Back Soul-searching – what had gone wrong? Debates on identity, democracy and development - Next 
The Hajizde family: Adnan and with his father Hikmet and his mother Bahar. Photo: Private
The Hajizade family: Adnan and with his father Hikmet and his mother Bahar. Photo: Private

After declaring its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, Azerbaijan was faced with the difficult task of nation-building. With the exception of a brief period from 1918 to 1920, Azerbaijan had never been an independent state before. Unsurprisingly for a country emerging from centuries of foreign dominance and engaged in a war with a breakaway province, issues of identity, language, religion and culture came to dominate the public consciousness and public debate. It was understood that the way in which Azerbaijan chose to respond to these questions would have serious implications for its future development and orientation for years to come. Far from being a remote academic concept, identity had a direct and immediate impact on policy-making, be it language or education policy or external relations. In the words of Hikmet Hajizade, a leading Azeri political scientist and intellectual (and the father of the "donkey blogger" Adnan):

"[t]he nation started looking for answers to basic questions: Who are we? What new values should we acquire? What shall we do afterwards?"[1]

With the official Soviet ideology gone and the vacuum that resulted, Azerbaijan became the battleground of competing ideas and worldviews. Shireen Hunter, a scholar writing on Azerbaijan, identified three distinct periods in Azerbaijan's political history of the late 1980's – first half of the 1990's. The first period between 1989 and 1992 was dominated by the pro-independence and pro-Turkism sentiment exemplified in the Popular Front ideology. The second period, the years of 1992 and 1993, which marked the military campaigns and eventual defeat in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, saw the strengthening of the same sentiment, often in the ultra-nationalist form, yet an alternative, pro-Western and anti-Russian ideology was gaining popularity as well. With the consolidation of power by Heydar Aliyev, as well as the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, a different national idea rose to prominence. It was the pro-government ideology of "Azerbaijanism" emphasizing unity and state-building.[2]

Similar findings were reported by Ceylan Tokluoglu, a Turkish sociologist studying Azerbaijani identity, who conducted twenty-two in-depth personal interviews on identity issues with the leading members of the Azerbaijani political elite (these included such prominent figures as Abulfaz Elchibey, Ali Kerimli, and Isa Gambar) in 1998. Speaking of "conflicting" identities in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, Tokluoglu identified three key competing ideologies: the Popular Front's "conservative and ethno-centric (Turkistic) nationalism", Musavat's "pro-Western liberal nationalism emphasizing a pluralistic identity inclusive of various ethnic groups of Azerbaijan" and the ideology espoused by Heydar  Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party (YAP), which put an emphasis on "multi-ethnic Azerbaijanism embracing various ethnic groups."[3]

One of the most significant events during Azerbaijan's first years of independence was the June 1993 coup attempt by commander Surat Huseynov, which brought to an end the debacle of the Popular Front government under Elchibey after only a year in power. Heydar Aliyev took over de facto leadership of Azerbaijan and was elected president in October 1993, with nearly 99% of the popular vote according to the official results. While these figures were obviously inflated, there is no doubt that Aliyev was backed by a significant majority of the population disillusioned with the Popular Front's failure to keep Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and to restore order and normalcy in the country.


Heydar Aliyev. Photo: 4.bp.blogspot.com

Heydar Aliyev's advent to power in 1993 may have brought a measure of the much-needed stability to Azerbaijan but the new leader's power was not uncontested. Aliyev survived several assassination and coup attempts, allegedly initiated by Azerbaijan's first president and former leader of Communist Party Ayaz Mutalibov, as well as by Popular Front supporters. The political opposition, led by the Popular Front and Musavat, considered Elchibey to be the only legitimate president (Elchibey's term in office was to officially to expire only in June 1997), while holding Aliyev to be only a de facto leader.[4] The Popular Front had boycotted the 1993 presidential elections which brought a resounding victory to Heydar Aliyev. Popular Front members were accused of being involved in several assassination attempts against Aliyev that followed his election. The government imprisoned on criminal charges a number of oppositional activists, including some leading Popular Front leaders such as Tofiq Gasimov, who served as the foreign minister in Elchibey's government. Gasimov, who was a leading member of the Musavat party, was arrested in September 1995 on charges of treason and plotting to overthrow the government. The arrest took place just two months before the parliamentary elections. Several top members of the Popular Front, such as Faraj Guliev and Arif Pashayev, were arrested as well.


