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 Back Nationalism, Elchibey and the birth of the Popular Front - Next 
Abulfaz Elchibey (right) with Alparslan Türkeş of the Turkish MHP party. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Abulfaz Elchibey (right) with Alparslan Türkeş of the Turkish MHP party. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Abulfaz Qedirqulu Aliyev, better known as Abulfaz Elchibey (the pseudonym stands for "noble messenger") was born in Nakhchivan, the Azerbaijani exclave sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran, in 1938. His father died in the First World War. Recalling his childhood, Elchibey wrote that he would secretly fast and pray on his own. Driven by his desire to study traditional Azeri poets, who had written in the Persian and Arabic languages, in 1957, Elchibey began his education at the Oriental Studies Department at Azerbaijan State University (currently Baku State University). Elchibey later noted that at university he would frequently engage in discussions with friends, concluding that Soviet rule amounted to the colonization of the Azeri nation.[1] Elchibey studied Arabic which would later bring him to Egypt to work as a Russian-Arabic translator in Egypt in 1963-1964.

After his return from Egypt, Elchibey and four of his friends created a group at the university to call for a revival of Azerbaijani national consciousness. They worked out a strategy to attract members. As Elchibey later explained,

"We had trouble because we were inexperienced, and the KGB was always following us. So we decided to work each individually and do propaganda. I worked with all my might to create national consciousness in the university, among university students. I would create groups of three, five or nine people and talk to them myself. This took time and strength".

One of the young people whose views were influenced by Elchibey was Novella Jafaroglu, later an Azerbaijani women rights activist. She described her first meeting with Elchibey in an interview with ESI, emphasizing his fascination with the heritage of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and its founding father, Mammed Emin Resulzade.

In 1967 I was working in a village in Nakhchivan, as a chemist in a laboratory. The village was called Keleki. There I met Elchibey. Back then, I truly thought that the Soviet Union was the best thing that happened to us. I read a lot of literature by the Soviet authors but I had no idea of Azerbaijan's history. One day, Elchibey sent word that I meet him at the river side. He started telling me about Mammed Emin Resulzade, Azerbaijan's first independence, the struggle the country had gone through, the purges. He showed me the flag of the first republic of Azerbaijan: This was the first time that I had ever seen it. No one knew it in the country. He explained that he could not have told me all these things at home. There were spies everywhere.


The flag of the ADR (1918), currently the state flag of Azerbaijan

In 1969, Elchibey completed his doctoral thesis on the Tulunid state (a Turkic state in Egypt in the ninth and tenth century). The years 1971 to 1974 marked the emergence of some dissident student groups in Soviet Azerbaijan Elchibey's arrest on charges of "propaganda against the Soviet Union" came as no surprise. He was handed an 18-month sentence and was imprisoned from January 1975 until July 1976. Several months after his release, Elchibey started working at the manuscript department of the Academy of Sciences, exploring the first written sources of Turkish and Islamic history. It was an isolated job which allowed little room for contact with people. American journalist Thomas Goltz, who interviewed Elchibey in 1991, described this time as "very lonely years indeed" for someone who was a "solitary dissident figure in a distant Soviet republic."[2]

Rallying the masses


Rally in Baku, 1990. Russian inscriptions on the placards say "No to murderous Perestroyka!"
and "To Armenian nationalists, get out of Karabakh!". Photo: FotoSoyuz

The period of the late 1980's marked the creation of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), an anti-Soviet movement similar in nature to the popular fronts that had already sprung up in the Baltic republics. Elchibey, together with a small group of like-minded intellectuals, stood at the origin of the PFA. Another founder was Isa Gambar, who first met Elchibey in 1983 as a third-year university student. Hikmet Hajizade, a biophysicist who worked like Elchibey at the Academy of Sciences, also became active in the PFA.  The two met first in late 1988.[3]


Hikmet Hajizade. Photo: wn.com

The movement aligned itself at first with perestroika principles of gradual reform, a fact reflected in its official name, ‘The Popular Front of Azerbaijan in Support of Perestroika." PFA activitists drew on a copy of the program of the Estonian popular front for inspiration.[4] They advocated for basic civil rights, restoration of Azerbaijan's Turkic national identity, transition to the market economy, a greater national autonomy for Azerbaijan and especially preserving Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.[5]

Initially the PFA's official statements stated that it was possible to achieve these goals within the framework of the Soviet Union. However, there was soon a lack of consensus within the PFA on its goals and methods: while more moderate members insisted on gradual reforms, other called for more radical measures, including secession from the USSR.[6] Isa Gambar told ESI in an interview later that he and Elchibey shared the idea of promoting Azerbaijan's independence from the Soviet Union, establishing a democracy as well as pursuing the unification of Azerbaijan with Azeri-populated provinces in northwestern Iran (the so-called "South Azerbaijan").

