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Abulfez Elchibey. Photo:
Abulfez Elchibey. Photo:

Abulfaz Elchibey's brief presidency (1992-1993) did not bring stability. Elchibey was elected president of Azerbaijan in June 1992. His government was faced with the daunting task of governing a newly independent country which found itself at war and experienced economic collapse. The Popular Front attempted to conduct a range of reforms, including some economic liberalization in line with the IMF's recommendations and adopting some legislation guaranteeing a broad range of cultural rights to minorities. The government conducted negotiations with Western oil companies with a view of attracting the sorely needed foreign investment to the oil sector. As Elchibey wrote later, "According to the drafts of the contracts with U.S., British, Norwegian and Turkish oil companies nearly $10 billion to the coun­try's industry was to be brought into the country."[1]

It is conceivable that such reforms, with time, could have brought positive results. Yet time was a scarce resource, and security problems trumped economic concerns. As Carnegie expert Marina Ottaway described it in 2003,

"…a strong popular mandate, which Elchibey had initially possessed, [was] not a sufficient basis on which to build a democratic state – at least not during a war and not when the fledgling democratic government [was] in competition against a well-established, formerly communist party machine. Elchibey had no political experience and no control over the administrative apparatus. The Azerbaijan Popular Front had many supporters but was a weak organization. It had come to power because the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the defeats in the war in Nagorno-Karabagh had weakened the Communist leadership, not because of its own capacity to organize. Making things worse, Elchibey did not have time to focus on consolidating his government and putting into place a program of reform, because war consumed his attention. He had been elected on an ambitious platform, promising full civil liberties, full cultural rights for all national groups, the freeing of state and legal systems from the ideological influence of the Communist party, the creation of a market economy and environmental protection. But once in office, he was consumed by the problem of consolidating his power and fighting a war."[2]

Throughout 1992, Azerbaijan kept sustaining losses on the battlefield. Azerbaijan did not yet possess a real army and fighting in Karabakh was done by loosely organized military units that looked like private militias and lacked organization, training, experience and equipment.[3] Rates of desertion were high. Some of the weaponry which had previously belonged to Russian troops stationed in Azerbaijan ended up in the hands of the Karabakh Armenians.

Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) soldiers from the 8th regiment are rushing out of a
trench during operation on the Agdam front. Photo: Jonathan Alpeyrie 2008

Further aggravating the situation, fighting spread beyong the administrative borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. One of the most severe blows came in April 1993, when the entire Azerbaijani region of Kelbajar, which bordered on Nagorno-Karabakh, fell to the Armenians. The occupation was condemned by the international community including the United Nations. Turkey closed its border with Armenia.[4] As a result of these hostilities, Azerbaijan was inundated with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons.

Elchibey was an unlikely candidate for the leadership of a war-torn country. He was a scholar and focused on what he knew best: culture and language. Culture wars marked his presidency. For Elchibey, one of the main goals was to "shed … the Russo-Soviet legacy" and to "(re)assert Turkic identity."[5] He insisted that the official language of Azerbaijan be called Turkish, as it was the case in the period from 1918 to 1936. This was reflected in the law on language adopted in December 1992. The alphabet was changed back from Cyrillic to Latin.[6] While Elchibey himself denied pursuing pan-Turkic policies a strong Turkish orientation of the new government was met with rising suspicion on the part of certain ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan.[7] 

Identity-based aspirations dominated Elchibey's foreign policy as well. As Azeri analyst Nazrin Mehdiyeva put it, the Popular Front's cultural strategy became a political strategy.[8] Elchibey later explained: "I believed that as a country moving toward democracy we should have friendly relations only with other democracies. I wanted to sit face to face only with democrats, with human beings. We distanced ourselves from dictatorships, such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea."[9] The new government's policies served to antagonize Azerbaijan's large neighbors – Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan's ally of choice was Turkey.

