An Ambiguous Development: Grassroots Activism in Azerbaijan

Can grassroots initiatives ever take – off in Azerbaijan?

Despite the surprisingly hot sun for early October, few were deterred from attending Ganja’s European Youth Festival, and any outsider would have been impressed by the turnout of supposedly active and interested youth.

I was admiring a martial arts demonstration in which a young girl took down two boys twice her age and her sensei. That’s when one of the European participants came up to me, looking worried: a young Azerbaijani man had grabbed him by the arm and whispered in his ear, “this is all propaganda, don’t you see?! It’s sickening. We’re not free!”, before disappearing back into the crowd.

It only took a second, but this small act of heroism was one of the few sincere gestures we encountered during our three day stay in Ganja at the Youth Festival.

In recent years, the Azerbaijani government has been working hard to show the world that it cares about its citizens. Ironically, it has made it almost impossible for grassroots initiatives aimed at community development to take off.

“Most initiatives in Azerbaijan need government support to survive. And that, combined with  a general apathy from the Azerbaijani population itself towards change – unless they can make money from it – do not make for good conditions for social innovation”, a Dutch expat in Baku working in development, told Meydan TV.

Kamran Rashidov, former chairperson of

Dalga Youth Movement

– a youth NGO supporting active youth participation in the democratization processes – explains why a pessimistic view in regards to grassroots initiatives persists in Azerbaijan.

“It is very hard to find something about grassroots initiatives in a country like Azerbaijan. . . Even for me, and I am a local.”

Although actual numbers on the amount of initiatives that fail to take off due to these factors do not exist, the view of Azerbaijan’s grassroots activism scene seems less grim when you start looking under the surface: when you look at groups who are not trying to get attention, but that are trying to make their communities a little bit better nevertheless.

Considering local initiatives such as WoWoman (a project to empower young women), Green Biker (a group of cyclists trying to popularize alternative means of transportation in Baku) and ÇÖLÇÜ Hiker’s Club, which organizes hiking and outdoor camping trips, there seems to be a small but active growth in grassroots activism in the country.

Parvin Bahramoglu, a self-proclaimed global peace activist who currently lives in Baku, started an educational initiative back in September to tackle underage marriages and domestic violence without any funding. He explained his motivation as an attempt to prevent girls from missing out on a complete education.

“The increasing number of early marriages and domestic violence makes it impossible for girls to continue their education. . . And in an uneducated society, talking about democracy and human rights is not realistic.”

However, Bahramoglu met with negative responses in the beginning from regional organizations.

“They were skeptical about our project and they didn’t want to cooperate with us. Sometimes, they asked for official permission. They also asked us to go through some bureaucratic barriers”, Bahramoglu says.

Activists from campaign, ‘erken nikahlara yox deyek’ – ‘no to early marriages’
Activists from campaign, ‘erken nikahlara yox deyek’ – ‘no to early marriages’

Despite the hurdles, they have been successful in their campaign efforts, reaching 3000 active youth through workshops and more than 10,000 with their online campaign, ‘#erkennikahlarayox (no to early marriages)’.

 “Our local community was extremely happy and they were grateful that we brought the issue to the public’s attention”, Bahramoglu commented.

But with successful initiatives, such as Bahramoglu’s, local governments often try to take over or take credit for the work completed by activists, a diplomat who requested to remain anonymous told Meydan TV.

Kamran Rashidov agrees that being active in driving change is not always without hurdles, but says it depends on your aims.

“If you set something up linked to democratic values or something about politics, yes, it’s dangerous. But if you want to set something up not related unrelated to politics, it’s okay. You can basically do whatever you want.”

Unfortunately, there is a thin line between what the government deems non-threatening and threatening to their strong power hold

Members of the Dalga Youth Movement were arrested in 2013 for handing out leaflets to students with recommendations of books to read.

And, while strictly speaking not political, human rights organizations and election monitoring groups have been arrested, tortured, and have seen their organizations dismantled. Prison sentences given in 2016 ranged from 6.5 years and included human rights lawyer, Intiqam Aliyev; human rights defenders Leyla and her husband, Arif; and human rights campaigner, Rasul Jafarov.

Currently, there are an estimated 70 journalists, bloggers, activists and NGO leaders imprisoned in Azerbaijan.

But that didn’t stop local entrepreneur Emin Abdullah to set something up in response to lacking government support for families hit hardest by the falling manat, Azerbaijan’s currency.

In his neighborhood in Baku,  he has set up a small market place. Clothes are neatly lined up next to some fresh food and condiments. But this is not your regular market place. A large sign  says: “take what you need for free.”

The idea is simple, people bring to the place what they no longer need, and those in need can take what they want. The concept of the sharing – marketplace is nothing new, but it does show that people do care about their local communities.

Emin’s initiative has received outpouring praise, with people from around the world and inside Azerbaijan thanking him for his efforts.

“I saw these initiatives abroad. And I wondered whether we had it [in Azerbaijan]. It’s a miracle! Thank you, dear man, who has organized this kind of assistance to the needy!”, comments Marina on a Facebook video about the project from Nastoyashchee Vremya, a joint production of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America:

The wish of the activists is that their stories and actions will inspire others to start taking action themselves as well, despite the difficulties. “I would like to ask everyone to be sensible towards our society and communities, and try to make the country a better place to live.”, Bahramoglu told Meydan TV.

But of course, taking steps to drive change are not without risk in a country like Azerbaijan.

Note: if you have something you can share with the needy, you can contact the initiator of the sharing marketplace below:


Editor’s note: Inge Snip covers inspiring initiatives aimed at building communities around social innovation.

For the past ten years, she has connected people, projects and organizations, building better communities for the European Parliament, UNDP, and topishare.

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