power gets such publicity that even foreign media may report it; every gaffe of an official ends in a scandal and embarrassment for the government; and cases of political prisoners can be advocated up to the White House. However, the ability of these few braves to change the society and political system will remain limited unless their activities step out of Facebook or the Internet becomes a necessary part of every household in Azerbaijan.


Ali S. Novruzov

Ali is an Azerbaijani expert on new media, blogger, analyst and civil society activist. He received his BA in international relations from Baku State University and MA in diplomacy from the Academy of Public Administration. Formerly he cooperated with a Baku-based Center for National and International Studies (CNIS) think tank. At the moment Ali is a project coordinator at the Free Thought University project. FTU is the recipient of the first annual USOSCE Ambassadorial Award for Freedom of Expression over the Internet (2010).

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