In early March 2012, two months before Azerbaijan hosted the high-publicity Eurovision Competition, the tactics changed, at least outside of Baku. In Quba, thousands of protesters burned government buildings after the regional governor's insulting remarks about local residents went viral on YouTube. Before this, most protests had been confined to Baku; when the government suddenly found itself confronting potentially explosive outrage in the countryside, it reacted cautiously.
President Aliyev promptly fired the governor, restored order and was praised for listening to public opinion. During the confrontation, Aliyev instructed local authorities not to use weapons on the protestors. For their part, the demonstrators limited their demands to local ones, namely the resignation of the regional governor. Demonstrators held placards with President Ilham Aliyev's photo to show their support for him while demanding the local governor's ouster.
But in Baku, the pattern was "wearingly familiar": Facebook Generation leaders would call for a protest and the authorities would immediately arrest those who turned out. During the Eurovision competition in May 2012, youth activists and opposition parties made multiple attempts to hold rallies calling for the end of the Aliyev in Baku that were easily stopped.
2013 has already seen four large protests -- three in Baku and one in Ismayilli -- and the authorities have responded by violently suppressing them with tear gas and water cannons. The demands coming from the 2013 protests were surprisingly parochial, however, and apolitical citizens organized three of the four demonstrations. None called for President Aliyev to resign.
No one should expect anything new from the presidential election on Oct. 9. The outcome of this more or less rigged exercise is hardly in doubt, but the opposition isn't totally hopeless this time around. For the first time since independence, the country's opposition nominated a single candidate for president, Camil Hasanli.
But the opposition's unity will have a minimal impact on what is, to put it bluntly, a sham. The regime manipulates the elections -- mainly through near-total control of the media -- before voters set off to the polls. As a result, election day itself usually proceeds with few obvious irregularities. And yet, according to reports by reputable observers, Azerbaijan has never held an election that met international standards.
The bottom line is that Azerbaijan cannot continue to clamp down on freedom of expression, religion, and political life, or else it risks an Arab-style revolution, greater religious extremism, and even greater levels of human capital flight.