As a symbolic gesture, on an official visit to Russia in his capacity as president of Azerbaijan in September 1992, Elchibey refused to speak Russian and used a translator. Intent on making a total break with the Soviet past and on minimizing Russia's interference in Azerbaijan's affairs, he severed the ties through which Russia could exert control over the country: he was against Azerbaijan's membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and successfully insisted on the withdrawal of Russian troops and military bases. Russia was increasingly unhappy with what it saw as Elchibey's anti-Moscow stance.

Iran's concerns stemmed from the over twenty-million-strong ethnic Azeri minority located mostly in the northwest of the country. Calls for unification of "north" and "south" Azerbaijan (the latter denoting the lands populated by ethnic Azeris in Iran) were common among Popular Front supporters in Baku. When Elchibey was invited to Iran after taking office, he put forth the demand to make Tebriz, the center of the Azeri-populated region of Iran, rather than Tehran his first stop. He insisted on the release of all those imprisoned in Iran for promoting the cause of "united Azerbaijan". Elchibey also stated that all Turks coming from South Azerbaijan would be granted Azerbaijani citizenship.

Abulfaz Elchibey and Heydar Aliyev. Photo:

Faced with what they saw as an attack on their own interests, both Russia and Iran adopted a confrontational stance vis-à-vis Azerbaijan. As Nazrin Mehdiyeva, an Azeri scholar, argues: "when faced with a possibility of being excluded, Russia and Iran manipulated ethnic groups inside Azerbaijan as ‘access channels' to intervene in Azerbaijani domestic politics, destabilize the situation, and bring to power a government that would be more responsive to the demands of Moscow Teheran."[10] Iran was able to stir up discontent within the roughly 200,000-strong Talysh ethnic minority in the southern regions of Azerbaijan which grew into a secessionist movement.[11] Russian put increasing pressure along the northern border with Daghestan.

Elchibey's presidency also failed to keep the rivalry of different factions in his government in check. The Popular Front was poorly organized. The administrative apparatus, dominated by former Communists, remained outside Elchibey's control. In a 2004 analysis, German expert on the Caucasus, Hendrik Fenz, painted a picture of a chaotic administration:

"…The Azerbaijani nationalist parties, the Popular Front in particular, discredited themselves through internal mismanagement. Frequent splits, the founding of new parties, and conflict between party factions were symptoms of an intra- and cross-party power struggle that interfered with the parties' main activities and made them appear incapable of effective action."[12]

Most importantly, the government did not exert control over its military forces. When faced with mounting Azerbaijani losses, Elchibey dismissed one of the key commanders in Nagorno-Karabakh, Suret Huseynov. The move backfired. In June 1993, Huseynov led an open military rebellion against Elchibey. Huseynov's units, largely composed of troops which had fought in Nagorno-Karabakh, seized Ganja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city, and were marching towards Baku. In this state of emergency, fearing a coup d'etat, Elchibey reluctantly invited Heydar Aliyev, Soviet Azerbaijan's erstwhile leader, to Baku to mediate the crisis.

At that time, Heydar Aliyev was living in his native Nakhichevan[13] (to which he had returned  from Moscow in 1990) and held the position of speaker of the regional parliament. Aliyev accepted Elchibey's offer, arriving in Baku on a Turkish plane. Aliyev's arrival spelled the end of Elchibey.

Aliyev acted swiftly. He negotiated with Huseynov, whose "rebel division" had encircled and threatened Baku.[14] Huseynov would soon receive the position of Prime Minister, albeit not for long. On 15 June 1993, seventy-year old Aliyev was elected Speaker of the National Assembly, thus temporarily obtaining presidential powers. On 18 June, Elchibey left Baku for "self-exile" in his birthplace of Keleki in Nakhchivan. In a later interview, he maintained that his decision to leave was based on his reluctance to provoke a destructive civil war in Azerbaijan. [15] In the meantime, Aliyev organized a referendum which resulted in a no-confidence vote for Elchibey, finalizing the president's ouster. On 3 October 1993 Aliyev was elected president with 98.8 percent of the vote.[16] He would hold presidential office until his death a decade later.

