GEO

The National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) in Azerbaijan: An Odyssey of Resistance, Adaptation, and Influence.

This case study was developed by CAT alumni for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).

Overview

The National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) in Azerbaijan, established in 2013, represents a formidable opposition to the Aliyev family’s governance. Formed amid growing concerns about political autocracy and human rights violations, the NCDF utilized social media and international partnerships to amplify its advocacy efforts. Despite facing government repression, the council showcased resilience through digital activism, grassroots campaigns, and international collaboration. Their activities highlight the importance of civil society groups in challenging authoritative regimes and promoting democratic ideals.

Introduction

Azerbaijan, a vibrant nexus bridging Eastern Europe and Western Asia, boasts a complex tapestry of cultural, historical, and political significance. Gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country embarked on a journey full of political promises and pitfalls. While the early years post-independence were marked by political unrest and economic challenges, the ascendancy of the Aliyev family, particularly with Heydar Aliyev’s presidency in 1993 and subsequently his son Ilham Aliyev in 2003, heralded an era of relative stability, albeit at the expense of shrinking democratic spaces.[1]

The international community, including organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, have consistently raised alarms over Azerbaijan’s track record on human rights, freedom of expression, and political pluralism.[2] Within this challenging landscape, the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) emerged as a beacon of hope for many Azerbaijanis seeking a more representative and democratic governance model. Formed amidst growing concerns over electoral fairness, human rights violations, and a constrained civil society, the NCDF encapsulates the broader struggles of opposition forces in post-Soviet states.[3] This research aims to navigate the intricate narrative of the NCDF, placing it within the larger context of Azerbaijan’s political evolution and its implications for the future of democracy in the country.

Azerbaijan’s contemporary political landscape is undeniably influenced by its Soviet past, its vast energy resources, and its strategic position in the Caucasus region. Its oil and gas reserves, which have brought significant foreign investment, have also added layers of complexity to the nation’s political dialogue.[4] This economic influx, while transforming the nation’s infrastructure, has also fortified the ruling elite, often at the cost of overshadowing voices of dissent and undermining democratic institutions.[5]

The Aliyev regime’s consolidation of power has been periodically challenged by civil society activists, journalists, and political opposition, including the NCDF. This body, by uniting a wide spectrum of opposition figures, symbolizes a collective quest to reclaim political space and foster an environment conducive to dialogue and democratic reforms.[6] The global community, while engaging with Azerbaijan on economic fronts, has simultaneously been a witness to its democratic deficits. International bodies, non-governmental organizations, and media outlets have often found themselves walking a tightrope, balancing their interests with the urge to advocate for greater political freedoms in the country.[7]

This intricate interplay of domestic aspirations, geopolitical interests, and economic imperatives sets the stage for our exploration of the NCDF, as it carves a niche for itself in the dynamic tableau of Azerbaijani politics.

Background Story

Azerbaijan’s journey through the annals of history has been shaped by its strategic geographical position, multifaceted culture, and its interactions with neighboring empires and regions. Located at the crossroads of ancient trade and cultural routes, it has witnessed the rise and fall of several dominant powers including the Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, and Russians, each imprinting its influence on Azerbaijan’s multifaceted identity.

Ancient History to Russian Influence

Azerbaijan, in its early history, was known by names such as Atropatene and later Albania. The region experienced the rule and influence of various kingdoms, notably the Talysh, Scythian, and Parthian.[8] Zoroastrianism found its roots in the region, only to be followed by Christianity and subsequently Islam after the Arab conquests in the 7th century.

The landscape of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty underwent a dramatic shift in the 19th century with the expansion of the Russian Empire. Following the Russo-Persian Wars in the early part of the century, Russian dominance over most of Azerbaijan was firmly established.[9]

Brief Independence and Soviet Era

The 1917 Russian Revolution paved the path for Azerbaijan’s brief dalliance with independence. In 1918, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was founded, marking a significant milestone. However, this independence was ephemeral as the Bolshevik Red Army annexed Azerbaijan into the Soviet Union by 1920.[10]

Soviet rule over Azerbaijan signified a period of rapid industrial growth, extensive urbanization, and an aggressive push towards secularism. But it also brought along challenges, notably the Russification which aimed at suppressing Azerbaijani traditions and the native language. Notably, Baku’s oil fields became the backbone of the Soviet economy, playing a pivotal role during World War II.[11]

Post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Rise of the Aliyevs

The winds of change blew once again in 1991 with the Soviet Union’s dissolution, heralding Azerbaijan’s renewed independence. But this period was fraught with challenges – political upheavals, an economic crisis, and the intense conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Amidst this tumult, Heydar Aliyev’s emergence in 1993 began the era of the Aliyev political dynasty. Ilham Aliyev, succeeding his father in 2003, continued the governance model characterized by economic liberalization juxtaposed against a backdrop of political centralization.

The oil and gas boom underpinned the economic growth during the Aliyev regime. Concurrently, international bodies and observers have frequently raised concerns over human rights issues, media suppression, and political repression, creating fertile grounds for opposition forces like the NCDF.[12]

Flow of the Campaign

Emergence and Initiation: Contextual Background

The National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) in Azerbaijan emerged in response to the pressing need for democratization and political reforms. Widespread discontent with the existing political system and allegations of human rights violations set the stage for the formation of this opposition coalition.[13]

Formation and Early Activism (2013-2018)

In 2013, the NCDF was founded as a coalition of various opposition factions, uniting to challenge the entrenched political establishment. The coalition’s emergence coincided with the 2013 presidential elections, during which it nominated Jamil Hasanli as its candidate, marking its initial foray into mainstream politics.[14]

The Azerbaijani government responded to the NCDF’s activities with a heavy hand, involving arrests, detentions, and accusations of human rights abuses. These challenges formed a backdrop for the NCDF’s evolving strategies.[15]

Strategic Adaptation

Facing restrictions on traditional media and a government crackdown on street protests, the NCDF adapted its approach. Digital campaigning became pivotal, with the coalition leveraging social media, online petitions, and digital town halls for outreach and mobilization. Simultaneously, the NCDF forged alliances with international human rights organizations to amplify its voice on a global scale.

Challenges and Resilience

Government repression, media restrictions, and legal obstacles presented persistent challenges. The Azerbaijani authorities responded to the NCDF’s activism with arrests and media censorship. However, the coalition persevered, shifting towards community-centered engagements and localized interactions to minimize the risk of large-scale arrests.[16]

Election Cycles and Participation

In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the NCDF participated, albeit amid allegations of electoral fraud. However, during the 2018 presidential elections, the coalition chose to boycott, citing concerns about transparency and meaningful competition.[17]

Impact on Civil Society

The NCDF’s campaign had a broader influence on Azerbaijani civil society. It inspired individuals and grassroots movements to engage in activism and advocate for political change.

International Engagement and Advocacy

The NCDF actively engaged with the Azerbaijani diaspora and international organizations. Advocacy campaigns were launched abroad, addressing foreign parliaments and institutions to garner support for the coalition’s cause.[18]

Civic Education and Awareness

The NCDF recognized the importance of public awareness and civic education in their campaign. They conducted extensive public awareness campaigns aimed at educating the Azerbaijani public about their political rights and the significance of democratic participation. These efforts sought to mobilize citizens and encourage informed decision-making in the face of a challenging political landscape.[19]

Youth Empowerment and Mobilization

Youth engagement was a cornerstone of the NCDF’s strategy. The coalition invested in youth leadership programs, aiming to nurture the next generation of political activists and leaders. Young activists within the NCDF spearheaded various initiatives, from cultural events to social campaigns and art projects, to engage their peers and broaden the movement’s reach. University students, in particular, played a pivotal role in advocating for political reforms and participating in protests both on and off campuses.[20]

Labor and Economic Protests

Economic discontent and allegations of corruption within the Azerbaijani government fueled a series of labor protests and strikes. These economic grievances were intertwined with the NCDF’s campaign, as they advocated for transparency, accountability, and better working conditions. Labor unions and workers’ movements became important allies in the broader struggle for political change.[21]

Legal Challenges and Advocacy

Navigating Azerbaijan’s complex legal landscape presented significant obstacles for the NCDF. They faced difficulties in registering as a political entity and encountered numerous legal challenges. However, the coalition also used the legal system as a platform for their grievances, engaging in court battles to contest election results and challenge government actions. These legal efforts aimed to highlight the need for fair and transparent democratic processes.[22]

International Recognition and Support 

The NCDF’s international engagement extended beyond advocacy abroad. They actively collaborated with international organizations and human rights watchdogs, contributing to the documentation of human rights abuses and political repression in Azerbaijan. Reports from reputable organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch provided independent assessments of the deteriorating political climate and challenges faced by the NCDF.[23]

