Check out Global Voices' special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.
As usual, Azerbaijanis were eagerly awaiting the Nowruz Festival, which takes place on March 20 and 21. But this year was different: the streets are silent and the celebrations have been suspended. Citizens over 65 years of age were prohibited from leaving their homes. Authorities have deferred all public activities, including weddings, until further notice. Schools are closed until April 20. The streets have become mysteriously empty.
The coronavirus pandemic has spread in the South Caucasus: to date, according to the Johns Hopkins University map, there are 72 confirmed cases of the virus in Azerbaijan. Although the country confirmed its first case on February 28, a Russian citizen who had traveled to Azerbaijan from Iran, there were allusions to possible cases in the country from a week earlier. Belarus also reported its first case that day: an Iranian student who traveled to the country from Azerbaijan on February 22 who was diagnosed with the virus. On February 27, Georgia, a neighboring country to the west, confirmed that a citizen had been infected by the virus who had returned from a trip to Iran and had passed through Azerbaijan a few days earlier (Azerbaijani customs officials stated that the visitor was not showed no symptoms when he crossed the border.)
Most of these cases are related to trips to Iran, a country that limits the sor to Azerbaijan and that has been hit hard by the pandemic. Iran, which faces one of the largest outbreaks outside of China, reported its first case on February 19. Despite this, it took Azerbaijan 10 days to close its borders with this country, it was the last country to do so. This delay has already provoked strong criticism of the Government.
Authorities tried to quarantine those arriving from Iran fairly soon, but scandals over the conditions emerged. On February 27, a group of patients posted videos on social media of the hospital where they were confined after going through Iran. Sheets, soap and water were missing from the rooms. Soon after, the hospital director was fired. The following day, more videos appeared showing the sorry state of the central hospitals in the Astara and Jalabad regions, where people from Iran were quarantined. When a group of patients tried to leave the hospital, he was surrounded by the special police forces while a spokesman told Azadlig Radio, the Azerbaijani service REL / RL (Radio Free Europe / Radio Libertad), that the conditions inside the hospital were good. and that the patients were simply misbehaving. Finally, on February 29, Azerbaijan closed its borders with Iran.
However, cases continued to increase. On March 5, a German citizen and two Azerbaijanis were diagnosed with the virus on their return from Iran; 276 Azerbaijani citizens evacuated from Iran were quarantined. Baku closed its borders with Georgia and Russia on March 13 and 16. The country mourned its first death on March 12; An Azerbaijani man affected by an autoimmune disease died while seeking medical treatment for the coronavirus in Iran.
Taking advantage of the closure
Like its neighbors, Azerbaijan is also now in confinement. And the restrictions go far beyond the bans on celebrating Nowruz. A special headquarters has been commissioned by the Council of Ministers to sanction those who spread disinformation and to warn those who impede the work of the health services. On March 17, municipalities began to reduce public transportation and put restrictions on intercity travel.
On the same day, the National Assembly, the Azerbaijani Parliament, passed a law that tightens sanctions for violating the emergency regime. Amendments to the Penal Code now provide for a sentence of up to three years in prison or a fine of 2,500 to 5,000 manat (1,500 to 3,000 US dollars) for violating regulations on the epidemic or for helping to spread the virus. Amendments to the Administrative Code now imply that ordinary citizens who violate basic laws face fines of one hundred and up to 200 manat (60 to 120 US dollars), and officials face fines of 1,500 to 2,000 manat (900 to 1,200 US dollars). ). The new amendments to the information law also tighten restrictions on “false information that could harm the life or health of citizens.”
In many of these measures, Azerbaijan's response does not differ from that of other States. For example, in her nationally televised debate on March 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this pandemic was the biggest challenge since World War II. He called on the Germans to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and to do their part to help slow down the virus.
But 3700 km away, in Baku, the tone of the Azerbaijani leader's response was quite different.
On March 19, President Ilham Aliyev addressed the citizens, celebrated the arrival of spring and explained the reasons for the cancellation of public activities. Then, it changed to another message:
(…) We see open provocations. Where do these provocations come from? From the very fifth column, from the enemies who are among us, the elements calling themselves opposition, the traitors who receive money from abroad. Their main goal is to destroy Azerbaijan. The worse for Azerbaijan, the better for them. Look at their addresses on social networks, they are full of hatred and provocation. They seem to want riots to happen. They want turmoil. They want panic. And then they claim that they care about the Azerbaijani people. They are our enemies, and we must openly state this. It is not known what this disease will lead to. Therefore, during the existence of the disease, the rules of completely new relationships will apply. Let everyone know this. It is possible that a state of emergency may be declared at some point. In this case, the isolation of representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity (…) But we cannot allow the anti-Azerbaijani forces, the fifth column and national traitors to take advantage of this situation to commit various provocations. Let everyone know it.