In 1994, reflecting on the fall of the Elchibey government, Isa Gambar, a leading PFA and later opposition figure, blamed Russia for this:

"The Elchibey government made many mistakes, but no single one led to its downfall. At that time, democratic governments were being changed in practically all the countries of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. Azerbaijan was no exception to this trend. Here, two factors were at work: the influence of pro-imperialist forces in Moscow and the society's lack of preparation for democracy."[17]

Living in obscurity in Keleki, Elchibey wrote about the achievements and failures of his government, yet maintained that they accomplished more than they were credited with:

"One can really see a gap between our promises and our actual achievements. However, a bigger gap exists between what the PFA government had accomplished and what the governments before and after us had and have accomplished."[18]

Elchibey never officially resigned from presidential office, saying in an interview with Uncaptive Minds in December 1996,

"Until June 1997, I consider myself president de jure of Azerbaijan. I was elected by the people and I have refused to sign any formal resignation. I will remain here in Keleki until then."[19]

Visiting the grave of Abulfaz Elchibey on his memory day, 22 June 2006

Elchibey remained chairman of the Popular Front. Now in opposition, the movement was turned into a political party in order to participate in the 1995 parliamentary elections. In 1997, Elchibey returned to Baku to take a more proactive role in opposition politics as the leader of the Popular Front party. He died of cancer in 2000 in a military hospital in Ankara, aged 62.

[1] Abulfaz Elchibey, "Independence: A Second Attempt", December 1993.

[3] Martina Ottaway, p. 56.

[4] Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 121.

[5] Nazrin Mehdiyeva, "Azerbaijan and Its Foreign Policy Dilemma", Asian Affairs, Vol. XXXIV, November 2003, p. 274.

[6] Jacob M. Landau and Barbara Kellner-Heinkele, Politics of Language the Ex-Soviet Muslim States, Hurst, 2001, p. 151.

[7] Nazrin Mehdiyeva, "Azerbaijan and Its Foreign Policy Dilemma", Asian Affairs, Vol. XXXIV, November 2003, p. 271.

[8] Mehdiyeva, p. 274.

[9] Interview with Abulfaz Elchibey, "Will Be a Free Man", Uncaptive Minds, Winter-Spring 1996-1997, p. 113.

[10] Nazrin Mehdiyeva, "Azerbaijan and Its Foreign Policy Dilemma" (Asian Affairs, vol. XXXIV, no. III, November 2003), p. 271.

[11] Nazrin Mehdiyeva, Azerbaijan and Its Foreign Policy Dilemma, Asian Affairs, Vol. XXXIV, November 2003, p. 277.

[12] Hendrik Fenz, "The Limits of Democratization in Postauthoritarian States: The Case of Azerbaijan" (OSCE Yearbook 2004: Baden-Baden, Nomos), p. 169.

[13] Nakhichevan is an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan physically separated from the rest of the country by Armenian Zangezur region, and bordering also on Iran and Turkey. Although it is under Azeri sovereignty, it has a great deal of autonomy and is governed by its own elected parliament. Since the 1960s, the Nakhichevan political elite has governed Azerbaijan (Heydar Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan (1993–2003), Abulfaz Elchibey, President of Azerbaijan (1992–1993), Rasul Guliyev, speaker of the National Assembly of Azerbaijan (1993–1996) and opposition leader, Christapor Mikaelian, founding member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Stepan Sapah-Gulian, leader of Social Democrat Hunchakian Party

[14] Note to GK: I have noted that there is more info about this at Charles King pg 227 ( but I don't have the book so not able to check)

[15] "I Will be a Free Man", an interview with Abulfaz Elchibey, Uncaptive Minds, Vol. 9, nos. 1-2, 1997, p. 118.

[16] Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 123.

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

[18] Abulfaz Elchibey, "Independence: Second Attempt", December 1993, Keleki, Nahchivan.

[19] "I Will be a Free Man", an interview with Abulfaz Elchibey, Uncaptive Minds, Vol. 9, nos. 1-2, 1997, p. 119.

March 2011

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