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Audrey Altstadt: Unlike ADR, post-Soviet Azerbaijan failed to establish democracy


Many in Baku and in the West have convinced themselves that current Azerbaijan, and its government, are the only kinds that the country could have in the post-Soviet reality given its tradition and history, but others like Audrey Altstadt, professor of History from University of Massachusetts, argue that making such assumption distracts attention from the fact that Azerbaijan currently is moving down a dangerous path.

In an interview with TURAN’s Washington D.C. correspondent, Altstadt, author of dozens of articles on Azerbaijan's history, and forthcoming book ‘Culture Wars in Soviet Azerbaijan, 1920-1940,’ said that those referring to the traditions must also explore other Azeri traditions, which include profoundly democratic and European elements.

Ms. Altstadt has worked in Azerbaijani archives since 1980 and consulted with the US Foreign Service, US Institute of Peace, the CSCE, Freedom House and other international organizations.

Question: Many observers argue Azerbaijan missed a historical chance to possess democratic traditions that left by the first democratic republic (ADR) in the East. In your recent article on ADR you’ve highlighted democratic values that Azerbaijani people were able to enjoy early last century. How far has Azerbaijan fallen from those historic values today?

Answer: The history of the first Republic from 1918 until 1920 is really a good example. It is a very unusual precedent for that time period. If you think about the whole world at that point coming out of World War I, and unprecedented, unexpected bloodshed, for any country to come along with the notion of a new independent constitutional Republic is quite remarkable: especially a country that did not formally exist as a separate state and had always been inside of a previous empire. So, that is a case of which Azerbaijanis really should justifiably be proud of.

The first Republic was able to come into existence because of the collapse of the Russian empire. In the same way, the present Republic was able to come into existence because of the collapse of different Russian-centered Empire – the Soviet Union. But at the same time, the nature of the first Republic reflected the generation that took leadership of it, and all of their experience in the previous couple of decades.

The men who shaped and led that first Republic were not only in political positions, but even people who ran the newspapers, had a real understanding of western democracy and understood what multi-party politics was about, what a parliamentary body was about, and what it meant to debate in public contradictory ideas about policies, etc. With all of their experiences, those leaders had been educated in a wide-range of places: some in Russian universities, which by the way, were much more cosmopolitan and European in the Russian Imperial period than they were in the Soviet period; others studied at Europeanized institutions in Istanbul. Ali Huseynzade was one of those. Ahmed Ağaoğlu studied in Paris, as did JeyhunHacibeyli... So you can really find lots of exposure to different aspects of Western thinking. And when these people came back to Azerbaijan, they were influenced by a very broad trends – the ones that you could see in the Turkic world were pro-reform groups with the Ottoman Empire, as well as other reform-minded secular Turkic groups, especially Crimean-Tatars, and Volga Tatars inside the Russian empire. They were shaped by all the modernist movements of Europe and the Muslim world; by different kinds of political groups, and by different forms of socialism – not only Russian social democracy or populism, but also other types of socialist and communist parties of Western Europe. And they were able to bring this understanding into the first Republic.

When you look at the first Republic you’ll find a tolerance for public debate, disagreement and for descending views. You’ll see it in the existence of different political parties and the parliamentary body, which existed at that time. You’ll also see it in the Baku press from the beginning of the 20th century after 1905 – when censorship ended or was rolled back – to a certain degree, and throughout the war itself there were Turkic, Russian, Azerbaijani even Armenian and Georgian language newspapers. There even were cultural organizations for all of these different national groups. Although they didn’t agree on particular policies, there was open discourse and people could agree in a context of safety and civility and attempt to debate in certain and fight-out rhetorically what their attitudes were going to be. That made the first Republic in its substance very much a part of the Western world, European world.

Question: As Azerbaijanis reflect upon the 1991 independence, which adopted all of its symbols from ADR, many are asking themselves "why didn’t the democratic reforms become irreversible this time?”

Answer: The example of the first Republic was such an admired and ideal that with the collapse of the Soviet Union it was natural for the political leadership of that time period to draw from that kind of example. Because it was independent and it did have all of these symbols already. Another thing made it very attractive is that those symbols were really quashed in the first 10-20 years of Soviet rule.  So you couldn’t display the national flag; the national anthem’s lyrics were changed to make them more suitable to Soviet ideology – all things were changed. And ultimately in the purges of 1937, and other events: those individuals were completely misrepresented in Soviet historiography and in some cases their names even obliterated from the historical record. Their works, their ideas were misrepresented and falsified.

Two things were happening in terms of going back to the first Republic. One is bringing back to life to all of those positive examples. But the other one was in a sense completing the process of grieving for the losses of those people and the falsification of those memories. That was something that the nation, as a whole, needed to do and in 1992-93, it was possible to revisit all those things and really to try to explore the ways in which they’ve been falsified. Those two things, I think, are terribly important.

In the meanwhile, everything that happens in a country’s history shapes that country today, whether those things are positive, or not. In the Soviet period so many opportunities – to function independently, to think independently, to pass along an education that shaped national thought that shapes the sense of human dignity, openness, in tolerance for debate – those things were really suppressed for 70 years: that’s a couple of generations of individuals.

