Vol. 5, No. 7 (April 01, 2012)

Azerbaijani national identity: From ethnicity to statehood

Javid Huseynov, PhD
Director General
Azerbaijani-American Council (AAC) 

The study of national identity as a phenomenon of collective consciousness is crucial in understanding the development of any society.  National identity is a compound term which, depending on the country, may involve one or more distinctive factors of collective mentality, such as ethnicity, language, culture, or religion (Smith 1993).  This situational nature of ethnicity makes it prone to be used for rallying individual and collective interests both within the society in question and from without.  Hence, ethnic identity can be an instrumental factor in cultivating social differences with the aim of attaining political influence, creating and decomposing nations, waging wars, making peace and furthering interests on a broader geopolitical scale. 
The development of Azerbaijani national identity presents a particularly colorful example in this regard.  While not distinctly spelled out as such in the historical records prior to the end of the 19th century and despite being occasionally disputed by coercive neighbors, an authentically Azerbaijani identity with most of its contemporary trappings was already in the process of formation by the 11th century.  This distinct identity further developed over subsequent centuries and was compounded by unique ethno-linguistic, cultural and religious characteristics that led to the establishment of the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918.
As was the case in neighboring Georgia and Armenia, the evolution of ethnicity into a conscious national identity and independent statehood in Azerbaijan had both natural and situational influences.  Throughout history, Azerbaijani people had very mixed and diverse definitions of identity.  Although since at least the 11th century, Turkic-speaking inhabitants on the northern and the southern banks of river Araxes had a more or less uniform ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity, it wasn't until the late 19th century when the first definitions of Azerbaijani as a distinct ethno-national factor appeared in scholarship. 
The place name designation Azerbaijan can be traced back more than two millennia to the times of Alexander the Great.  According to the most commonly accepted historical interpretation, the name originated from Atropates, the Achaemenid governor of Medes who upon Alexander's conquest of the region ruled it autonomously (Encyclopedia of Islam 2012).  In later periods, the name of Atropatene (or Aturpatkan) evolved into Azerbaijan through Persian and Arabic linguistic influences.  Apart from the ancient Medes-Atropatene, which mainly spanned the territory of modern Iranian Azerbaijan, another ancient state, Caucasian Albania (also known as Arran), formed the indigenous ethno-linguistic heritage to the north, on the territory of present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (Minorsky 1953, pp. 504-529).  Despite the distinct Ibero-Caucasian identity of Caucasian Albanians, throughout their history, the ruling dynasties and diverse tribes of Caucasian Albania shared close cultural ties with their Georgian, Median, Parthian, Armenian, Khazar Turkic and Sassanid Persian neighbors.

Following the conquest of the region by Arabs and the spread of Islam under the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphs in 7-8th centuries CE, identity differences between the north and the south of historical Azerbaijan started to fade away.  The process was completed during the influx of Oghuz Turkic tribes and the rise of Seljuk Turkic Empire in the 11th century CE.  Within a century, the foundation had been laid for a uniform ethno-linguistic identity on the territory stretching from Derbend in the north to Hamadan in the south.  By the middle of the 12th century, Shamsaddin Ildeniz, a freed Qipchaq slave of Seljuk Turks, rose from Nakhchivan to establish the kingdom of Atabegs of Azerbaijan stretching north and south from river Araxes (Luther 1987).
By the late 14th century, the Turcoman tribal confederation of Qara Qoyunlu rose to control over the territory of historical Azerbaijan.  It is important to note that Qara Qoyunlu were Muslim of Shia confession and their rule in Azerbaijan initiated the gradual integration of Shia religious thought into the core of Azerbaijani identity, a process further solidified during the Safavid era.  The Qara Qoyunlu state of Azerbaijan reached its apogee during the rule of Jahan-shah (Minorsky 1954, pp. 271-297).  The rule of Qara Qoyunlu and the subsequent Aq Qoyunlu tribal confederations further strengthened the domination of Turkic component in Azerbaijani identity.  Perhaps, the most eloquent expression of Azerbaijani identity came with the rise of Shah Ismail Safavi who enthroned himself as a Shah of Azerbaijan (Tapper 1974, p. 324) in 1501, later extending his ambitious Shia empire over entire Iran.  The Safavids were linguistically and politically Azerbaijani Turkic dynasty upon their rise to power in the beginning of 16th century.  This unique identity was particularly strengthened by the fact of the overwhelmingly Turkic background of the Qizilbash tribes which swept Ismail Safavi to power, as well as the fact that, for the first time in history, the Azerbaijani Turkic dialect was elevated to the status of an official language of court and military in the Safavid Empire (Lockhart & Jackson 1986). 
