How to plan a revolution
This short, gripping documentary follows two young political opposition activists during last year's parliamentary elections in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. It gives a gritty account of the often-courageous struggle to end the authoritarian regime of President Aliyev.
Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country, with $116 billion in revenue expected over the next two decades, yet 40% of the population live in poverty. The dictatorial Aliyev regime is brutal and corrupt. It has 15,000 relatively well-paid interior troops ordered "to stop political dissent".
The film follows Murat Gassinly, an LSE graduate, and an advisor to the opposition Freedom Bloc leadership, and Emin Husseinov, a founder of the Azeri youth movement, Magam (It's Time), in the weeks preceding the elections, held last November. They consciously model their movement on the 'colour revolutions' that overthrew despotic regimes in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), even adopting the Ukraine orange as their campaigning colours.
Murat travels to Georgia to learn how the Georgian youth movement managed to oust the old regime. However, opposition movements in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine were funded by the US and rich backers, like George Soros.
The Western sponsors claim to support democracy and civil society but are unlikely to back the opposition in Azerbaijan. The Aliyev regime is a crucial ally of the US - a "moderate Muslim country", and an oil-producing nation, occupying a vital geographic position between Iran and Afghanistan.
Murat and Amin soon find they have few resources to build their opposition movement and their protests only attract small crowds, as most people are frightened of police repression. There are harrowing scenes of riot police attacking peaceful protesters, including elderly people.
In the days leading up the parliamentary polls, repression against the Freedom Bloc is stepped up. Their public events are dispersed or banned and their parliamentary candidates are arrested going to a Baku rally, along with Murat.
The Freedom Bloc claims it should win many seats. But the day before the elections, hundreds of opposition candidates pull out, saying they were pressurised. On 6 November, election day, the film-makers get footage of men working for the government carrying bags of ballots from cars to counting stations well after polls closed. The government claimed to win 110 out of 120 seats.
When Western monitors condemn the elections, Murat and Emin believe this is the start of their Orange revolution and make plans to set up a tent city in Baku city centre, copying events in Kiev, in 2004.
The Freedom Bloc leaders address tens of thousands of protesters demanding new elections, but then call for protesters to go home at nightfall. Murat is crestfallen. "I really hoped the US would help Azerbaijan," he laments. Instead, the US publicly endorses the results - which give the opposition a mere seven seats - once again backing its friend President Aliyev.
After a half-hearted campaign in the regions, the Freedom Bloc calls a final Baku demonstration, with its leaders swearing to stay in the square this time. Soon the protests are violently broken up by thuggish police. An old woman collects the orange opposition flags, remonstrating with the police and saying poignantly, "We will never be free".
How To Plan a Revolution shows the brutality of many former Soviet Union states and the double standards of the Western powers. But it fails to examine properly the policies and ideology of the Freedom Bloc, who try to win over the rural poor with calls for an oil windfall of a few hundred dollars for everyone and appeal to the "city intelligentsia". Its pro-capitalist, market policies fail to attract most workers and youth, even taking into account the regime's ballot rigging.
Workers in Azerbaijan want democratic rights and decent living standards but a growing number no doubt look at the bitter fruit of 'colour revolutions' elsewhere, and see growing economic crisis and political instability in countries like Georgia, Serbia and Ukraine.
The success of a movement opposing dictatorial rule is not just reduced to the question of resources and vague appeals for liberal democracy, as the film makers seem to think. For the masses to go onto the streets they have to feel they have no other road and that they are fighting for something worthwhile.
If a viable, socialist opposition existed in Azerbaijan, workers and youth would follow it, struggling to overthrow the regime and vastly improve their living standards. The Azeri pro-big business opposition may be more successful in the future, if repression and poverty worsens and there is no independent working-class alternative. However, only a red revolution - a genuine socialist transformation - will bring a real change for Azeri working people.
How to Plan a Revolution - BBC This World series. Shown at Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, London, 20 March, 2006.