Online Activism and Citizen Journalism 

Blogging and citizen journalism played a crucial role in the NCDF’s communication strategy. In the absence of a free press, many NCDF supporters became citizen reporters, documenting events and sharing critical information. Social media campaigns were intensified, using platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to reach a global audience. Hashtags and coordinated online campaigns helped mobilize supporters and disseminate their message effectively.[24]

Evolving Protest Strategies 

Adaptation remained central to the NCDF’s campaign. As the government cracked down on public demonstrations, the coalition organized silent protests where participants gathered without slogans or banners, emphasizing the suppression of freedom of expression. Additionally, virtual protests and online actions became essential tactics as physical gatherings faced increasing restrictions.[25]

Engagement with the Diaspora 

The NCDF continued to maintain connections with the Azerbaijani diaspora, particularly in countries where Azerbaijani communities were active. These connections facilitated international solidarity and support for their cause, bolstering the coalition’s efforts to draw attention to the political situation in Azerbaijan.[26] 

Conclusion

The National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) in Azerbaijan emerged as a beacon of hope in the quest for political change and democratization. Rooted in a context of discontent with the existing political system and allegations of human rights violations, the NCDF embarked on a challenging journey to challenge the entrenched political establishment.

Throughout its existence, the NCDF faced an array of obstacles and adversities. Government repression, media restrictions, and legal challenges created a hostile environment for political opposition. The Azerbaijani authorities responded with arrests, detentions, and accusations of human rights abuses, presenting a substantial hurdle for the nascent movement.

However, the NCDF demonstrated remarkable adaptability and resilience. In the face of a media landscape largely controlled by the state, the coalition shifted its focus to digital campaigning, leveraging social media, online petitions, and digital town halls to mobilize supporters and disseminate information. Recognizing the need for broader support, the NCDF established alliances with international human rights organizations, amplifying their voice on the global stage.

Strategic adjustments played a crucial role in the NCDF’s survival and continued impact. As the government intensified its crackdown on street protests, the coalition began organizing smaller, community-centered engagements, allowing for more personalized interactions with citizens and minimizing the risk of large-scale arrests.

The NCDF’s campaign left an indelible mark on Azerbaijani society. It inspired individuals, particularly youth and university students, to engage in activism and advocate for political change. Economic grievances and allegations of corruption became intertwined with the NCDF’s narrative, as they advocated for transparency and accountability.

Internationally, the NCDF’s cause gained recognition and support through diplomatic outreach, collaboration with human rights organizations, and the documentation of human rights abuses. Reports from reputable organizations shed light on the deteriorating political climate in Azerbaijan and the challenges faced by the NCDF.

In conclusion, the National Council of Democratic Forces in Azerbaijan exemplifies the tenacity of civil society in the face of adversity. While the road to political change remains fraught with challenges, the NCDF’s unwavering commitment to democratic ideals and human rights continues to resonate both domestically and on the global stage. Their journey serves as a testament to the enduring power of collective action and the pursuit of justice in the pursuit of democratic reform. The story of the NCDF reminds us that even in the most challenging environments, the voices of those advocating for change can and do make a difference.

