Azeri Activists Get Creative to Protest Government Waste
Azerbaijan has a documented history of corruption and limitations of freedoms. Some of these issues are serious, such the murder of a newspaper editor or massive government monopolies. Other instances are more symbolic. In 2009, for instance, it was widely reported on the Internet that the Azeri government had annually paid many thousands of dollars purchasing a few donkeys from Germany and Turkey.
In response to these incredible reports—and to make a broader statement about Azeri corruption and bureaucracy—young bloggers created a satirical video starring Esel Heinz, a German donkey recently come to Azerbaijan.
Adnan Hadjizada is the blogger at the center of this movement. He founded OL! Azerbaijan Youth Movement, which has as its goals “modernity, non-violence and tolerance.” This movement was responsible for the video, which depicts a man in a grey donkey suit holding a sort of press conference in which he extols the benefits and rewards of living in Azerbaijan—if you’re a donkey.
Emin Milli can also be seen the in the video. Shortly after the video was uploaded, Adnan and Emin were reportedly beaten in a café, and then arrested by the investigating officers. OL and other cyberactivism blogs became the main source of support for the activists once arrested.
The Tools and Tactics
Some of the earliest coverage of this “Donkeygate” came from personal blogs, such as this one. The blogs usually cited the Turkish news site Hürriyet as the original source, but the news story making these claims could not be located. It was not until the satirical video, however, that the movement gained an identity.
The protestors uploaded their video to YouTube, but according to a supporting blogger, “Before the arrest, only a few hundred people had seen the video.” After the arrest, support groups sprung up on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Blogspot, which allowed sympathizers to upload a video calling for the bloggers’ freedom. With these groups behind them, the protestors’ notoriety grew enough for the BBC and the New York Times to pick up their story. The Esel Heinz video now has over 130,000 views.
The Stumbling Blocks
One of the greatest challenges to this movement seems to have been keeping attention on an issue that, at first, seems so silly: overpriced donkeys. While specific transactions were at the heart of the anger, these protests are symbolic of a greater frustration with corruption in Azerbaijan’s government. Translating this symbolism to sustain the movement and affect change, however, seems to have proven challenging.
The other, more obvious stumbling block was the arrest and sentencing of two of the most prominent activists involved. Though no specific account of the incident exists, most sources suggest—or flatly state—that the police invented or exaggerated the situation. The NYT reported: “According to a motion filed by Mr. Hajizada’s lawyer, the two men were with friends at a restaurant . . . when two strangers broke into their conversation and started a fight. . . . an investigator opened a criminal case against [the activists].” Additionally, Azerbaijan’s documented restrictions on press freedom likely hindered awareness of the activists’ case.
According to a support blog: “On November 11, 2009 after 4 months of investigation and court hearings both of them were found guilty. Adnan was sentenced two, Emin two-and-a-half years of prison.”
The “success” of the campaign lies in the attention that it drew and in the international pressure that the situation put on the Azeri government. Beyond just news coverage and personal appeals, many nations and organizations released statements condemning the arrest and the sentencing.
The question remains whether Adnan and Emin, upon their coming release, will be able to use this attention to continue their struggle for accountability in Azerbaijan.
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