Vol. 4, No. 23 (December 01, 2011)

Azerbaijan’s national idea has moved beyond the ethnic, presidential advisor says

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

The Azerbaijani nation—defined almost exclusively in religious terms in the nineteenth century, in restricted linguistic terms in Soviet times, and in exclusively Turkic terms in the late 1980s and early 1990s—has become a civic nation in which all citizens of Azerbaijan, regardless of religion, ethnicity or historical background, share a common identity, a development fostered by Presidents Heydar Aliyev and Ilham Aliyev and one that lays the foundation for Azerbaijan’s development as a civil society and the country’s integration into the globalized environment, according to the head of the Presidential Administration. 

In a 5,900-word interview published in Bakinsky rabochiy on November 16, Ramiz Mehdiyev, who has written numerous articles and books on Azerbaijan’s complex and, as he acknowledges, sometimes difficult national development, argues that not despite, but because of this past, Azerbaijan’s national idea today “is distinguished by its content, universality, humaneness, flexibility and naturalness.” Moreover, he suggests, it distinguishes the Azerbaijani nation from many others in the region, including the Armenian, which remain primarily and falsely ethnic alone and thus incapable of developing in such a way that all people living in their states can feel themselves full-fledged members of the nation. [1] 

And while Mehdiyev does not make this explicit, his position lays the intellectual foundations not only for the integration of all the ethnic and religious minorities of Azerbaijan and the development of a democratic society, but also—and in the current context equally significant—re-integration of ethnic Armenians once Yerevan withdraws its forces from the 20 percent of Azerbaijan it has occupied for almost two decades.  For that reason, in addition to its inherent intellectual interest, Mehdiyev’s interview deserves the closest possible attention not only from ethnographers and other social scientists, but also from diplomats and political figures.

The “Azerbaijani national idea,” Mehdiyev says, has passed through seven stages since the early 19th century.  After the incorporation of the northern portion of Azerbaijan into the Russian Empire in 1828, this stage lasted until the mid-1870s and was dominated by the ideas of the Persian and Arab religious leaders. “They were the first representatives,” the Presidential advisor continues, “of that small Azerbaijani intelligentsia, which were drawn into the circle of advanced Russian culture and through it were attracted to the European culture” of those times.  

The second stage began in 1875 with the establishment of the first Muslim newspaper in the Azerbaijani language, Ekinchi, a development which turned the attention of its readership to the specifically Azerbaijani nature of the nation.  The third stage, Mehdiyev says, began with the Russian revolution of 1905 and culminated in the collapse of the Trans-Caucasian Seim in May of 1918. “The ideas of Turkishness began to dominate the consciousness of the national bourgeoisie and the creative and political intelligentsia, and they became the main platform of the political organizations established in those years.” Indeed, the advisor and scholar says, “these ideas acquired the character of a national ideal, giving a strong push to the national movement,” but with rare exceptions, the movement was limited to “the struggle for the creation of a national-territorial autonomy within the Russian Empire as its final goal.”

According to Mehdiyev, the fourth period in the history of the formation of the Azerbaijani national idea extended from the end of May 1918 to the end of April 1920, when the first session of the National Council took the decision to proclaim Azerbaijan an independent state. “The collective forms of self-identification,” Mehdiyev continues, “religious, ethnic and socio-cultural (civilizational) were co-opted into a single national state idea.” As a result, the formulation of the basic terms such as ‘nation,’ ‘national dignity,’ and ‘state’ and the consideration of the separate ideas relative to the future of the nation became possible.”

Unfortunately, Mehdiyev notes, the leaders of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic were not able to cope with all the problems they faced, and Azerbaijan was overrun by the Red Army, leading to the proclamation of the Azerbaijan SSR within the Soviet Union.  As a result, from the end of April 1920 until the beginning of 1988, “the Azerbaijan people as a result of the efforts of communist ideology was presented as part of the Soviet people, where Russian was declared the language of inter-ethnic communication, and national interests [of the Azerbaijani nation] were sacrificed.”

Because of this, the communist ideology “exerted a negative influence on the evolution of national self-consciousness,” for “in it there was no place for national thought.” Despite this, Mehdiyev argues, when Heydar Aliyev became the leader of the Azerbaijan SSR in 1969, it was the case that “the concept of ‘national interests’ was not something alien for the advanced part of Azerbaijani society and the ruling elite.”

