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Desire to be Normal
EUROPEAN STABILITY INITIATIVE SITE:
Twenty years ago an amazing year of protests and negotiations gave birth to the (largely) undivided Europe of today.
1989 was a reminder never to underestimate the "significance of things being done by little people in little countries". It was the year in which the world was changed not by what great powers did, but by what they did not do. It was also the demonstration of the power of simple ideas: "return to Europe" as a continental vision of democratization; "living in truth", as courageous people challenged the lies of an outworn authoritarian ideology.
The non-violent revolutions of 1989 were the result of huge crowds driven "by a desire to be normal". One aspect of this normality is the ability to openly criticize authorities. Another is the freedom to travel, to end the confinement put in place with the advent of communism. It is a normality that remains elusive in parts of the continent even today.
While Europe celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Wall on 9 November 2009 in Berlin, authorities in Baku, as if to mock the celebratory mood elsewhere on the continent, sentenced the pro-democracy activists Emin Milli (30) and Adnan Hajizada (26), who had been critical of the government, to prison (two years and two years and six months, respectively) for "hooliganism".
Donkeys in Baku
Democrats in Baku are proud to point out that there is in fact a legacy on which to build a European Azerbaijan: in 1918 the country became the first secular democracy in the Muslim world only to be invaded by the Red Army in 1920. In 1991 an independent and democratic Azerbaijan was restored and in January 2001 Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe.
Since 1999, however, as oil revenues rose dramatically, respect for basic human rights has deteriorated. Journalists were jailed, civil liberties curtailed, and there are once again political prisoners.
Like other journalists in Azerbaijan, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were sentenced for "hooliganism", after having been attacked themselves in a restaurant in the centre of Baku. Both had studied abroad. Both shared a dream with a new generation of young Azerbaijanis that their country could live up to democratic ideals. Like their predecessors in communist Central Europe, Emin and Adnan did not seek to become dissidents. But, as Vaclav Havel noted in his famous essay on "the power of the powerless", written in 1978:
"a dissident is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime. This conflict has not come about through any conscious intention on their part, but simply through the inner logic of their thinking ? they do not usually discover they are dissidents until long after they have actually become one."
Emin and Adnan were not radicals by any means: in fact, they worked together with the Azerbaijani government on a campaign called "The Future Is What You Do Now" to allow talented Azerbaijanis to study abroad. But they did not stay silent as the regime became more authoritarian.
On 9 February 2009, Emin and a group of fellow youth activists protested in front of the UN headquarters in New York against a referendum abolishing presidential term limits. In April 2009 Emin gave a presentation at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University on "Dynasty and Democracy in Azerbaijan" where he criticized the system of corruption in his country, and the fact that President Ilham Aliyev was "even less of a democrat" than his father. He also presented a Manifesto for Change in Azerbaijan, arguing for gradual change, not revolution.
In June 2009 Adnan and his colleagues protested against corruption in Azerbaijan and against plans for a new restrictive law on NGOs by posting a clip of a donkey holding a press conference in Baku on Youtube.
This satirical take on politics in Baku seems to have crossed the red line. A few weeks later Emin and Adnan were attacked in a restaurant in the centre of Baku. Then, when they went to the police station, they were arrested themselves.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the story of Polish dissent, the prison writings of Vaclav Havel and the story of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia are all today part of the legend how a new era in European history came about. In Azerbaijan this new era is still to begin.--