Azerbaijani blogger Emin Milli is a rising star in his country’s rapidly growing opposition movement. He is widely known as the «donkey blogger» for his role in a now-famous video lampooning President Ilham Aliyev’s government — a video many believe was the real reason he was recently jailed for 16 months.
Milli is currently in Prague as a jury member for the One World human rights film festival. He told RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg about his hopes for democratic change in Azerbaijan, the lessons he learned in prison, and how the international community could be undermining efforts to unseat Aliyev.
RFE/RL: Azerbaijan has seen a series of protests since the beginning of the year denouncing government corruption and abuse of power. Such accusations are not new. In your opinion, what is driving people to take to the street so actively this year?
Emin Milli: Aliyev has always presented himself as a guarantor of stability in Azerbaijan. Now, he is becoming a guarantor of increasing instability. His father kept some space open for the opposition — there were always five or six members of the opposition in parliament and he would meet opposition newspaper editors. He pretended there was a dialogue. Things are very different now. There has not been a single opposition member in parliament since 2010, new laws have been adopted to fine people for participating in peaceful but unsanctioned rallies, the financing of nongovernmental originations has been made almost impossible.
People became so tired and so frustrated. You cannot trust courts, you cannot trust the law, and everything has become more expensive. You know that people in government are stealing hundreds of billions of dollars. Another now the issue is the situation in the army. Every year, about 100 soldiers die in the Azerbaijani Army, but only about 15 of those die on the conflict line with Armenian armed forces. The others die because of corruption and mismanagement in the army. People don’t have jobs in the regions. That’s why people started taking to the streets.
RFE/RL: How big a role have social-networking sites like Facebook played in drumming up support for the protests?
Milli: A new-media revolution is taking place in Azerbaijan. Out of 9 million people in Azerbaijan, more than 1 million are now on Facebook. Research showed that 7 percent had daily access to the Internet two years ago. This year, the same research — done by U.S. professor Katy Pearce — shows this figure has gone up to 11 percent.
A university rector in Azerbaijan [Elshad Abdullayev] has been taping his conversations with different people in government for years. His brother worked for the National Security Ministry before going missing. So he started bribing government officials so they would give him his brother back. He failed. Now he lives in France and is posting all these secret conversations on YouTube. The biggest scandal he put online was the fact that he gave $1 million to the head of the presidential administration, Aliyev’s right-hand man, in return for a parliamentary seat. Things that would never have been public before are now read and shared by hundreds of thousands of people.
RFE/RL: You served 16 months in prison on charges of hooliganism that were widely believed to be politically motivated. This time in prison has obviously not crushed your resolve in campaigning for democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan. But has it changed the way in which you campaign?
Milli: Many things are changing in Azerbaijan, and the pace of change is so fast that I cannot even keep track. What changed in Azerbaijan is that the old and the new oppositions are uniting with a single candidate. Even more importantly, they will sign a document outlining their whole strategy, how they share their resources, what their common goals are, who will assume which responsibility in bringing a democratic revolution to Azerbaijan, and how the country will be run once the single candidate comes to power. This has never happened in Azerbaijan. It’s a change in narrative.
Spending 16 months in jail has, of course, made me stronger. It made me believe that the ideals I fight for are very powerful, because otherwise I would not have been put in jail. What has changed since I was released is that I have seen the opposition uniting. That’s what makes me believe that this new changing narrative can bring democratic change to Azerbaijan.
RFE/RL: You have accused the international community on a number of occasions for not doing enough to combat abuse and corruption in Azerbaijan. What concrete steps can foreign governments take to help improve the country’s rights record?
Milli: «International community» is too broad a term. I’m talking about the U.S. and British governments. So far, these governments have supported the Aliyev regime because Aliyev provided oil and gas and invested a lot in these countries. The international community’s civil-society institutions have not only underfunded democratic civil society in Azerbaijan, they have also funded so-called «gongos,» pro-Aliyev nongovernmental organizations. USAID, for instance, recently gave $1.5 million to an NGO whose head also chairs the Azerbaijani parliament’s legal committee, which initiated the law to fine people participating in peaceful protests.
Everything Azerbaijan’s democratic movement is doing now and all the changes that will happen this year will take place not thanks to Western support, but despite Western support to Aliyev’s regime. All we want from the international community at this stage is for the international media to pay more attention to what is happening in Azerbaijan and for the U.S. and British governments to realize that they are threatening their own military and economic interests in Azerbaijan by supporting Aliyev.