By Tim McNulty
BAKU’S wide boulevards were soon full to bursting as the calls for war grew louder and more infectious as the crowds neared the heart of the city.
Despite the stringent coronavirus restrictions in place back in July, the march was one of the largest seen in Azerbaijan for years, with more than 30,000 reported to have taken part.
Enraged by recent loses in skirmishes with neighbouring Armenia, the protestors chanted “End the quarantine, start the war” as police water cannons tried to dampen passions.
Three months on and the two countries have come emerged from a fortnight of bitter fighting in and around the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Experts have suggested this latest escalation in the three decades old conflict is rooted in the widespread disruption left in Covid-19’s wake.
Dr Leila Alieva of Oxford University’s School of Global and Area Studies told Redaction Politics how the political and economic fallout from the pandemic created a ‘perfect storm’ in the region.
Alieva said: “For Aliyev, of course, domestic pressures were accumulating both in regards to public health issues, but also in his coping with the social-economic issues. I think that was quite a dangerous moment for him. So he probably hoped that using patriotic rhetoric and taking military action (against Armenia) would create a good amount of distraction. Especially when you get to what’s happening in Belarus, so it’s about timing.
“Really the pandemic has been politically dangerous for all the main actors in the region, so it’s a perfect storm.”
The Azeri regime was slow to act as cases spiked leaving it open to claims it was more occupied with shoring up its hold on power than dealing with the pandemic.
Meanwhile a lack of preparedness and inadequare social security provision was blamed for simmering discontent among Azeris.
Within this context, the pro-war sentiment which erupted in the aftermath of the July clashes with Armenia seemd to provide Aliyev with an opportunity to salvage his dented authority.
“This rally caused concern for the President (Aliyev), on the one hand, it was beneficial for him because he could show the support that existed for military action.
“On the other hand, it also presented a threat to him because if someone came out of the protests, with a popular slogan, that could easily be turned into a protest movement against him,” explained Alieva.
The former thinktank director has been unable to return home to Azerbaijan since she fled a government crackdown in 2014.
She noted how the authorities had been quick to harness the nationalist wave to launch a new campaign of oppression against opposition activists inside the country.
Alieva told Redaction Politics: “I think the opposition knew that Aliyev was not fully against the pro-war rally because he was looking to take advantage of it to suppress and arrest his opponents. He has arrested many of the opposition, although many of them were sitting at home and there was not a single opposition slogan at these protests, still dozens of arrests took place.”
In total least 80 people were detained on spurious administrative and criminal charges, according to activists, although Human Rights Watch suggests the exact figures are unknown.
This week fresh fighting has shattered a short lived ceasefire brokered between Baku and Yerevan by Russia on Sunday.
Reports say nearly 500 people, including more than 60 civilians, have been killed since the conflict reignited last month.
Meanwhile behind the frontlines, coronavirus cases are once again on the rise.
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