Tofiq Gasimov, Minister of Foreign Affairs
 under the Elchibey government (1992-1993). Photo: mediaforum.az

Aliyev's opponents had a number of grievances against the new leader. The Popular Front, which had risen to prominence by rallying public support on Nagorno-Karabakh, felt that Aliyev betrayed national ideals by accepting the humiliating defeat and the Russian-negotiated ceasefire in 1994. Since many in Azerbaijan perceived Russia as a hostile power, the fact that Aliyev agreed to the Russian-mediated ceasefire and to Azerbaijan's membership in the Russian-led CIS was a step in the wrong direction. Others were critical of Aliyev's decision to sign the "contract of the century" with a consortium of international oil majors, which also included Russia's Lukoil. Even though under Heydar Aliyev Azerbaijan developed a good working relationship with the West, many in the opposition claimed that Aliyev's initial intention was to stay in the Russian sphere of influence. As a key opposition figure, Chairman of the Musavat Party Isa Gambar argued in 1995,

"When Aliyev took power in July 1993, his hopes were all oriented toward Russia. He quickly persuaded the parliament and the public that Azerbaijan should join the Commonwealth of Independent States. He signed all the CIS documents, including those on common security and economic alliance. But in the months that followed, Russia's didn't help us at all, in either military or economic matters. After Aliyev's Karabakh offensive failed, he understood that this only hope lay in a reasonably balanced foreign policy. He began paying more attention to Western countries. He spoke more loudly about Azerbaijan's independence, about democracy, human rights, and so on. He is now doing many things correctly, but it is because he has been compelled to do so. This was not his intention when he took power."[5]

There was also a concern with the state of Azerbaijan's fragile democracy, which appeared to be the main victim of Heydar Aliyev's increasingly authoritarian nation-building project. This development, however, was not unique to Azerbaijan. As Svante Cornell writes, the failures of Elchibey's government and the loss of popularity

"led to the end of the "democratic interlude" in Azerbaijan's transition to independence, a process paralleled in all southern republics of the former Soviet Union that had experienced the liberalization of their political system at independence. Armenia, Georgia, and Tajikistan likewise witnessed a strengthening tendency back toward authoritarianism after democratization came to be identified with civil war, economic collapse, and general misery."[6]

Hikmet Hajizade argued in a similar vein, putting the blame on the state of emergency caused by the war and the destabilizing influence of Russia:

"It is well known that tension imposed on the country from outside often results in the growth of separatism, ethnic nationalism and paternalism. Democracy cannot successfully develop in a condition of a permanent state of emergency, in which we found ourselves because of our geographical location -- we are too far from God and too near to Russia."[7]

Despite these criticisms, the fractured, weak Azerbaijani opposition was unable to agree on a coherent, attractive program to offer as an alternative to Aliyev's authoritarianism. The dreams and aspirations to which some Popular Front members still clung were widely perceived as unrealistic: Nagorno-Karabakh was for all intents and purposes lost, and the idea of reuniting Azerbaijan with the Azeri-populated northern part of Iran had been discarded as utopian. The democracy debate soon transformed into the more general search for a "national idea" for independent Azerbaijan. Again, such debates, which lasted into 1996, ran parallel to largely similar discussions in Russia and the rest of the CIS countries.[8]


Opposition leader Isa Gambar. Photo: wn.com

Adding urgency to the debates on identity and the development path was the fact that Azerbaijan's first parliamentary elections and a referendum on the new constitution were to take place in November 1995. The elections brought a resounding victory to the government party called Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) Party. Only two opposition parties were able to attain the threshold to seat their candidates in the new parliament, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) and the National Independence Party of Azerbaijan, receiving 3 seats each (out of the 25 seats allotted for parties, the remaining 100 seats were allotted for district representatives). Musavat was barred from participating in the elections due to the alleged breach of the election law. Commenting on the violations that took place during the 1995 elections, Musavat Chairman Isa Gambar expressed his disappointment with the stance of Western observers (which bears a striking resemblance to the criticisms voiced by the Azerbaijani opposition today):

