BAKU (RFE/RL) — Protests have broken out in a handful of districts across Azerbaijan in the latest sign of mounting frustration over joblessness, price hikes, and other economic woes in the oil-rich Caucasus country. In at least one case, troops were sent to intervene, and detentions were reported in several cities.
The unrest follows a steep drop in the value of the national currency, the manat, and with oil revenues, which make up a vast majority of Azerbaijan’s exports, plummeting and sending shock waves through the economy.
The protesters rallied across Azerbaijan on January 13 — in the districts of Fizuli, Aqsu, Aqcabardi, Siyazan, and Lankaran — to express their grievances, which include anger over price rises on essential items like flour and bread. Military units were deployed in Siyazan to prevent a march by demonstrators, and eyewitnesses told RFE/RL that at least two demonstrators there were detained.
In the district of Lankaran, police detained several more protesters, including a local chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party (AXCP), Nazim Hasanli, and the chairman of the local branch of the opposition Musavat party, Iman Aliyev. Both men were reportedly found guilty of taking part in an unsanctioned protest and sentenced to one month in jail. Hasanli and Aliyev had pleaded their innocence, saying they had nothing to do with the rallies. Four demonstrators were said to have been fined and released.
Rasim Novruzov, a deputy head of the district administration in Aqsu, said the events in his district could not be described as protests, adding that local authorities had talked to the demonstrators and agreed to tackle the issue of the high price of flour.
The Azerbaijani manat last month fell by around one-third against the dollar as the central bank eased its defense of the currency and relinquished some control of its exchange rate, with slumping oil prices spurring a flight to the dollar.
Azerbaijan’s central bank said it was forced to loosen the currency regime to “preserve hard-currency reserves…and ensure the national economy’s competitiveness on the international arena.”
Energy exports account for about three-quarters of Azerbaijan’s state revenues, so falling oil prices have hit the country hard.
Earlier this month, a 63-year-old maintenance man set himself on fire in front of his workplace, reportedly after complaining to colleagues of bank loans he could not repay.