Vol. 3, No. 19 (October 01, 2010)

Nation-building and language policy in post-Soviet Azerbaijan

Kyle L. Marquardt
PhD Student, Political Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison 

Note: A more detailed article on this topic will be published in a forthcoming issue of Central Asian Survey

Social-scientific literature has long accepted the fact that a national language can play an essential role in nation-building (for examples, see Fishman 1968, Anderson 2006).  This role can be positive in terms of state-building: revitalizing a formerly oppressed national language can help a state find a new, independent identity.  However, the role can also be divisive: a state can come into conflict with local minorities by attempting linguistic rationalization—that is, unifying the state under one language (Laitin 1988).

In Azerbaijan, language could have potentially played either role.  On one hand, Azerbaijan was—and remains—largely ethnically Azerbaijani (90.6 percent in 1999, according to The World Factbook) and its titular population evinced a relatively high degree of Azerbaijani linguistic knowledge. [1] Such a situation would appear ideal for linguistic revitalization and unification of the state under Azerbaijani.  On the other hand, Azerbaijan’s urban centers had significant Russophone populations (Fierman 2009) and moreover its post-Soviet history was marred by ethnic conflict: aside from the Karabakh conflict, members of both the Lazgi and Talysh populations of Azerbaijan had engaged in secessionist activities. [2] As a result, attempts to use ethnic Azerbaijanis’ demographic dominance to force the Azerbaijani language on the entire population could have led to greater unrest. 

On the whole, the policy adopted by Azerbaijan’s government mainly has avoided potential problems by emphasizing the symbolic aspects of language, not mandating changes in linguistic behavior: while the government framed the Azerbaijani language as a symbol of the independent Azerbaijani state and nation, it also made significant allowances to speakers of other languages.  In practice, such a policy has meant that while usage of the Azerbaijani language was certainly encouraged, this encouragement has not been overtly coercive.  Indeed, the government has taken great pains to portray itself as a supporter of Azerbaijan’s ethnic communities.  At the same time, the demographic dominance of Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan has meant that more extreme language policies were unnecessary: even without greater pressure from the government, Azerbaijani has gradually become essential for most citizens of Azerbaijan de facto if not de jure.

To understand how this situation developed, it is necessary to describe the years immediately following Azerbaijan’s independence, all of which occurred in the context of the chaos surrounding the Karabakh war.  In 1992, Abulfaz Elchibay, the leader of the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF), became president of Azerbaijan.  In terms of language policy, the tone of the Elchibay government was both nationalistic and pan-Turkic. [3] Most controversially, the government officially designated the Azerbaijani language as simply being “Turkish.” [4] Many Azerbaijani citizens perceived such a pro-Turkish stance as impinging on Azerbaijan’s national uniqueness, and the resulting widespread disapproval resulted in the government backing down from its initial stance, renaming Azerbaijani “Azerbaijani Turkish.” 

In addition to unease surrounding the APF government’s policy toward Azerbaijani, the APF’s nationalist tone may have influenced the development of minority separatist movements in both northern and southern Azerbaijan.  In southern Azerbaijan, Talysh military officers attempted to create an independent Talysh state (Matveeva 2002); though this act garnered little popular support, concerns about Talysh separatism remained.  Meanwhile, members of the Lazgi minority formed the organization “Sadval,” which was committed to the unification of predominantly Lazgi territories in Azerbaijan and Russia (Matveeva and Mccartney 1998).  All the while, the emigration of ethnic Russians and other minorities continued (Zayonchkovskaya 2002).

Whether or not these difficulties were actually a result of the APF government’s nationalist and pan-Turkic policies or merely a function of the chaos produced by the Karabakh war is difficult to determine.  Former members of the APF steadfastly claim that their policies were intended to promote the revitalization of all local cultures in Azerbaijan.  In contrast, the government of Heydar Aliyev (1993-2003), which succeeded that of the APF, portrayed the APS’s political positions as having exacerbated ethnic instability in the country.