"Western observers saw all the violations of democratic standards, but remained silent. (…) The attitude of the Western observers and Aliyev's statements together created the impression that the West, and particularly the U.S., was totally unconcerned with the fate of democracy here and only cared about Azerbaijan's oil and pipeline routes."[9]

However, Gambar's answers also testify to the predicament of the Azerbaijani opposition and constraints of the external political factors such as the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Gambar argued that while he did not see the parliament elected in 1995 as "represent[ing] the main political forces of the country, the opposition was wary of staging large-scale protests:

"…The opposition behaves responsibly. We do not want to shake the boat on which we all drift. We understand that, given Armenia's support in the West, any internal disarray within Azerbaijan would redound to Armenia's favor and likely strengthen its military and strategic position. That consideration seriously narrows the spectrum of possibilities for the democratic opposition's action." [10]

The 1996 report produced by Hajizade-led think tank FAR Centre addressed the same issues of identity debates, presenting an even more detailed picture. By means of analyzing a vast range of media publications from the early 1990's, FAR Centre concluded that there were as many as seven competing key ideologies represented in Azerbaijan. These included:

  • "Azerbaijanism;
  • Unified Azerbaijan;
  • Islamism;
  • Liberalism;
  • Consolidation around the leader;
  • Nationalism;
  • Socialism-Communism."[11]

The dividing lines in the debates were not clearly drawn. Even within the same political movements, vastly different viewpoints co-existed. As early as in June 1991, there was a division in the Popular Front movement between the national-patriots (also known as "radicals") and liberal democrats ("liberals"). The key representative of the first group was Etibar Mammadov, while the latter group was represented by such individuals as Isa Gambar, Tofiq Gasimov and Hikmet Hajizade. As Hajizade summarized the core of the debate, the national-patriots believed that national independence and the interests of the nation trump human rights considerations, whereas the liberals' credo emphasized the importance of democracy:

"The way to an independent state based on rule of law goes through the development of civil society. Our goal is not creation of a new dictatorship, but a democratic state, in which the human rights and human dignity are the priority. Human rights are superior to class rights and religious and national interests."[12]


Musavat party logo

In 1992, Isa Gambar went on to create the Musavat Party after splitting away from the larger Popular Front movement (which was also turned into a political party in 1995). Hikmet Hajizade also joined Musavat. Despite their common roots in the independence movement, Musavat and the Popular Front Party (PFPA) representatives espoused different views. If the PFPA stood for a more ethnocentric nationalism, Musavat advocated a Western-oriented liberal nationalism and a pluralistic vision of identity embracing different ethnic groups:

The PFPA developed a conservative and ethno-centric (Turkistic) nationalism, supporting a strong state. The other party of the opposition, Musavat (led by Isa Gamber), adopted a pro-Western liberal nationalism emphasizing a pluralistic identity inclusive of various ethnic groups of Azerbaijan. In a similar way, Heydar Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party [NAP] also emphasized multi-ethnic Azerbaijanism embracing various ethnic groups (Tohidi 2000, p. 265) (p. 728).

By 1995, Azerbaijan was a proper, if still weak, state, and Heydar Aliyev's grip on power was solidifying. The new Constitution which established a strong presidency was adopted in November 1995 (the constitutional referendum was organized parallel to the parliamentary ballot). According to official data, 86 percent of eligible voters took part in the constitutional referendum and 91.9 percent approved the new constitution.[13] Heydar Aliyev presented a new ideology for the country in search of national idea, calling it Azerbaijanism. By 1998, the main field of the debate moved primarily to the choice between the opposition's Turkism and the government's Azerbaijanism,[14] with the Western liberal option increasingly losing salience.

