Azeris Protest Price Increases as Currency Slumps to Record

  • President Aliyev blames `external factors' for economic woes
  • Central bank allowed currency to trade freely amid drop in oil

Hundreds of people staged rallies across Azerbaijan for a second day to protest poverty and unemployment as the depreciation of the national currency sent consumer prices rising.

Riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets on Wednesday to disperse protesters in Siyazan, 103 kilometers (64 miles) north of the capital Baku, where residents assembled outside the local governor’s office. Almost 50 people were detained, according to Meydan TV, a pro-opposition online television channel based in Berlin. Rallies were also held in at least five other districts, according to clips posted on Meydan TV and Radio Azadliq, the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The third-largest oil exporter in the former Soviet Union moved to a free float after burning through more than half of its foreign-currency reserves as the fallout spread from the economic crisis in Russia and plunging energy prices. The manat dropped to a record low after the central bank relinquished control of its exchange rate on Dec. 21.

The demonstrations are “against devaluation, rising prices of flour, unemployment,” Ali Karimli, leader of the People’s Front of Azerbaijan Party, said on Facebook. “Instead of sending riot police, the government needs to listen to people,” said Karimli, whose party isn’t represented in parliament, along with all opposition groups.

‘Public Order’

The Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General’s Office said in a joint website statement that 55 protesters were detained in Siyazan for “disrupting public order.” They said two police vehicles were damaged and an unspecified number of police officers injured in the clashes, accusing the opposition Musavat and People’s Front parties and some “religious and extremist groups” for organizing the rallies. The parties denied the claim.

President Ilham Aliyev blamed “external factors” for the country’s economic troubles in a cabinet meeting on Sunday. He told his government to prepare measures to increase fiscal discipline, streamline spending, improve the management of state-run companies and consolidate the banking system. Aliyev also promised to improve governance and diversify the economy away from oil and natural gas, which account for 90 percent of exports and 70 percent of budget revenue.

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