In any event, it is clear that Aliyev’s government reached out to Russophones a great deal more than the APF, with Aliyev himself commenting often on the importance of the Russian language to the Azerbaijani people (Landau and Kellner-Heinkele 2001, p. 179).  Aliyev’s government also made overtures to speakers of other language in Azerbaijan, instituting provisions for the protection of minority languages in Azerbaijan.  For example, Article 21.2 of the 1995 Azerbaijani Constitution states that the state “ensures the free use and development of other languages spoken by the people” of Azerbaijan.  Though such measures were mainly symbolic, they signified a tonal shift from that of the APF.

Aliyev was able to avoid accusations that such policies were overly pro-Russian and/or insufficiently nationalist because he also worked to outflank the APF on the nationalist front: Aliyev framed his policies as a remedy not just for the ethnic divisiveness of the APF’s time in power, but also its pan-Turkic leanings.  For example, under Aliyev, “Azerbaijani Turkish” became “Azerbaijani” (Garibova and Asgarova 2009, p. 195), signaling an emphasis on the language’s distance from Turkish. [5] Additionally, Aliyev took the step of enshrining Azerbaijani as Azerbaijan’s state language in the country’s 1995 constitution.  This maneuver was especially politically beneficial in that it allowed him to highlight his Soviet-era support of the Azerbaijani language: the 1978 Constitution of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, written while Aliyev was First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, also had enshrined the Azerbaijani language as an official language of the republic. 

Finally, Aliyev was even able to co-opt a long-planned script change from Cyrillic to Latin by having his government actually mandate the change in 2001. [6] Consistent with the government’s overall policies, propaganda accompanying the script change emphasized Azerbaijan’s uniqueness: instead of emphasizing the language’s common letters with Turkish, unique letters such as the schwa (“Ə”) are the focus. 

All of these acts of symbolic nationalism served to insulate Aliyev from criticism as he pursued a less superficially nationalist course than his predecessors (and that which was desired by his opponents).  Aliyev’s successor as president of Azerbaijan, his son Ilham Aliyev (2003-present) has largely continued such policies.  Insofar as the Russian language is concerned, with the exception of recent restrictions on foreign Russian-language broadcasting in Azerbaijan, Russian-language media has encountered little government interference, and government officials often boast that they have not closed down a single Russian-language school.  However, the importance of Russian in Azerbaijan has unquestionably diminished.  Almost all domestic government affairs are conducted in Azerbaijani, and demand for Russian-language education has decreased (while interest in other foreign languages, especially English, has increased) (Garibova and Asgarova 2009, p. 206).

Consequently, it is unsurprising that no government official whom I interviewed during field research in 2005-2006 considered Russian to be a threat to the development and spread of the Azerbaijani language.  Instead, they emphasized the positive aspects of the Russian language’s continued role in Azerbaijani society, arguing that the Russian language will have continued value given the Russian Federation’s proximity and its long-standing economic and political ties to Azerbaijan.  Even opposition leaders with whom I spoke believed that the government should not drastically change its position toward Russian; their main criticism was that the government’s ties to Russia were slowing the transition to English.

In terms of the other languages spoken in Azerbaijan, the government’s position was best stated in an essay by the former State Counsellor of the National Politics of the Azerbaijan Republic, Hidayat Orudzhev, wherein he comments that “the preservation of its unique historical wealth [is] a top priority of the life of the Azerbaijani multinational society, which constitutes the diverse and rich tapestry of the country’s centuries-long heritage.”  Azerbaijan is thus able to show “the whole world its attitude toward its national minorities, and they [the minorities] in turn can demonstrate to the world community their true status in a democratic state, which keeps a constant and careful watch on them” (2003, p. 141).  Protection of national minorities is thus portrayed as a means by which Azerbaijan proves its burgeoning democracy to the world, as well as a moral necessity. 