The fifth stage of the process of forming the Azerbaijani national idea “can be characterized as the period of the political awakening of the Azerbaijani people and its active participation in political processes,” a period that extended from the beginning of the Karabakh conflict in 1988 to Black January 1990, when Moscow dispatched “a harsh punitive operation” against the Azerbaijani national movement,” as a result of which were killed 131 [Azerbaijanis], wounded 744, illegally arrested 841, and dozens disappeared.”

The sixth period, which lasted from January 1990 until June 1993, Mehdiyev suggests, was defined by the growth of the conviction on the part of the Azerbaijani people of the need to have its own independent state” and also, largely in response to the Soviet system and Moscow’s action in January 1990, to a definition of the nation almost “exclusively in a Turkic” direction, something that led other groups to stress their ethnicity and to the rise of “separatist attitudes” among them.

The seventh and final period of the formation of the Azerbaijani national idea, the Presidential advisor says, began in 1993 with the coming to power of Heydar Aliyev who pursued a policy based on the principle that the nation “included all collective forms of self-identification: ethnic, religious, socio-cultural, political and others.” Indeed, Mehdiyev argues, “the poly-ethnic nature of Azerbaijan became our enormous achievement,” something that represented an advance on the past and a sharp contrast with Armenia and some of Azerbaijan’s other neighbors, which remain locked in a more narrowly defined ethno-nationalism.  And this advance to “civic nationalism” has become “a defense of the national culture against attacks from outside and from internal weakening and destruction.”

Following discussion of the complex anthropological origins of the Azerbaijani nation and the coming together of these peoples into a melting “pot,” a discussion that draws on the ideas of the Russian ethno-sociologist Lev Gumilyev, Mehdiyev stresses that “today, Azerbaijanis are citizens of the Azerbaijan Republic who objectively are the successors and heirs of all the states and peoples who have occupied this territory over the course of millennia.” And this “ethnic multiplicity,” he says, “is an enormous source of wealth of the Azerbaijani people,” something that must be preserved, rather than sacrificed in any way.

This in turn reflects that “the term ‘nation’ over the last two hundred years has undergone cardinal changes,” Mehdiyev continues. “The understanding of ‘nation’ in the Azerbaijan of the 19th century had an exclusively religious context.  The Nation and the umma completely corresponded to one another, and in the definition of the nation was stressed the broader understanding of the consolidation of people,” but only on a religious basis.  Later, other aspects of the nation appeared, ethnic, linguistic and the like.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, Mehdiyev says, the ethnic dimension and especially “Turkishness” initially “acquired a priority importance,” but the limits of that approach were soon apparent given the multi-ethnic composition of the republic’s people.

Indeed, Mehdiyev continues, “only the timely interference in this process of Heydar Aliyev who chose Azerbaijanism as the priority of the state form of citizenship over ethnicity reduced the sharpness of this problem.” In that, he oversaw a period, which “can be compared with the period of the formation of the national idea in France.” But Heydar Aliyev, Mehdiyev suggests, also played a role analogous to that of Konrad Adenauer who “formed a new national idea for Germans who had only just passed out of a war which had divided them into two states and who had completely lost faith in the future.”  

President Ilham Aliyev, Mehdiyev argues, has continued this process by developing Azerbaijan’s economy and political system. “There is no doubt that in the 21st century, the path to the achievement of economic progress, a free and worthy life, and the path to the strengthening of the independence and security of the nation passed through the introduction of democratic principles and norms in social and political practice.” But for that process to work, Mehdiyev says, “democratization itself without being accompanied by a national idea and with national peculiarities being taken into account, the social system is condemned to failure.”

Under President Ilham Aliyev, Mehdiyev concludes, Azerbaijan is moving toward the development of a civil society, one in which “all social and ethnic groups peacefully coexist, which feel themselves equal citizens of the country, and which are deeply interested in the economic and political development of the state, in the constant moral-psychological renewal of the atmosphere of the joint life of the representatives of all nationalities.  In this way, the realization of the national idea outside the interests of civil society does not have any prospects.” That is something the leadership of Azerbaijan understands, Mehdiyev concludes.  Unfortunately, it is not something that everyone elsewhere in the region is willing to act upon.  


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/299115.html (accessed 23 November 2011).