One of the things I’ve discovered when I started looking at Azerbaijan’s Soviet period of history is that if you begin to look in the 1970s, artists, novelists, scholars began, very carefully, to try to recover information of that earlier period, even though it became clear that they might go to ‘Gulag’ as a result of beginning to do this. But it was really a difficult process to follow. So, in lots of ways, when Azerbaijan became independent in early 1990s they were facing a structure that would put them in a place if not fully 70 years earlier, then certainly 15 years earlier. And the idea of it you could pursue individual initiative as one example. This was quashed in the soviet period. And post-Soviet citizens of all nationalities were quite uncomfortable with individual initiative. So, there was a very gradual learning.

Young adults in today’s Azerbaijan – those who born just when Azerbaijan was becoming independent – have no personal memory of the Soviet period and the risks involved in the Soviet classroom, such as the need to memorize and not to question what you were being told, but they were probably told by their teachers, who were trained in that environment...  So the opportunity to make those kinds of changes to stand up to authority figures -- whether it’s law enforcement, whether it’s judges or police – they just need to stand up and say ‘I don’t agree with what you’re saying and doing and İ think, what you’re doing is not in conformity even to the laws of our country and to a broader spirit of respect for human dignity of justice.’  The ability of people to stand up today and say that is pretty limited. And when a few people want to get up and say those things it’s not unusual for authorities in a post-soviet country to really push back hard.

Azerbaijan set off on a hopeful course in 1992-93. But the early year of attempts to change were really pushing, as we would say in English ‘moving uphill,’ they were fighting an uphill battle against a very well entrenched structure and people that either feel safe in that structure and can’t invasion another way of doing things, or are really trying to defend that structure because it’s to their advantage to defend it.

So, establishing more open society, debate and protest has just become harder and harder.
And I’m so sorry to see that.

Question: Those who grew up in 1990s also remember the elites talking about the difficulties of the ‘transition period’ from post-Soviet reality to supposedly democracy. Today, however, some see the country in transition from post-Sovietism to somewhere backwards, perhaps towards 19th, century…

Answer: I thought about some of these analytical questions quite a lot, and the arguments about transition… When Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, the U.S. and other western countries granted diplomatic recognition to all of these new countries. Political leadership and scholars in the Western countries all believed that we would see a transition to democracy. I remember even political scientists were back then talking about a term ‘transit-ology.’

Yes, there is a transition and you will see somewhat different kinds of it in different post-Soviet states, because they had different kinds of Soviet experiences. As I look at the Caucasus as a whole, and the western Soviet Union, Central Asia in the overall 20th century, I could see that there was much more repression against Muslim peoples than Christians. The ethnographers of the Russian empire had a list of "backward” peoples, and Muslims and all Turkic people  were always on the list of backwardness and never distinguished in terms of literacy or secularism. And of course, in the Soviet period investment was really quite different. Therefore some post-Soviet states had a much longer way to a bigger gap to make up once they became independent.

Azerbaijan was certainly better off than its neighbors and the Central Asia republics because it had oil and gas. Once it was able to get foreign investment, lots of money came into the mix. And that really changes everything.  So, this is not like 1918-1920, because the kinds of literacy and education and so of the Soviet period are not comparable to the Imperial period. The nature of interaction with the Western world is not the same, because you’ve got foreign investment on a very large scale and you have foreigners on the scale that you’ve never did in the oil  boom of the late 19th early 20th centuries.  

On the other hand, the idea of transition is a concept; it’s not an excuse! And it’s perfectly reasonable to say that "we are working on organizing free and fair elections.” But there have been lots of studies on all of Azerbaijan’s elections since 1993 and international monitors – by the way, the OSCE monitors have always done their job professionally -- have been able to demonstrate that Azerbaijani elections haven’t actually been getting better or more democratic.

The old problems that Azerbaijan had in 1990s not only still exist but, in many cases, they’ve become worse: stuffing of bullets in the bullet boxes, all kinds of irregularities with counting – all these kinds of problems. So, if you were looking for transitions that was moving towards democracy and was being supported by the authorities, then you would maybe expect seeing these kinds of problems 20 years later, but you wouldn’t be seeing them getting worse! And you would not be likely to see that the Central Election Commission, or the court systems are actually making it more difficult to monitor and to appeal when observers see the irregularities and that is, in fact, what is being documented by OSCE / ODIHR and others. And of course, OSCE and ODIHR are not coming this time because they were told they could only have half the size delegation, which means that they couldn’t do their job.

Question: Is there a fundamental contradiction between having a strong state -- like Western countries -- and making the transition to democracy?

Answer: I pay lots of attention to legal history and legal decisions. Sometimes people say – including, unfortunately, some Americans occasionally will say – that ‘well, the U.S. has been a long time building up its democratic system and it still has weaknesses,’ which is, of course true: no democracy is an ideal system. But when I look at the early years of U.S. judicial decisions, it was very specific kinds of challenges and didn’t constantly go back to the very first most elementary issues about procedure. As decision after decision was made the subsequent Supreme Courts for example, followed the records of their predecessors. Of course, there was an opportunity for different branches of the government to challenge those decisions and to go through established procedure, to take their time and not to rush to the decisions because they were popular, but they took their time to look at the evidence and consider the challenges of the evidence, which was not necessarily going to favor the prosecution or the governments’ preferred views.  So, even when you can certainly point to the transitions in the U.S., you would really see this improvement from case to case, from year to year. Those are the kinds of things that if you’re looking for transition, you ought to be able to see them, rather than continuation of regression. When the evidence is not showing a trend toward greater observance of rule of law it’s a little difficult to understand this as transition in that direction.

Washington, D.C.



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