By By Heybet Amrah
2012-03-13 03:03 PM
Memo to politicians everywhere in the world: It’s not a good idea to insult your constituents.
Rauf Habibov, the mayor of this small town in northern Azerbaijan, found that out the hard way when thousands of residents turned up in front of city hall demanding his removal.
It all began when Habibov made a speech recently in which he said, “Guba’s inhabitants would sell their home country, their land, even their own family for 30 or 40 manats,” or about $360 to $480.
And as any savvy politician today should expect, someone in the audience captured his comments on video and posted them on YouTube.
The reaction was predictable. Soon after the video appeared on the Internet, between 6,000 and 7,000 residents turned out in front of his office, demanding Habibov’s resignation.
Police tried to disperse the crowd, arresting around 25 protesters, beating others with truncheons and firing tear gas into the crowd. But instead of dispersing, the crowd continued to grow.
Habibov, who had served as mayor since 2007, attempted to make an appearance before the crowd and offer an apology. He even offered to resign on the spot. But the crowd was having none of it.
“We are not protesting against the government. Our dissatisfaction is aimed at one specific person,” one of the demonstrators, Aghahuseyn Hashimov, said later. “From day one, he has addressed Guba’s residents disrespectfully. He has abused the rights of businessmen and ordinary people. He behaves like a regional boss rather than an administration head (mayor). And people’s patience had to run out at some point.”
As the crowd grew with each passing hour, the demonstration became more violent, with protesters smashing windows in the local government building, and burning two buildings owned by Habibov. Authorities called in the riot police and interior ministry troops. But this only served to further enrage the crowd.
Finally, by midafternoon, Azerbaijan’s transport minister Zia Mammadov, along with a local member of parliament, Vahid Ahmadov, and a representative from President Ilham Aliyev’s office arrived on the scene.
Ahmadov appealed for calm, saying, “You can’t resolve problems by burning down houses. Your protest is being discussed at the very highest level. Please be sensible and control your emotions.”
The three politicians apologized on Habibov’s behalf, and promised that all the protesters detained would be released and would not face prosecution. The same evening, Guba’s deputy mayor, Sahib Mammadov, announced that Habibov had formally resigned and that he would be taking over.
“Guba’s residents of course have a right to be unhappy. But I do regret that a matter that could have been resolved peacefully ended in mass disturbances,” Mammadov told the crowd.
Protesters like Rasim Abubakirov, however, made it clear that their actions were directed against a specific individual, rather than a political ideology.
“Look, we came to this protest carrying portraits of President Aliyev,” he said. “That shows that we are not acting in anyone’s political interests. We just want to be respected.”