First some background and a quick geography lesson:
Azerbaijan is located in the South Caucasus. This Turkic State is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west (its long-time enemy in the territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh region) and Iran to the south. Azerbaijan is covered in oil and natural gas, in fact 2/3 of the country spits out this liquid gold. Recent pipeline development has almost guaranteed speedy economic growth. But not all is rosy in Azerbaijan. Social unrest and regular human rights infractions by the military and government have become somewhat regular occurances. That is where we pick up our story…..but first some amazing images from a naturally beautiful country.
On January 1st 2013, Baku (the Capital and location of Azerbaijan’s central government) instituted a law that penalized attendees and participants of unsanctioned mass rallies and protests. Surprisingly, as it turns out, permits to an anti-government rally are pretty difficult to come-by. However on January 12th, 2013, this did not stop hundreds of people from gathering and demonstrating on Fountains Square in the center of Baku. They were there to raise awareness about the recent deaths of army conscripts due to the well known hazing and bullying within the military. On the January 14th 2013, 21 men were fined different amounts ranging from $380 to $760 (dollars) that is about 300 to 600 manats. An exorbitant amount for those fined. This is in a country, where the average salary is about $400 per month, despite its oil wealth.
Watch the video below (and listen if you understand Azeri) showing the campaign.
In response to the law and the fines a Baku-based non-profit called “Positive Change Youth Movement,” launched what could pose as the most annoying campaign ever. The 5 ‘Qapiks’ campaign has been collecting money from donations all over the world to cover the fines and plans to deliver the money to the authorities in the form of five-qapik coins (100 qapiks equal 1 manat). Thats right – Baku will get its money, “5 qapiks’ at a time. That mean bundles and bundles of small copper coins. In Azerbaijan, the qapik is considered a inconsequential amount of money and therefore a relatively useless coin. I get the feeling the activists behind the campaign might feel similarly towards a law that bans unsanctioned rallys – often the only way to exert a democratic voice.
The campaign has a facebook page with over 3,000 likes since it began on January 25th. The facebook page has developed into a form of participatory activism where nearly 150 pictures have been uploaded by fans and donors. The pictures feature stacks of 5 ‘Qapiks’ coin in various formations, cynically and humorously clustered together to form a hammer, a star or the name of the country its being sent from like “GERMANY!”
There is still an effort to overturn the fines, the lawyer representing the protesters, Esabeli Mustafayev, said “We will appeal the court’s decision in all courts, including the European Court of Human Rights,” he said. “These people are not able to pay off the fines. In order for the law to make sense, these fines should be replaced by public works or administrative arrests.” If the fines are overturned then all donated money will be given to the families of the soldiers which first initiated the protest.
In the mean time check out the facebook page and enjoy pure and unadulterated cynism towards attempt at hushing up a democratic voice and human right. Leave it to a population of a former Soviet Bloc country to come up with the darkest humor and the most annoying campaign ever.
British conflict journalist and photographer Onnik Krikorian is based in Yerevan, Armenia and first alerted me to this story on his facebook page. http://www.onnik-krikorian.com/ After that many of the details for this story were crowdsourced from his friends also commenting on the post and from the “5 Qapiks’ facebook page.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty