Don’t insult your constituency, or you might just lose your job – and have your home burned down. That’s the lesson the governor of Azerbaijan’s northern province of Quba learned Thursday after an outbreak of civil unrest, a rare occurrence in the country.
It all began when Governor Rauf Gabibov told a television reporter that residents of Quba were “selling their land, families, and motherland,” in reference to the sale of homes in a mountainous area. The video quickly circulated on YouTube. According to local media, his comment was taken as a strong insult, but was also a pretext for locals to express their anger against the governor, who was appointed rather than elected.
In this video, which circulated widely online, the governor tells a reporter that locals are “selling their land, families, and motherland." The video ends with a montage of properties purported to belong to the governor and his family. Video posted to YouTube by Rauf4243.
Thousands of people gathered near the governor’s mansion, and clamored for his resignation as his home went up in flames – apparently the work of an arsonist. (An investigation is currently underway to determine the cause of the fire).
Protesters watched the governor's house burning on Thursday. Video posted to YouTube by qqubalibalasi.
Later in the afternoon, protesters and police clashed in front of a police station where protesters who had earlier been arrested in front of the governor’s mansion were being held. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. To the surprise of many, those detained were quickly freed. In the same evening, local media reported that the governor had stepped down; his removal from his post was confirmed by the country’s president on Friday.
Protesters clashed with police near a police station where some of them were detained. Starting at :58, police can be seen shooting tear gas into the crowd. Video posted to YouTube by munteziri.
Azerbaijan - a former Soviet state in which the population is predominantly Muslim - is led by President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003. Under the rule of these men, major demonstrations have been rare, and those that have taken place have been closely watched by the authorities. Police routinely clamp down on even small protests.
Inspired by Thursday’s protest in Quba, anti-corruption activists and members of the opposition have put out a call on Facebook for a protest on March 4, this time in the country’s capital Baku.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the government chose not to use much force against the protesters”

Erkin Gadirli is a lawyer and a blogger. He is also co-chairman of the Republican Alternative Movement, which is an opposition movement.
People here are used to corruption on the part of government officials – it makes them angry, but they tolerate it, to a certain extent. But in Quba, when the governor insulted the local population, well, that was just the last straw. When they protested in front of his home, they weren’t just yelling about his insult – but also about how corrupt he was, saying he took bribes, etc.
Here in Azerbaijan, governors are not elected; they are appointed by the president. This means they have no responsibility toward voters, and so people are not consulted in local decision-making. This is a frustration for people in all regions, not just Quba. It is also frustrating for them to see government officials getting rich by allegedly illegal means, while most of the population sees little of the country’s oil wealth.
While protests are uncommon in Azerbaijan, there have occasionally been large-scale protests in the past, usually during presidential elections. However, what’s really different and surprising this time is that the government chose not to use much force against the protesters. They did use tear gas, but they sought to negotiate and quickly released those they arrested. Usually, they simply crush protests. Never before have they hesitated to use brutal force or throw protesters in jail for years.
“It’s a strong message – even without money or leadership, people can organise themselves and achieve something tangible”
It was also surprising to see the government yield to the protesters’ demands and dismiss the governor right away. Because the president has made no statement, we can only speculate to what motivated this decision. Some people say this may be related to Azerbaijan hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in May – they think that the government doesn’t want to tarnish the country’s image right before this big event. Others believe that the government may have learnt its lesson from the Arab Spring revolutions and from seeing the protests in Russia.
In any case, this protest was a success, and was widely followed by people in all regions – not on TV, because TV stations largely ignored the incident - but on the Internet. It’s a strong message for the entire population – that even without money or leadership, people can organise themselves and achieve something tangible.”