Late in the evening of May 9th, the day before the birth of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, graffiti found its way onto a statue dedicated to the same man, in a park in Baku by the same name.
The inscription read: “Happy Slave Day!”
The unknown author took the Azerbaijani phrase, “Gül bayramınız mübarək!”, changed the first two letters of the first word and thereby completely changed the meaning of the phrase from, “Happy Flower Day!” to “Happy Slave Day!”
A feast during famine
Flower Day is celebrated every year in Baku and other large regional Azerbaijani cities on the 10th of May, which just so happens to coincide with the birthday of the former president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current president, Ilham Aliyev.
Every year in preparation for the holiday, the government spends tens of millions of dollars on flowers from Holland, Italy, France, Turkey, China and other countries. This has elicited criticism and contempt from elements in civil society who ask why such large amounts of money are being spent when the country continues to sink into poverty.
President Ilham Aliyev
President Aliyev is a ferocious and authoritarian leader, who is well known for election rigging, the repression of civil rights and freedoms, the persecution of journalists and opposition leaders, civil activists and civil society in general. He actively promotes a personality cult around his father to lend credibility to his own iron – fisted regime: in almost every town of Azerbaijan one can find a “Heydar Aliyev” park, with an accompanying monument to the allegedly – great Leader. School textbooks have more and more aggressively pushed an agenda of impressing upon young minds the importance of remembering the “Great Inheritance” that was bestowed upon Azerbaijan by Heydar himself.
While delivering speeches, government functionaries without exception make reference to the former president, and often (erroneously) cite his words and wise sayings. Father and son are praised, almost to the point of vulgarity, not only by government workers but by much of the creative intelligentsia: even by those living abroad.
Not just Spring and not just flowers
Flower Day is celebrated in many countries — including democratic ones — however, in Azerbaijan, this holiday has been co-opted as a ritual of obeisance and homage to Heydar Aliyev, therein strengthening the personality cult built around him by his son. For this reason, free thinkers tend to look negatively and with disdain at the holiday proceedings.
In the last two months, under enormous pressure from the West, Ilham Aliyev has been forced to release a number of political prisoners and soften his tough stance on dissent; he has, however, been able to keep a number of other dissenting voices in jail. While some might say that the regime of ‘imitative’ democracy is not as bad as in, say, North Korea, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, it can be easily seen how with time, the country could head in a similar direction.
A special kind of tulip — the Heydar Aliyev
In 2014, more than 1 million flowers were imported from more than 50 countries in honor of the day. Radio Azadlik was unable to report at the time how much money had been spent on this weighty purchase. However, government – sponsored radio was able to fill in much missing information, and reported that amongst the numerous half a million tulips was a a new breed: the Heydar Aliyev tulip.
A holiday for the plebeians
This holiday, celebrated annually since 2000 in the capital of Azerbaijan, runs for three days. Over the course of these three days, citizens and visitors to the city have the opportunity to gaze upon eye – dazzling floral installations of imported and rare flowers, including a portrait of doubtful taste of “Ulu Ondar” — the great leader.
As per tradition, the first to view the installation is the presidential accolade of the Aliyevs, and then and only then is it opened to the public. Three days later, citizens and visitors are allowed to gather the exotic flowers for themselves — as many as they can grab — which often results in an uncontrollable free – for – all as the crowd surges forward to snatch up these floral delicacies.
For this reason, Flower Day has become known to Azerbaijani free thinkers as “Slave Day.” Earlier in the country’s history, the appearance of such graffiti might have been impossible to imagine.
But maybe things are changing?
This article reflects the opinion of the author, and may not coincide with that of MeydanTV.