At the same time, the assertion of Twelver Shia faith as a state religion and forceful separation from the emerging Sunni Islamic identity associated with the neighboring nemesis of Safavids, the Ottomans, strengthened the distinct nature of Azerbaijani Turkic identity in a historical context.  Although after Ismail, the following two centuries witnessed a general weakening of the uniquely Azerbaijani political influence within the Safavid Empire, particularly so under Shah Abbas Safavi and later the Qajar Turkic dynasty of Iran, the development of a dominant ethnic identity in Azerbaijan, as a whole, was not reversed.  The next stage in its development came with the emergence of autonomous Azerbaijani khanates in South Caucasus upon disintegration of the Safavid Empire followed by a short-lived attempt by Nadir Shah Afshar to rejoin Safavid territories.  Among these semi-independent kingdoms, the Karabakh khanate founded by Panah Ali-khan Javanshir circa 1750 with a capital in present-day Shusha played a primary role in reinforcing the uniquely Azerbaijani cultural identity (Bertsch 2000).  The independence of the Karabakh khanate from the general Iranian domain was particularly emphasized by the 1805 Treaty of Kurekchay negotiated directly between the Khan and the Russian military commander Pavel Tsitsianov, making the Karabakh khanate a Russian protectorate (Bournoutian 1994).
After the Russian conquest of South Caucasus in the first quarter of the 19th century, the expressions of Azerbaijani identity started making their way into scholarship.  Linguistic and literary works of Mirza Fatali Akhundov laid an important foundation in the process, while the explicit definition of Azerbaijani as an ethno-national factor emerged later in the 19th century in the works of a prominent Azerbaijani publicist Hasan Zardabi and his first Azerbaijani-language magazine Akinchi (The Ploughman) (Swietochowski 1985).  The encyclopedic dictionary of Brockhauz-Efron published in St. Petersburg by 1890 already referred to the Turkic speakers inhabiting most of the “South and South-Eastern Caucasus and Russian Armenia” as Aderbaijani Tartars (Encyclopedia of Brokgauz and Efron, 1890-1907).
The start of the 20th century and the growing revolutionary processes in the Russian Empire prompted the evolution of the notion of Azerbaijani identity in socio-political terms.  Massive development of oil deposits in the Absheron peninsula from 1870s quickly turned Baku into an industrial center of the Caucasus at the end of the 19th century.  The economic development brought a major influx of skilled workers, traders, major industrial barons and Western-educated intellectuals from various parts of the Russian Empire and Europe.  According to the 1913 imperial census, the number of Azerbaijanis in the city of Baku was already less than the number of other ethnic groups (Altstadt 1992), a dramatic change from a Muslim rural town into an ethnically mixed cosmopolitan city.
Defined by others at that time in a variety of ways—ranging from Caucasian Muslims to Azerbaijani Tartars and Turks—Azerbaijanis as a group lagged behind these developments due to the general absence of opportunities for the Muslim subjects, which were not treated equally with Christians by the tsarist authorities (Altstadt 1992).  Following nearly a century of such a rule, Azerbaijanis faced the first challenge of national self-determination in 1905 when the first Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes erupted in various parts of South-Eastern Caucasus.  This new interethnic tension, fueled in part by the Tsarist favoritism of Christian Armenians over Muslim Azerbaijanis (Fraser 1990, pp. 652-677), had purely socio-economic reasons.
The clashes of 1905 had a profound effect on the consolidation of ethnic identity, which led to demands for equal rights and opportunities by and for Muslim Azerbaijanis.  The growing Azerbaijani intellectual elite embraced socialist ideals and brought about the cultural renaissance in the years before World War I, increasing the role of Azerbaijanis in economic and political life of Baku and its environs.  At this time, Russian- and European-educated Azerbaijani intellectuals found inspiration in Turkism, viewing it as the basis for the unification of the Turkic-speaking Muslim subjects of Russian Empire to demand federalization and cultural autonomy (Smith 2001).