References
  • Altstadt, A. L. (1992). The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule. Hoover Press.
  • Alieva, L. (2009). Azerbaijan’s Frustrating Elections. Journal of Democracy, 20(2), 147-161.
  • Atkin, M. (1980). Russia and Iran, 1780-1828. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Bamberg, J. & Lehtonen, P. (2012). Facilitating Knowledge Sharing in e-Governance: Online Spatial Displays as Translating Devices. In A. Manoharan & M. Holzer (Eds.), E-Governance and Civic Engagement: Factors and Determinants of E-Democracy(pp. 149-172). IGI Global.
  • Bosworth, C. E. (1995). The History of the Caucasus. Cambridge University Press.
  • Cornell, S. E. (2011). Azerbaijan Since Independence. M.E. Sharpe.
  • Gahramanova, A. (2009). Dialogue of the Deaf: The Government and the Opposition in Azerbaijan. Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 3(3), 262-276.
  • Guliyev, F. (2005). Oil Wealth, Patrimonialism, and the Failure of Democracy in Azerbaijan. Democratization, 12(2), 252-271.
  • Swietochowski, T. (1995). Russia and Azerbaijan: Borderland in Transition. Columbia University Press.
  • Council of Europe. (2017). Civil Society Dialogue in Azerbaijan. Baku, Azerbaijan: Javid Gadirov.
  • Human Rights Watch. (2020). World Report 2020: Rights Trends in Azerbaijan.
  • Freedom House. (2019). Freedom in the World 2019: Azerbaijan.
  • International Crisis Group. (2017). Azerbaijan: Vulnerability and Resilience. Europe and Central Asia Report No. 241.
  • (2021, July 2). Media censorship in Azerbaijan. ooni.org/post/2021-azerbaijan/
  • (2018, June 1). Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election. www.csce.gov/international-impact/azerbaijan-s-2018-presidential-election.
  • BBC News. News Article. bbc.com/news/world-europe-29559009.
  • Azerbaijan: Can the opposition keep it together? eurasianet.org/azerbaijan-can-the-opposition-keep-it-together.
  • Freedom House. Freedom House Report. freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2022-11/FHFinalReportAnnex221115.pdf.
  • Human Rights Watch. Azerbaijan’s Continuing Crackdown on Government Critics. hrw.org/report/2016/10/20/harassed-imprisoned-exiled/azerbaijans-continuing-crackdown-government-critics.
  • Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Hopes for Youth Surge in Azerbaijan Elections. iwpr.net/global-voices/hopes-youth-surge-azerbaijan-elections.
  • Annual Report for 2019. www.iphronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/IPHR-Annual-Report-for-the-year-2019.pdf.
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  • MSK Azerbaijan. News Article. msk.gov.az/en/newsmsk/546.

[1] Cornell, S. E. (2011). Azerbaijan Since Independence. M.E. Sharpe. 

[2] Human Rights Watch. (2020). World Report 2020: Rights Trends in Azerbaijan

[3] Freedom House. (2019). Freedom in the World 2019: Azerbaijan

[4] Guliyev, F. (2005). Oil Wealth, Patrimonialism, and the Failure of Democracy in Azerbaijan. Democratization, 12(2), 252-271

[5] Alieva, L. (2009). Azerbaijan’s Frustrating Elections. Journal of Democracy, 20(2), 147-161

[6] Gahramanova, A. (2009). Dialogue of the Deaf: The Government and the Opposition in     Azerbaijan. Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 3(3), 262-276. 

[7] International Crisis Group. (2017). Azerbaijan: Vulnerability and Resilience. Europe and Central Asia Report No. 241.

[8] Bosworth, C. E. (1995). The History of the Caucasus. Cambridge University Press. 

[9] Atkin, M. (1980). Russia and Iran, 1780-1828. University of Minnesota Press

[10] Swietochowski, T. (1995). Russia and Azerbaijan: Borderland in Transition. Columbia    University Press. 

[11] Altstadt, A. L. (1992). The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule. Hoover Press

[12] Cornell, S. E. (2011). Azerbaijan Since Independence. M.E. Sharpe. 

[13] https://eurasianet.org/azerbaijan-can-the-opposition-keep-it-together

[14] https://msk.gov.az/en/newsmsk/546

[15] https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/10/20/harassed-imprisoned-exiled/azerbaijans-continuing-crackdown-government-critics

[16] Arzu Geybullayeva (Azerbaijan Internet Watch), M. X. (OONI). (2021, July 2). Media censorship in Azerbaijan through the lens of network measurement. OONI. https://ooni.org/post/2021-azerbaijan/ 

[17] “Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election.” CSCE, 1 June 2018, www.csce.gov/international-impact/azerbaijan-s-2018-presidential-election.  

[18] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29559009

[19] Council of Europe. (2017). Civil Society Dialogue in Azerbaijan. (Civil Society Dialogue in Azerbaijan report). Baku, Azerbaijan: Javid Gadirov.

[20] https://iwpr.net/global-voices/hopes-youth-surge-azerbaijan-elections

[21] https://caucasuswatch.de/en/news/opposition-protests-in-baku-spark-international-attention.html

[22] https://www.turan.az/ext/news/2023/8/free/politics_news/en/7968.htm

[23] https://www.iphronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/IPHR-Annual-Report-for-the-year-2019.pdf

[24] Bamberg, J. & Lehtonen, P. (2012). Facilitating Knowledge Sharing in e-Governance: Online Spatial Displays as Translating Devices. In A. Manoharan & M. Holzer (Eds.), E-Governance and Civic Engagement: Factors and Determinants of E-Democracy (pp. 149-172). The United States of America: IGI Global.

[25]https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2022-11/FHFinalReportAnnex221115.pdf

[26] https://www.azatutyun.am/a/25449735.html