As Ukrainians take to the streets to demand change in their former part of the Soviet empire, there are disturbing protests in another.
Demonstrators in Kiev burned tires to show their anger, while almost 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) to the southeast in Azerbaijan people have been setting fire to themselves. The first known case of self-immolation occurred two months ago and already at least eight more have followed.
“This is a new and non-traditional way of protesting against government corruption in Azerbaijan,” said Elxan Shahinoglu, head of Atlas, a non-government policy research group in Baku, the capital. “An increasing number of people are burning themselves in front of government buildings.”
Self-immolation has long been a trigger for political uprisings, from student Jan Palach after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose suicide three years ago set off the Arab Spring that overthrew governments in the Middle East and North Africa.
In Baku and other Azeri cities, the acts of self-harm are posing a fresh challenge to President Ilham Aliyev, whose family has run the oil-rich country for four decades. Politicians said they aren’t protests against the leadership.
Nizami Karimov, 44 and partially paralyzed, is one of those to set himself alight. Unable to feed his family of five on the $60 a month he gets in disability payments, Karimov said he applied for the extra 100 manat ($128) he’s entitled to and was told he’d have to pay a bribe.
He refused, triggering four months of bureaucratic wrangling that ended on Jan. 27, when, frustrated and desperate, he went back to the welfare office in his hometown, poured gasoline over his head and set himself on fire.
“I can’t live on 50 manat a month,” Karimov said through the bandages covering his face in a hospital in Baku, five days after trying to kill himself. “I have a disability.”
For now, the self-immolation among Azeris is more about desperation than orchestrated protest or revolution, echoing isolated incidents in Greece as austerity took hold rather than the political statements of Buddhist monks over Tibet.
Zaur Hasanov, a disabled veteran of Azerbaijan’s war with neighboring Armenia, set himself afire in central Baku on Dec. 25 to protest the demolition of his cafe by the state-controlled Association of Trade Unions.
The union is headed by Sattar Mehbaliyev, who is a senior member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. A video of the act, committed in front of the union’s headquarters, went viral on social networks including Facebook Inc., prompting thousands of users to post comments critical of the government.
Aliyev, 53, was “greatly disturbed and shocked” by the act and issued instructions to “ensure the proper treatment of the disabled man,” Ali Hasanov, a department head in the presidential administration, said in an interview with the Azartac state news service on Dec. 27.
After Zaur Hasanov died from his wounds, Mehbaliyev paid his widow 100,000 manat for destroying the cafe and pledged 1,500 manat a month to support their five children, union officials told reporters in the capital. Mehbaliyev also attended Hasanov’s funeral, along with several other members of the New Azerbaijan Party, which issued a statement urging the public not to “politicize” the suicide.
“We have only really seen an effort to tackle corruption where the official concerned has become the focus of public anger,” said Anna Walker, head of analysis for Europe and the former Soviet Union at Control Risks, a London-based advisory group. “There seems to be little political will to address the problem in a more concerted manner.”
Azerbaijan is a country of 9.4 million mostly Shiite Muslims on the Caspian Sea bordering Turkey, Russia and Iran. Like Ukraine, it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The president succeeded his late father, Heydar Aliyev, who had also been leader of the Azerbaijan Soviet republic, in a disputed vote in 2003. He won last year’s election with 85 percent of the tally. International observers criticized the contest for lacking a level playing field.
The state is ranked among the world’s most corrupt and repressive by Human Rights Watch and Transparency International. Dozens of activists, journalists, bloggers and other critics of Aliyev were arrested or convicted of “bogus charges” in the 18 months leading up to the presidential election last October, according to Human Rights Watch.
Corruption is a “social malady,” Aliyev said in a televised address on Feb. 5, vowing to continue efforts to root it out. Last year, Aliyev created a new agency, Asan, or Easy, to modernize public services and make them more transparent. More than 1 million Azeris are already using the system, according to government statistics.
Aliyev has more than tripled the size of the economy in the past decade as oil and gas output surged, buoyed by more than $40 billion of investment from BP Plc and its partners. The average wage jumped by six times in that period, to 403 manat a month, while the poverty rate has fallen to less than 6 percent of the population from almost half, the government says.
Not everyone has benefited from the newfound wealth, though. Maarif Valiyev, another veteran of the country’s war with Armenia, set himself on fire outside his local governor’s office on Jan. 27, after appeals to the government for housing and employment failed.
“It was the only way out,” Valiyev said in an interview with the Azeri Service of Radio Free Europe from his hospital room. “I couldn’t get what I’m entitled to.”
Huseyn Mammadov, a 41-year-old taxi driver in the Naxcivan region, set himself alight outside the local Interior Ministry headquarters on Feb. 11. Mammadov lost his job when regional leader Vasif Talibov, a relative of President Aliyev, declared that only cars made by the local automaker can be used as taxis, according to the Azeri division of Radio Free Europe.
Last week, a homeless veteran who was denied government housing tried to set himself on fire outside the mayor’s office of Sumqayit, 20 kilometers north of Baku. He was hospitalized with gasoline poisoning, the APA news service reported.
The government has tried to downplay the connections between the string of self-immolations and its own policies.
After Maleyka Bayramli, a 24-year-old woman from the southern Lankaran region, burned herself to death this month, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a statement saying “rejection by a lover” prompted the suicide.
The woman’s mother, Saadat Bayramli, said her daughter was raped by a serviceman who avoided criminal charges by agreeing to marry her. When he recanted, she became despondent, the mother said on her Facebook page.
As for Karimov, who is still seeking that extra $128 a month from the government, things aren’t looking good. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection said no official at the welfare office ever demanded a bribe from him and he’s not eligible for additional funds.
“He is not entitled to targeted social aid because he owns a car,” said Elman Babayev, a spokesman for the ministry.