The waning hold of Communist ideology in Soviet republics in the late 1980's laid bare the weakness of the officially proclaimed "friendship of the Soviet peoples." Popular movements calling for independence from the Soviet Union employed a distinctly nationalist vision. This vision was not always shared by resident minorities, many of whom had political ambitions of their own.

In Azerbaijan, it was the predominantly ethnic Armenian-populated autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh which became the focus of an escalating conflict from 1987 onwards.[7] In what became one of the key events in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, on 20 February 1988 the parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to unify the region with Armenia. The move was condemned in Azerbaijan. Rallies and demonstrations were held across the country demanding to keep Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Interethnic tensions flared. Hundreds of ethnic Azeris fled from the southern regions of Armenia. On 28 February 1988, Azerbaijan experienced some of the worst interethnic violence in the entire Soviet history in Sumgait on the shores of the Caspian Sea, some 35 km from Baku.[8] Anti-Armenian pogroms swept through the city. The official death toll stood at 32, and almost all 14,000 Sumgait Armenians fled the city.[9] The events, Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal notes, became a turning point in the relationship of Armenia and Azerbaijan: "After the Sumgait pogroms, Armenia and Azerbaijan were embarked on a collision course, which the Soviet leadership failed to halt". [10] In November 1988, a series of mass demonstrations began. A growing list of grievances against Soviet rule, including the Soviet authorities' inability (or unwillingness) to protect Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, served as a mobilizing force. Abulfaz Elchibey, an Orientalist scholar and dissident, stood at the forefront of the rising independence movement in 1988-1989.

The Karabakh conflict intensified calls for complete "political, economic and cultural independence of Azerbaijan".[11] The Popular Front evolved into "an umbrella group uniting individuals and groups of different political orientations who opposed any change in the republic's borders … and placed emphasis on the use of the Azerbaijani language in the republic."[12] With the rise in the tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, protests became more intensive. For the first time since 1921, the tri-color flag of the ADR was waved again. At the PFA's first Congress on 16 July 1989, Elchibey was elected Chairman and the Azerbaijan Popular Front declared its mandate as "ensuring the independence of Azerbaijan", "revealing the truths about the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic" and "situating Azerbaijan on a free and democratic foundation."[13] As Elchibey told US journalist Thomas Goltz in early 1992:

 "Democracy is a child of Europe, and it is now rolling over the world like a wave… It is wholly natural that the first countries in the Soviet Union to be affected were those in the Baltics – those closest to democratic Europe. The last will be Central Asia. But Azerbaijan is a special case, partly because of geography, partly because of our history. We were a colony of a European power – and were thus kept in contact with European ideas while other neighboring states were not. Also, we had an independent state for two years, starting in 1918- the first secular republic in the Muslim World."[14]

Meanwhile, the tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the soon-to-collapse Soviet Union broke out into an ever more vicious confrontation. On 13-14 January 1990, a wave of violence against Armenians swept through Baku. Alarmed by the violent outbreak and the growing power of the Popular Front, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to intervene, dispatching troops and tanks into Baku on January 19 to quash the Popular Front Movement. The official reason for the decision was to fight "Islamic fundamentalism."[15] That same night, with Azeris taking to the streets to protest, the Soviet troops began a brutal crackdown.[16] More than 200 Azerbaijanis died as a result. The events of 20 January are still referred to as Black January in Azerbaijan.

Bodies of protesters killed by Soviet troops in the "Black January" in Baku (20 January 1990). Photo: unknown
Bodies of protesters killed by Soviet troops in the "Black January"
in Baku (20 January 1990). Photo: unknown

Black January was a turning point. The burial ceremonies for the victims took place at Shehidler Kiyabani (Martyrs' Alley) in Baku. The funeral was an expression of deep resentment: "The harbor was clogged with small private boats blaring their horns. Azerbaijan was united like never before. The era of the Soviet Union was over."[17] The traditional 40-day mourning period was marked by a national strike.