With the irredentist “myths of descent” spread by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and demands for a greater social justice preached by Azerbaijani intellectuals, fueled by Russian favoritism for the former's cause, the Armenian-Muslim socio-economic tension gradually grew into a broader inter-ethnic conflict similar to the one already burning in the neighboring Ottoman Empire.  The impact of this confrontation on Azerbaijanis, especially in the aftermath of 1908 Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire, was a growing awareness of a long-forgotten ethnic identity between Azerbaijani and Ottoman Turks.  It is worth noting that this situational challenge to Azerbaijani identity also helped to overcome the confessional attitudes of Shia Azerbaijanis against Sunni Ottomans that evolved over 400 years after the bitter Ottoman-Safavid confrontation.  Thus, the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation supplanted by the growing socialist tendencies assisted in the evolution of a predominantly Muslim religious identity of Azerbaijanis into the Turkic nationalist identity. 
The spread of Turkism into the Ottoman Empire and the Young Turk Revolution moved the nexus of this ideology from imperial Russia to Istanbul.  Subsequently, any autonomous nationalist sentiment by Turkic-speaking subjects of the Russian Empire was treated by the Tsarist authorities as an Ottoman ploy.  Another fundamental feature of all nationalist and secessionist movements in the Russian Empire was their inherently socialist nature, which was also a cause for their persecution by the Tsarist authorities.  Therefore, the first Azerbaijani socialist party, Hummet, followed by the nationalist and the oldest existing political party, Musavat (Equality), established in 1911, operated mostly undercover until the fall of the Tsarist establishment in 1917.  Soon after the abdication of Tsar in St. Petersburg, Musavat conducted its first major Congress,[15] emerging as the leading force to capture the historic opportunity for establishing an independent Azerbaijani homeland.
With the fall of Russia’s imperial authority in 1917 amidst the ongoing World War I turmoil and the revolution, the interethnic strife in the Caucasus also intensified.  Its culmination came along by the spring of 1918, in a standoff between Bolsheviks and Musavat over the control of Baku.  Seeking to eliminate the strong public support for Musavat from the Azerbaijani population in the city, despite the appeals from Lenin for diplomacy, the Bolshevik Baku Soviet led by Stepan Shaumyan, an ethnic Armenian, enlisted the support of Dashnak Armenian units in town.  The result was a massacre of up to 12,000 Azerbaijanis (Smith 2001), which transpired between March 30 and April 3 of 1918.  In modern Azerbaijan, these tragic historical events are called the Soyqırım, an Azerbaijani Turkic term for genocide. 

Despite the defeat of Musavat, the March Days of 1918 strengthened nationalism and pro-Turkish sympathies in Azerbaijani society and thus created a fertile ground for independence.  On May 28, 1918, upon disintegration of a short-lived defunct Transcaucasian Federation, the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) was proclaimed in Tiflis with a temporary capital in Elizavetpol (Ganja).  The new Azerbaijani government immediately requested military assistance from the Ottoman Young Turk government to help defeat the Baku Soviet and establish control over all of the Caucasian Azerbaijan.  Being a passionate pan-Turanic idealist, the Ottoman triumvir, Enver Pasha, responded by dispatching an armed force under the command of his brother Nuri, to train Azerbaijanis and to mount an offensive against the Bolsheviks in Baku.  That offensive resulted in liberation of Baku, which became the capital of ADR in September 1918.
Despite enlisting the support of the Ottomans, Azerbaijani elite did not endorse the idea of unification with the failing empire.  Instead, ADR established a secular parliamentary democracy, the first of its kind in the Muslim and Turkic-speaking worlds, and further strengthened an independent national identity within the political boundaries that it defined for Caucasian Azerbaijan.  The Azerbaijani tri-color flag adopted by the ADR clearly pointed to the foundations of this contemporary identity: Turkism (blue), Modernism (red), and Islam (green).  It was precisely this identity, albeit under cosmetically Soviet symbols, which continued to develop during the decades of Soviet rule and the re-establishment of independent Azerbaijani state in the post-Soviet period.