Furthermore, Orudzhev confronts past minority-related problems in Azerbaijan, arguing that national minorities pose little threat to Azerbaijan’s security: after acknowledging that there have been “attempts” to instigate separatist movements within Azerbaijan by unspecified outside actors, “to the credit of national minorities in our republic they understood on time the threat they were creating primarily to themselves by such behaviour” (2003, p. 142).  Separatism thus is framed as an issue that lies in Azerbaijan’s past; minorities are therefore deserving of the state’s protection.  In fact, the Azerbaijani government does provide funding for the development of minority-language textbooks and media, as well as rent-free usage of government facilities for cultural activities; it also allows for education in various local languages.

At the same time, Azerbaijani politicians whom I interviewed also largely consider it self-evident that success in Azerbaijan requires proficiency in the Azerbaijani language; learning Azerbaijani must therefore be a top priority for minorities.  The resulting tension has meant that the continued existence of many minority languages in Azerbaijan remains an open question: while some minorities appear to be maintaining their level of linguistic knowledge (such as the Udin, the Mountain Jews and the Avars), other ethnic groups appear to be losing ground to linguistic assimilation (Clifton et al. 2005a, Clifton et al. 2005b, Clifton et al. 2005c, Clifton 2009a, Clifton 2009b).  Azerbaijani officials with whom I spoke were aware of these concerns, but noted that although they could encourage individuals to speak “their” language, the final choice to actually do so remains up to the individual.

In any event, the end results appear to be largely positive, at least in terms of unifying the state peacefully.  After the Nagorno-Karabakh war there has been minimal ethnic conflict in Azerbaijan, and minorities are perceived to be learning the state language.

The final aspect of Azerbaijan’s language policy vis-a-vis language policy that remains for discussion is the government’s policy toward the Azerbaijani language itself.  In this regard, the government’s approach has been largely hands-off: it has shown little inclination for removing Russian words from the language or mandating corpus reform in general, arguing instead that necessary changes will occur naturally.  Indeed, New Azerbaijan Party Deputy Executive Chairman Mubariz Gurbanly told me explicitly that any program regarding language development should not be performed in a “primitive” manner (e.g. purification). [7]

Such an approach is consistent with the rest of Azerbaijan’s language policy: the government has largely avoided inserting itself into matters of everyday language use.  The glaring exception to this rule—adoption of the Latin script—was itself almost entirely superficial and symbolic, designed to show a clear break with the Soviet past.  Such a symbolic policy has allowed the Azerbaijani government to portray itself as being a supporter of both Azerbaijani nationalism and the minority languages of Azerbaijan, while ethnic Azerbaijani’s demographic dominance has ensured a gradual shift toward the national language.  As a result, Azerbaijan has avoided conflicts while beginning the process of unifying the state under the Azerbaijani language. 


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[1] For a detailed account of the relative status of the Azerbaijani language in the years preceding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as well as the importance of demographics in determining sociolinguistic outcomes, see Fierman (2009).

[2] Neither the Talysh nor the Lazgi language is related to Azerbaijani.  The Lazgi population of Azerbaijan is predominantly located along the Russian border, whereas the Talysh population is mainly located along the Azerbaijan-Iran border.

[3] My account of the APF’s language policy and the popular reaction is largely based on those contained in Hunter (1994), Altstadt (1997) and Landau and Kellner-Heinkele (2001, p. 69). 

[4] For a description of the controversy regarding the correct name for the Azerbaijani language, see Hunter (1994), Garibova (2009, p. 16) and Garibova and Asgarova (2009, p. 194).

[5] It should be noted that the Aliyev government did not deny the language’s close relation to Turkish, and has in fact shown willingness to strategically deploy pan-Turkic rhetoric in support of some policy objectives. 

[6] For a more detailed analysis of the script change, see Hatcher (2008). 

[7] Interview with the author, Baku, Azerbaijan, February 2006.