Four days after "Black January" Gorbachev appointed Ayaz Mutalibov, a high-level Communist functionary, as First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party. After the failed putsch attempt by Communist hardliners against Gorbachev in August 1991 in Moscow, a number of Soviet republics declared independence. The Azerbaijan Parliament, spurred on by Mutalibov, followed suit on 31 August 1991. (The parliamentary act establishing independence of the republic came into force on 18 October 1991.[18]) In September 1991, Mutalibov organized elections, in which he ran unopposed and was elected president. Later that month, the Communist Party disbanded itself, and Mutalibov reinvented himself as an anti-Communist. 

The republic's start into independent statehood was tumultuous. The continued losses in the war over Karabakh, including the news about the massacre of civilians by Armenian militants in Khojaly, made Mutalibov increasingly unpopular. Mutalibov resigned in March 1992 but was reinstated by the parliament two months later – only to be forced out again by Popular Front activists, who stormed the parliament in protest.[19] The new presidential elections were scheduled for June 1992. Heydar Aliyev, who was residing in Nakhichevan at the time, was barred from running due to the legislative age limit for candidates.

Presidential elections, which took place June 1992, were more democratic than any other ballot in Azerbaijan's history thus far. Audrey Altstadt, an expert on Azerbaijan, writes: "The elections, agreed foreign observers, were about as free and fair as possible under the conditions. Elchibey won with just 55 percent of the vote."[20] At Elchibey's signing-in ceremony, his Popular Front supporters "with tears streaming down their faces, rose to sing the national anthem of the first republic."[21]


[1] "Elçibey'in kendini anlatıyor…", Anti Gazete, 25 August 2010.

[2] Thomas Goltz, p. 60.

[3] ESI Interview with Hikmet Hajizade (by e-mail), 1 December 2010.

[4] Thomas de Waal, "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War" (New York University Press, 2003), p. 82.

[5] ESI Interview with Hikmet Hajizade, 1 December 2010.

[6] Thomas de Waal, "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War" (New York University Press, 2003), p. 87.

[7] Audrey L. Altstadt, "Azerbaijan and Aliyev – A Long History and An Uncertain Future," Problems of Post Communism, Vol 50, no 5, September/October 2003, p. 5

[8] Thomas de Waal, Black Garden, p. 31.

[9] Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, p. 111.

[10] Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, p. 112.

[11] Ceylan Tokluoglu, "Definitions of national identity, nationalism and ethnicity in post-Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1990s" (Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 28, no. 4 July 2005), p. 726.

[12] Political organization in Central Asia and Azerbaijan, Vladimir Babal, Demian Vaisman, Aryeh Wasserman, pg 25

[13] Azerbaycan Halk Cephesi ve Ebulfez Elchibey, nihalatsiz.com

[14] Thomas Goltz, Azerbaijan Diary. A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic. M.E: Sharpe, 1998, pp. 59-60.

[15] Audrey L. Altstadt, "Azerbaijan and Aliyev – A Long History and an Uncertain Future," Problems of Post Communism, Vol 50, no 5, September/October 2003, p. 4.

[16] Audrey L. Altstadt, "Azerbaijan and Aliyev – A Long History and an Uncertain Future," Problems of Post Communism, Vol 50, no 5, September/October 2003, p. 4.

[17] Kenan Aliyev, "Twenty Years After 'Black January,' Azerbaijan Still Struggles For Freedom", 20 January 2010.

[18] Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the UK, "History of Azerbaijan".

[19] Charles King pg 226

[20] Audrey L. Altstadt, "Azerbaijan and Aliyev – A Long History and An Uncertain Future," Problems of Post Communism, Vol 50, no 5, September/October 2003, p. 7. Another estimate is 59.4 percent of the vote (see, for example, the article in the Library of Congress, The Presidential Election of 1992, available here.

[21] Audrey L. Altstadt, "Azerbaijan and Aliyev – A Long History and An Uncertain Future," Problems of Post Communism, Vol 50, no 5, September/October 2003, p. 7.

March 2011

 Back Nationalism, Elchibey and the birth of the Popular Front - Next 
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Recommended reading   Azerbaijan online resources

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15 March 2011, 00:00