Interestingly, however, there is no uniform definition of Azerbaijanism. Hikmet Hajizade wrote about it, "Unlike other national idea concepts, the idea of AZERBAIJANISM does not have an extensively worked out theoretical or philosophical basis. Each separate individual interprets it in his or her own way." In practical terms, the idea came to be associated with Azerbaijani nation-building, promoting national unity and consolidation around the strong leader (Heydar Aliyev), and an emphasis on the "Azerbaijani" identity of different ethnic groups living in Azerbaijan. The more inclusive definition of Azerbaijani identity is not to be taken for granted, since the period of the power transfer from Elchibey to Aliyev was marked by the intensification of secessionist sentiment among Azerbaijan's minorities, such as the Talysh, an ethnic group living in the south of Azerbaijan. It was in line with the Azerbaijanism ideology that Heydar Aliyev, for example, decided to designate the official language of the country "Azerbaijani", rather than simply "Turkish", which had been preferred by Elchibey. Nevertheless, while not supporting the extensive pan-Turkism of the Popular Front, the official ideology emphasizes the importance of close ties with Turkey, which is usually described as a "brother nation".

The ideology of Azerbaijanism is actively promoted by the government to this day, not only in Azerbaijan itself, but also within the Azerbaijani diaspora in other countries. There are scientific conferences convened to study the legacy of Heydar Aliyev, in which the ideology of Azerbaijanism is said to occupy a prominent place. One such conference took place in Baku on 28 April 2010 under the title "Heydar Aliyev and independent state-building in Azerbaijan." Speaking at the event, Ali Hasanov, a pro-government expert, praised Heydar Aliyev's role in creating a unified national ideology, presenting it as a successful alternative to the discredited Communist ideology in the early 1990's:

"The trend of a rejection of all previous values, including scientific, intellectual, spiritual and social ones caused serious ideological vacuum in Azerbaijan in a true sense of the word. On one hand, the trend of lack of ideology of society came from a hatred of the former Communist regime, on the other hand, it stemmed from a lack of clear goals and intentions, a full understanding of political, economic, cultural and spiritual development of the people who led Azerbaijan in 1991-1993. In times of Heydar Aliyev, the creation of a national ideology that united the citizens of Azerbaijan around a single idea and a goal was raised to the level of public policy." [15]

The debates on identity and democracy in post-Soviet Azerbaijan were intimately connected to the transformation processes in the newly independent republic. Today, no one questions Azerbaijan's independence or place in the international arena, and Azerbaijanis seem to be much more confident in their identity than two decades ago. Instead, the question about the future of democracy in Azerbaijan, which had been overshadowed by national and cultural identity debates in the early 1990's, is coming to the fore. It is, increasingly, the young generation of Azerbaijanis, the children of those who witnessed the birth of Azerbaijan's independence, who are struggling with this question.


[1] Hikmet Hajizade/ FAR Centre, "Azerbaijan: In Search of a National Idea", FAR Centre, 1996.

[2] Shireen Hunter, cited in 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. 728.

[3] 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. 728.

[5]  Isa Gambar, "The west doesn't know", Uncaptive Minds 8, no. 1 (1995): pp. 45-49.

[6] Svante E. Cornell, Azerbaijan since Independence (London: M:E. Sharpe, 2011), p. 79.

[7] Hikmet Hajizade, "Russia in the Transcaucasus, or Democracy in a state of emergency" (Transition Journal, vol. 3, no. 4, Prague, 7 March 1997).

[8] Hikmet Hadjy-zadeh, "The Afterword from the The Year of 2006: On the Real Balance of Forces", Report to the conference "Security and Cooperation in the Caucasus and Central Asia", University of Georgia, 24 May 1998, p. 5.

[9] Interview with Isa Gambar, "The West's Double Standard" (Uncaptive Minds, vol. 9, nos. 1-2, 1997, p. 121.

[10] Interview with Isa Gambar, "The West's Double Standard" (Uncaptive Minds, vol. 9, nos. 1-2, 1997, p. 121.

[11] Hikmet Hajizade/ FAR Centre, "Azerbaijan: In Search of a National Idea", FAR Centre, 1996.

[12] Hikmet Hajizade/ FAR Centre, "Azerbaijan: In Search of a National Idea", FAR Centre, 1996.

[13] OSCE/UN Report of the OSCE/UN Joint Electoral Observation Mission in Azerbaijan on Azerbaijan's 12 November 1995 Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum (January 1996), p. 16.

[14] 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. 728.

March 2011

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