Geopolitics

Azerbaijan’s Pre-soviet Independence Embroiled In Post-soviet Polemics

In 1918, Azerbaijan became the first democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world. Called the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), its creation marked a watershed for governance of a mainly Islamic society in that it granted equality to all citizens and provided for universal women’s suffrage years before many Western countries.

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Yet, a century later, commemorating the event is proving to be a complicated affair for Azerbaijan’s present-day government.

Many observers regard Azerbaijan’s current political system as nominally democratic, yet authoritarian in practice. Thus, it is fitting that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration is taking a delicate approach to celebrating the establishment of a genuinely pluralistic government.

In addition, Müsavat — a prominent, yet largely toothless opposition party today — sees itself as the successor to the ADR’s founding party of the same name, and thus claims a connection to the 1918 events. The opposition’s veneration of the ADR leadership is a nuisance for the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP), which tends instead to extol Heydar Aliyev, Ilham’s late father, as independent Azerbaijan’s founding figure. In this regard, the government may worry that celebrating the ADR will tacitly help legitimize the activity of its opponents.

Still, given the ADR’s significance to Azerbaijani history, the anniversary cannot be disregarded; the government has announced that it will spend 5 million manats (almost $3 million) to honor the centenary on May 28th, 2018. That’s the day, a century ago, that the newly formed parliament declared the nation as independent.

The opposition’s attempt to associate itself with the ADR’s creation is a point of contention for Azerbaijan’s incumbent leaders. Thus, how the government handles the centennial celebrations will be important to monitor.

During the late Soviet era, amid the glasnost and perestroika campaigns, recollection of Azerbaijan’s pre-Soviet independence provided a convenient point of reference for those in Baku searching to construct an independent national identity. Though the ADR lasted only 23 months before its dissolution by the Red Army and incorporation into the Soviet Union, it was a time of remarkable modernization that set Azerbaijan apart from more traditional Islamic societies, a legacy that outlived the country’s loss of independence.

Back in 1918, one of the ADR’s founders, Mammid Amin Rasulzade, was at the helm of the ruling Müsavat party, which held a majority in the parliament that declared Azerbaijan’s independence. Today, the opposition group of the same name identifies itself with Rasulzade.

Despite Rasulzade’s seminal role in the consolidation of Azerbaijani nationhood, today's ruling YAP party has reacted cautiously in recent years to efforts to laud his accomplishments. “He is a historical figure the current Azerbaijani governing elite prefers not to glorify in public,” writes Thomas de Waal.

For this reason, some believe the government has promoted the image of former President Heydar Aliyev as “the father of Azerbaijan,” instead of Rasulzade. In 2006, Rasulzade’s portrait was removed from the manat, the national currency, and in recent years, monuments to Aliyev have been unveiled both domestically and abroad.

Rasulzade “fell out of favor with the current regime because he was the symbol of the First Republic,” Altay Goyushov, a professor of Turkic history, told EurasiaNet. “The current regime tries to downplay the Republic's founding role in nation and state building …and Rasulzade, who symbolizes the First Republic, is being viewed as a contender to [Heydar] Aliyev.”

In Azerbaijan, the opposition has endured crackdowns on its activity, including indiscriminate arrests and detention. The constant pressure has been largely effective in hampering its ability to influence the present-day political discourse. The Aliyev administration is likely concerned that the ADR centennial could revitalize the opposition, especially given rising public discontent amid Azerbaijan’s prolonged economic slump.

While leery of the potential political ramifications surrounding the centennial, the Aliyev administration is likely more willing to embrace the ADR’s cultural legacy. Ilham Aliyev’s administration has spent lavishly on efforts to forge a modern, global image for Azerbaijan. These efforts can be cast as building upon the ADR’s foundation.

The Russian Empire’s collapse in 1917 created the political vacuum that made the formation of the ADR possible. But the notion of a distinct Azerbaijani identity had already been developing for decades. Amid the cosmopolitan environment of Tiflis (modern Tbilisi) and Baku in the late 19th century, a prolific group of reformist thinkers in Baku began to question tenets of Islamic society. The ADR's inception, thus, marked the flowering of liberal and secular thought that had long been germinating.

Among the most prominent members of the intelligentsia of that era was writer Mirza Fath Ali Khan Akhundzade, whose Western-style plays criticized polygamy and the traditional role of women in Islamic society. Through satire, he confronted the struggle between religious custom and modernization, advocating for women’s empowerment, as well as the secularization of Islamic education.

Many others built upon Akhundzade’s literary tradition and progressive dialogue; in 1901, the first secular girl’s school in the Muslim world opened in Baku, and a theater presented plays with Azeri actresses who appeared unveiled for the first time.

Over the next decade, this reformist discourse reached its apex with the creation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Upon its foundation, universal women’s suffrage was adopted two years before adoption in the United States, and a decade before the United Kingdom. All citizens were granted full civil and political rights.

The intelligentsia also promoted educational reform. Rasulzade oversaw the construction of the state university in Baku in 1919, and new legislation required schools to teach in the Azerbaijani language.

A hundred years later, these developments continue to be celebrated in the telling of Azerbaijani history. The political and social achievements of the ADR provided a foundation for post-Soviet nation-building and continue to symbolize the country’s independence and sovereignty.

Yet while the ADR represents the foundation of Azerbaijani nationhood, Rasulzade’s popularity amongst the opposition will likely prompt the ruling elite to tread carefully when paying tribute to the ADR this year.

Editor's note: Rebeka Foley is an analyst on political developments in Eurasia, with a focus on the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Article by Rebeka Foley, EurasiaNet