Azerbaijan -- a country that boasts lots of oil and little in the way of democracy -- is holding a presidential election tomorrow. The current leader, Ilham Aliyev, is firmly in the saddle. The opposition is weak. The West's efforts to promote democracy there have so far done little to change the situation.
All this means that the result of tomorrow's poll is a foregone conclusion. But that doesn't mean that supporters of democracy should give up. In places like Azerbaijan, election day merely serves as a reminder that democracy also depends on what happens during the other 364 days a year. Just to be clear: this is not to deride the importance of voting. But genuine democracy also requires a flourishing civil society, the myriad institutions that allow people to organize their lives and express their desire for change as they see fit.
President Aliyev knows this, and he's correspondingly determined to prevent any challenges to his rule by cracking down on all and every manifestation of authentic associational life. In 2011, as the revolts of the Arab Spring were gathering momentum, reform-minded bloggers in Baku began to organize on Facebook. They intentionally scheduled their first antigovernment demonstration, called "Great People's Day," one month after the day of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. For the first time in Azerbaijan's history, three separate opposition forces allied to oppose the regime. The regime sprang into action -- with arrests, detentions, and fines.
As "Great People's Day" approached, the government arrested a number of activists and raided and, in some cases, shuttered independent NGOs. The government also suspended the activities of foreign-funded organizations like the National Democratic Institute and Human Rights House in Azerbaijan, a partner of the international Human Rights House Network. The cabinet also approved stricter registration procedures for international NGOs.
The state marshaled its resources. Administrators prevented subway trains in Baku from stopping near a popular protest site, and Baku State University forced students to stay late and threatened to expel any student who participated in protests.
The regime began to employ more sophisticated methods after the early protests in March 2011. The Facebook page for a planned demonstration in April was deleted by Facebook after a spam attack of unknown origin. The authorities monitored social media sites and used the information they gleaned to arrest and intimidate activists.
These measures succeeded in tamping down the protests. Western-educated urban elites who had organized protests online, a group duly dubbed "the Facebook Generation," were quickly detained and arrested when they attempted to demonstrate in downtown Baku. In March and April 2011, the police employed a zero-tolerance policy toward public protests. A year passed more or less quietly.