Azerbaijan is heading towards civil war

President Ilham Aliyev

Little has been reported in the international media about recent events in Azerbaijan where the ruling regime is cracking down on the opposition Islamic movement. So 5Pillars conducted an interview with Maksud Djavadov, a researcher for the Toronto-based Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) and a journalist for Crescent International, specializing in covering the Muslim countries of the former USSR.

5Pillars: Recently there has been a lot of news coming out of Azerbaijan, specifically relating to the tensions between the ruling regime and the Muslim Unity Movement led by Sheikh Tale Baqirzade. What is the background of these tensions?

Maksud Djavadov: Sheikh Baqirzade was released from prison in July 2015 after serving his second term on fabricated charges of “drug” possession. Since his most recent release Sheikh Baqirzade’s peaceful activism has led to euphoria among Azerbaijan’s repressed socio-political scene.

The MUM’s activism has put the regime on the defensive as it began turning into the only real organizational opposition force to the Aliyev regime. The regime in particularly got scared about the fact that MUM and its charismatic leader began appealing to the non-religious segment of the Azeri society.

5P: What exactly happened in Nardaran village on November 26 that led to the death of six people?

MD: It is absolutely crucial to remember that on November 15, Sheikh Baqirzade had announced on his official Facebook page that he had received reliable information about his impending arrest. There is a video footage of that announcement on Facebook. Two days prior to his second arrest (March 29, 2013) Sheikh Baqirzade had also publically announced that he was about to be arrested. During both of his arrests many international human rights organizations recognized him as a political prisoner.

On November 26, 2015 the regimes armed groups raided a house in Nardaran village where Sheikh Baqirzade was staying due to commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS).

Sign up for regular updates straight to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay updated on the latest news and updates from around the Muslim world!

Sheikh Tale Baqirzade
Sheikh Tale Baqirzade

After studying the video testimonies of the local residents and carefully examining the footage it appears that the regime’s forces (notorious for their corruption, where anyone can get a job by simply paying a bribe) conducted the raid in a very unprofessional manner. They simply were shooting at anything and anyone. This led to the death of seven people, two of whom were regime members.

It cannot be excluded that the regime’s militants died from friendly fire, but of course the Aliyev regime immediately pinned their death upon MUM activists. There are also rumors in Azerbaijan that one of the members of the regime’s security apparatus who died in Nardaran was a practicing Muslim and was executed for refusing to participate in the raid.

Taking into consideration that the rule of the current Aliyev regime is marred with political assassinations, this should not surprise anyone.
It is highly unlikely that the MUM members were armed, knowing many Islamic activists from Azerbaijan and studying their program and activities as a researcher and journalist, I can state with certainty that armed resistance is not part of the movement’s strategy at the moment.

The Islamic movement in Azerbaijan is pursuing a peaceful methodology.
The Nardaran events need to be investigated by an impartial body and this will not take place under the current regime.

5P: Sheikh Baqirzade has been arrested along with many MUM members, what is going to happen now to the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan?

MD: Since 2010 the regime has been cracking down on the Islamic movement in a very systematic manner, however, whatever the regime does to weaken it, the movement only becomes stronger and this trend will continue.

The current regime in Azerbaijan is facing a type of leadership and movement it is not accustomed to dealing with. The Islamic movement refuses to be bought, its members go to prison gladly from where they continue to exercise influence and death does not scare them. So what options does the regime have against them?

5P: Where are all the arrested MUM members?

MD: It is not known exactly where those arrested in Nardaran are being held. For example, Sheikh Baqirzade’s lawyer, Javad Javadov, is still not being allowed to meet his defendant. Most probably it is because the regime is waiting until the signs of torture heal on the bodies of those who have been arrested in Nardaran. There are also several wounded people that are also under arrest.

azerbaijan mapAfter the Nardaran raid the regime arrested dozens of Islamic activists across Azerbaijan and passed UK style draconian laws combating “extremism.” Also a few hours prior to the Nardaran massacre many Islamic news websites have been hacked, therefore, it is clear that the regime planned this in advance.

Unfortunately, Western NGO’s and international governmental institutions that have the capabilities to create a public outcry are not paying attention to Islamic activists in Azerbaijan.

5P: There is a view circulating that the events in Nardaran have been orchestrated by the supporters of the former national security minister Eldar Mahmudov who was recently fired for wiretapping Ilham Aliyev’s inner circle?

MD: I think this rumor is being circulated by the Aliyevs themselves in order to deflect criticisms. I think Eldar Mahmudov was fired primarily because he was extorting money from wealthy people and was not sharing the booty with the rest of the regime. The Aliyev cast has a firm grip on power and it is so because it has surrounded itself with individuals that lack political ambition, competence and imagination to disobey the Aliyevs.

I do not believe that the regime will split in the near future. It is actually a very coherent kleptocracy and it will be in power for at least another five years, unless NATO, Russia and Iran decide to settle their scores in Syria and Ukraine in the Caucasus. The only semi-ambitious person within the regime is a newly appointed deputy intelligence minister, Madat Guliyev, but he lacks political clout.

5P: What about the situation in Azerbaijan Republic in general, where is it all heading?

MD: The situation is slowly but surely heading towards a civil war. What type of a civil war, it is hard to predict, but taking into consideration the geopolitical importance of the Caucasus, there will be many sides to this upcoming civil war unless the Aliyev regime introduces serious reforms, which it will not do without an internal pressure, and that will take place only in a civil war type scenario.

5P: Is there an external factor to the ongoing tensions in Azerbaijan?

MD: At the moment no, but the regime wants to paint the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan as “agents of Iran” simply because 80% of Azeris follow the Shia school of Islamic jurisprudence.

However, the external factor will come into play if NATO regimes decide to shake up the South Caucasus in order to gain concessions from Russia in Ukraine and Syria. This is highly probable. The NATO regimes know well that the Caucasus is Moscow’s Achilles heel.

Unfortunately, Russia is committing the same long-term mistake the US has done in the MENA region. Moscow’s narrow-minded policy assumes that the current despotic regimes in the former USSR region are Russia’s best allies and leverages. This policy grants NATO an immense soft-power leverage against Moscow as NATO regimes can easily project themselves as supporting a popular movement against autocratic regimes.

If Moscow acts in a sophisticated manner and presents itself as an initiator of change in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it will deprive NATO regimes of a meddling pretext. Will Kremlin be this sophisticated? At the moment I cannot tell, but so far Russian President Vladimir Putin showed himself as a person who does not like to disrupt the status quo unless he is forced to.

Who and what will force him is a big question.

Add your comments below

Previous articleIs Shazia Awan serious about combatting Islamophobia and misogyny?
Next articleQueen Mary University Islamic Society suspended