The Komsomol Spirit Thrives in Azerbaijan

Is the Soviet Komsomol being recreated for a new generation in Azerbaijan? That’s what critics of the Azeri authorities have been suggesting after a new alliance of youth and student groups was set up recently in the energy-rich Caspian Sea state. The group aims to “educate the younger generation with the patriotic spirit,” according to one Azeri newspaper, and the venue for its inaugural meeting — the “cultural center” of the National Security Agency — suggested that it already has a cozy relationship with the state.

A leading blogger in Baku, Ali Novruzov, speculated that it is no coincidence that the organization was established just after the jailing for hooliganism of two young Azeri activists who had been imaginatively exploiting online media like Facebook and YouTube to build support for pro-democracy movements in the country.

“After the infamous bloggers’ case, when the government had come face-to-face with Azeri youth, especially its well-educated, Internet-savvy segment, it decided to engage in the youth sector more seriously,” Novruzov wrote last week, claiming that the new alliance could be deployed as a propaganda tool.

Pro-government youth groups aren’t exactly a new phenomenon in the former Soviet Union, where politicians sometimes have fond memories of their formative years in the Komsomol. Russia has the notorious Nashi movement, while Belarus has the Belarussian Republican Union of Youth to provide teenagers with an “ideological and patriotic upbringing” — in other words, to spread love for Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

According to Novruzov, the authorities in Azerbaijan also have a tradition of using youth to consolidate the power of the ruling elite. In 2005, when various Azeri youth movements were agitating for a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution, a loyalist group called Ireli (Forward) was set up in what appeared to be an attempt to help counterbalance what were seen as potentially subversive influences on the country’s impressionable adolescents.

Since then, the Azeri opposition has been comprehensively marginalized, but the past year has seen an unexpected resurgence of youth activism. Pro-democracy groups are taking their campaigns online because street protests are no longer tolerated. None of these groups was present at the first meeting of Azerbaijan’s new youth alliance, but it’s unlikely that they’d have been very welcome.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

See also:

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Erdogan: Russia Backing Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

A Kremlin Youth Movement Goes Rogue