“To locals, this young man represented nepotism, corruption, and the arrogance of the wealthy”
The rioters had dispersed by the time I arrived, but people who had witnessed the incidents told me what happened. I was told that the hotel owner involved in the car crash had begun insulting not only the people who had gathered around him, but also all residents of Ismailli in general. What you have to understand is that in Azerbaijan, local government leaders are appointed rather than elected, and so they are usually not from the areas over which they rule. Moreover, they often help their friends and relatives acquire land and businesses. [Opposition activists allege widespread corruption among Azeri politicians. Transparency International, meanwhile, has ranked Azerbaijan 139th out of 176 countries in its 2012 Corruption Perception Index.] Protesters allege that this young hotel owner was a relative of Ismailli’s governor, though the governor has denied this. But either way, for Ismailli residents, this young man represented nepotism, corruption, and the arrogance of the wealthy in a country where there is a huge gap between rich and poor.The hotel, ravaged by the fire. Photo published on the Facebook page "Ismayilli".“There’s tension in the air due to the upcoming presidential election”In Ismailli, like in every town in Azerbaijan beyond the capital, unemployment is high, and most people live in poverty. Frustration at the slow pace of development has long been festering – this insult was just the last drop. Some of the people that had gathered at the scene of the accident started beating up the hotel owner – who had allegedly attacked the other motorist – until the police came to arrest him. [The police say he may have been driving while intoxicated]. But they didn’t stop there, and went on to attack his hotel and the home of the governor’s son.Up until recently, protests in Azerbaijan were organised in advance, usually by opposition parties. But over the past year, they have become more spontaneous and more violent. I think the upcoming presidential elections [scheduled for October] have a lot to do with this change. Though the people in Ismailli may not consciously recognise this as their motivation, there’s this tension in the air now that we’re getting closer to the elections. People feel it’s high time for them to speak their minds.