(…) We see open provocations. Where do they come from? From the true fifth column, from the enemies that are among us, the elements that call themselves opposition, the traitors that receive money from abroad. Its main objective is to destroy Azerbaijan. The worse for the country, the better for them. Look at their speeches on social networks, full of hate and provocation. It seems they want riots to happen. They want confusion. They want panic. And then they claim they care about Azerbaijanis. They are our enemies, and we declare it openly. We don't know where this disease will take us. However, during its existence, entirely new rules on relationships will apply. Let everyone know. At some point, a state of emergency may be declared. In this case, the isolation of the representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity (…) but we cannot allow the anti-Azerbaijani forces, the fifth column and the national traitors to take advantage of this situation to carry out provocations. Let everyone know.
This speech was not so different from what President Aliyev gave on March 14, at the first session of the newly elected National Assembly:
It is no secret that the public and political situation in Azerbaijan is currently very stable. There is not a single factor in our country that can pose a threat to public and political stability. This is why the anti-Azerbaijani forces are trying to create these factors outside our country. They no longer rely on the group that calls itself the opposition here and supposedly continues to operate in an absolutely shameful position. And there is no more confidence for them. So work is underway to create a new fifth column because the current fifth column does not justify the confidence of its owners (…) Therefore, a new fifth column is being sought. In this regard, I want to strictly warn all political forces: this is a path of betrayal. Whoever follows this path will commit treason against the people and state. Therefore, all our internal problems should be resolved within Azerbaijan. We should not export our domestic problems or political discord. First of all, it is absolutely pointless because there is no force in the world today that can impose any solution on us or dictate anything to us. There is no such force out there and as long as I am president, there won’t be any. Therefore, it is absolutely pointless. Attempts to exert pressure on Azerbaijan or threaten us with sanctions are all completely meaningless. This is a crime against the state, not against the government, and let no-one forget that.
It is not a secret that the current situation in Azerbaijan, both public and political, is very stable. There is not a single factor in our country that can pose a threat to public and political stability. That is why the anti-Azerbaijani forces are trying to create these factors outside of our country. They no longer depend on the group that here calls itself opposition and that supposedly continues to operate from an absolutely shameful position. And there is no more confidence in them. So they are currently working to create a new fifth column because the current one does not justify the trust of their owners (…) Therefore, a new fifth column is being sought. In this regard, I want to strictly advise all political forces: this is a path to treason. Anyone who follows him will betray the people and the State. So our internal problems must be resolved within Azerbaijan. We must not export our local problems or political discord. First of all, it is absolutely useless because, today, there is no force in the world that can impose any solution on us or order anything. There are no such forces outside and as long as I am the president, there will not be. Therefore it is useless. Trying to put pressure on Azerbaijan or threaten us with sanctions is totally irrelevant. This is a crime against the State, not against the Government, that nobody forgets it.
Those speeches intrigued viewers. Who were “everyone” who needs to know? More importantly, who was “the fifth column”? The term was born during the Spanish Civil War and refers to a group of people whose intention is to undermine a larger group or nation from within by whatever means are available.
Traditionally used in Azerbaijan by government representatives when referring to their political opponents. In December 2014, the President's then Chief of Staff, Ramiz Mahdiyev, published a 60-page manifesto entitled “The World Order of Double Standards and Modern Azerbaijan” in which he claimed that Azerbaijani human rights defenders were a “Fifth column” of the United States. In 2015, the deputy head of the presidential administration, Novruz Mamedov, reiterated a theory that the National Fund for Democracy was the main actor in supporting the “fifth column” in Azerbaijan.
Finally, both were fired from their posts, but this world view persists.
Mehdiyev's complaint came at the time of an unprecedented crackdown against Azerbaijani civil society activists and the closure of Azadliq Radio. Scores of journalists, human rights defenders and political activists were arrested on questionable charges of drug possession and sentenced to long prison terms. Opposition activists now fear that a new crackdown against the Azerbaijani opposition is imminent. With new emergency powers to contain the coronavirus pandemic, President Aliyev's regime may have a perfect opportunity to further tighten control.
There have been some hints of this. On March 8, the opposition group D18 had to empty its offices due to an apparent threat of coronavirus. On March 11, Fuad Ismayilov, an activist detained while painting protest slogans near the offices of the Central Electoral Commission of Azerbaijan, was denied permission to speak with his lawyer. Authorities cited the coronavirus as a reason. On March 23, Tofiq Yagublu, a prominent member of the opposition Musavat party, was sentenced to prison. After the trial, Yagublu's daughter noted that “Ilham Aliyev is filling the prisons” while governments around the world were releasing detainees because of the threat of the coronavirus.
As Arif Mammadov, an Azerbaijani diplomat, wrote on Facebook:
Azerbaijan has beaten a new brand again as an exceptional country in the world, where the coronavirus pandemic is used as a tool to threaten and further attack the opposition.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijanis are wondering if their health system is ready to face a true pandemic. In an extract from January 28, Azadliq Radio asked citizens if the country's hospitals were really ready. A Baku citizen believed that the virus would not reach Azerbaijan at all, while many others expressed doubts that the authorities could cope with the situation.
Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, Azerbaijan will soon have a chance to find out.