Dion D’Silva reviews “How to plan a revolution”, BBC2
Azerbaijan is situated alongside the Caspian Sea, and sandwiched between Russia and Iran. It is ruled by a brutal crypto-Stalinist regime.
Following a crackdown on independent universities some students are now on hunger strike. News from Azerbaijan is hard to come by in the western media. One exception was this BBC documentary following Murad and Emin, two young opposition activists, as they organised before the general election last November.
It shows some amazing and shocking scenes: students afraid to read an opposition leaflet; police attacking peaceful demonstrators; officials fighting to close the polling station door to keep out observers while ballot-rigging was going on; police smashing the windows of the opposition leader’s car.
It was refreshing to see a film that followed the ups and downs of an activist’s life as they organised international support, their demonstrations and pickets. But unlike many activists in western Europe, Murad and Emin risk being arrested, tortured and jailed for life.
Murad and Emin consciously try to learn from the “Orange” revolutions of Georgia and Ukraine. They foresee the rigging of the ballot results and hope that “peoples’ power” will win. (After the election a new opposition coalition, the Democratic Popular Front, was formed).
The opposition are delighted and relieved when the independent European observers agree that the elections were not free and fair. The observers say 43% of the ballot counting was bad or very bad. The opposition organises a demonstration in the capital city Baku. However, unlike Kiev in 2004, the opposition tells the people to go home that night. Murad had wanted to stay and organise a tent city. The Freedom Block does organise another mass demonstration later, but this is violently broken up. Murad was deported and later Emin is arrested.
This regime will not give up power without a brutal fight. The regime’s party youth spokesman is a “Stalinist with sunglasses” looking and behaving like a political gangster. He admits to bussing state employees to a government rally. The regime not only has a cult of personality around the President and the Aliev dynasty but also wraps itself in the national flag. The rally unfurls a one kilometre wide flag!
Rich oil reserves allow the government to buy off a section of the population, including 15,000 state troops employed to stop political dissent. They have had seven pay rises in the recent period. $160 billion in oil revenue is expected in the next two decades — with help from BP and others. The US also sees moderate Muslim Azerbaijan as an ally in its war on terror.
This was a very good documentary, but the politics were simplified. Rather like in a western, Murad and Emin are the good guys riding into town to get rid of the baddies. The film doesn’t address the political make up of the opposition. The majority probably want a free-market, privatising liberal democracy. Yet for real widespread support, the opposition needs to be focused on a political strategy which will win over the working class. The election turn out was low. Although the government’s claim that the opposition only won 7 out of 125 seats was ridiculous, the opposition didn’t have overwhelming support either.
What is needed is an independent working class movement that leads the fight for democracy not only in civil society but in the workplace. That means fighting for independent trade unions and workers’ rights. That work may be long and painstaking.