The Bolshevik occupation of Azerbaijan in April 1920 did not alter the development of independent Azerbaijani identity, but only temporarily placed it in a new context, that of Bolshevik ideology.  So despite its defeat, the ADR government initiated an irreversible process, that of redefining the Azerbaijani national identity in terms of statehood with political boundaries.  The 1920s witnessed the consolidation of Azerbaijani linguistic and cultural identity in a Turkic context.  In 1928, the Soviet authorities supported the decision to change the Turkic language script in Azerbaijan from Arabic to Latin (Altstadt 1992).  However, the 1936 USSR Constitution sought to disassociate Azerbaijani ethnicity from its predominantly Turkic heritage, for Stalin feared that Azerbaijani Turks could be overly attracted to their ethnic kin in Kemalist Turkey.  The new constitution coincided with Stalin’s 1937-38 Great Purges during which over 120,000 Azerbaijani intellectuals were sent to death camps or executed (Altstadt 1992), many of them on charges of inciting pan-Turkic ideas.  The official language of Azerbaijan SSR was renamed Azerbaijani, the ethnicity of “Turk” was changed in Soviet passports to “Azerbaijani,” and the Latin script of Azeri Turkic was replaced by Cyrillic (Grenoble 2003).
Even while attempting to establish a non-Turkic Azerbaijani identity, the Soviet authorities did not include the non-Turkic minorities of Azerbaijan within this national definition, i.e. that applied only to the Turkic-speaking inhabitants of Azerbaijan.  Indeed, during the Stalin era, Azerbaijani historians were encouraged to link the Azerbaijani identity to the ancient Medes (Schendel & Zrcher 2001).  The Soviet authorities sought to use the redefined Azerbaijani identity to intensify nationalist sentiment among the Azerbaijanis in Iran.  In 1940s, this policy proved successful when Moscow and Baku managed to instill a secessionist movement in Iranian Azerbaijan, the latter culminating in the establishment of a short-lived Azerbaijan People’s Government with its capital in Tabriz in 1945-46 (Swietochowski 1989, pp. 44-46).
Following Stalin’s death and by early 1970, the Turkic role in Azerbaijani identity was rehabilitated as were millions of Soviet citizens who perished during the Great Purge.  From then until 1991, official Azerbaijani historiography suggested that Azerbaijani identity had three sources: Caucasian (Albanians), Turkic (Oghuz) and Iranian (Medes-Atropatene) (Schendel & Zrcher 2001).  The restoration of Azerbaijani statehood in 1991, in presence of the renewed Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the Mountainous Karabakh, brought new situational challenges for the Azerbaijani identity, which had been weakened by decades of corrupt Soviet administration.  Again as in 1918, the Turkic factor initially dominated the definition of post-Soviet Azerbaijani nationalism, particularly during the 1992-93 Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) government.  Upon their rise to power in 1992, the APF authorities renamed the official language of Azerbaijan to Turkic, thus placing an emphasis on close ethnic ties with Turkey.  That move, however, disturbed the non-Turkic indigenous minorities in Azerbaijan, leading to brief secessionist activities in the north and the south in 1993, amidst the military insurrection and the Armenian onslaught on the Karabakh front.
Taking over what was almost a failed state in 1993, Heydar Aliyev managed to quell both separatist groups by reversing APF reforms and restoring the Soviet-era definitions of Azerbaijani identity.  The official language was again renamed Azerbaijani in the Constitution and any explicit advertising of the Turkic identity was restricted to common cultural expressions and statements of fraternity with Turkey.  Nonetheless, Aliyev was also remembered for his famous statement “Turkey and Azerbaijan are the two states of one nation.”  Despite being made under situational circumstances, this statement defined the path for the development of Azerbaijani ethno-national identity in a visible future.
To conclude, Azerbaijani national identity has deep roots extending back at least nine centuries prior to the formation of contemporary Azerbaijani statehood in 1918.  Beyond doubt, the Turkic ethnic factor has been the dominant component of that identity in modern terms, but other factors were involved, all of them conditioned by geographic, historical, linguistic circumstances and by political, ideological and confrontational ones as well.  Linguistic and cultural elements had the most profound impact among the natural roots and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the unity of Azerbaijani and Turkish political interests played the major role in the formation of national identity and modern statehood.

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