Assassination attempt and protest send warning to Azerbaijan’s rulers

An assassination attempt and protest in Azerbaijan’s second city have sent a warning to the ruling elite that discontent is simmering in the tightly controlled, oil-producing state.

Police have arrested a local man over the attack in which Elmar Veliyev, mayor of the northwestern city of Gyanja, was shot and wounded in front of his office on July 3.

Interior Ministry officials say the suspect, Yunis Safarov, has ties to a militant group that wants to establish Islamist rule in Azerbaijan, a secular state where most people are Shi’ite Muslims, and that he trained with militants in Syria. They have cited no sources for the information.

But some Gyanja residents challenge the ministry’s version of events. They suggest Safarov was motivated by revenge for what they see as Veliyev’s mistreatment of Gyanja residents and disrespect for their religious views.

In a rare outbreak of violence against officialdom in the South Caucasus nation, two police officers were stabbed to death in clashes when a protest over Safarov’s arrest and unofficial reports that he was beaten in custody turned violent on July 10. A third, Samir Bayramov, was wounded.

Azerbaijan, a majority Muslim country of about 10 million, has grown wealthy from oil and natural gas since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Protests are rare and are put down quickly.

But while money has flowed into sprucing up Baku, opponents of President Ilham Aliyev say few have seen major benefits from the oil wealth, especially people outside the capital, and accuse his government of suppressing human rights and stifling democracy.

Drawing parallels with Aliyev, they accuse Veliyev, 57, of treating Gyanja like a personal fief, showing no regard for the city’s poor and being high-handed with anyone who stands in his way.

“Veliyev has been behaving exactly the same way as Aliyev does,” Jakhangir Amirkhanly, a 74-year-old member of the opposition Musavat Party, told Reuters in Gyanja.

The unrest was brief and there is no sign of it spreading. Aliyev, who succeeded his father Heydar Aliyev as president in 2003, brooks little dissent and the opposition is weak.

The municipal authorities in Gyanja said in an emailed response to Reuters’ questions that criticism of Veliyev was “groundless and biased.”

But the events in the city show that, with the economy heavily dependent on the energy sector and the wealth gap now huge, Azerbaijan’s leaders could face a growing challenge to retain power in the long term if oil prices fall.

Deeply entrenched elites and long-term rulers in other countries in the region are watching closely — Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan all have economies that are reliant on energy and leaders who are nervous about any signs of unrest.

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