Azerbaijan’s Moderate DreamJuly 1, 2009
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Azerbaijan, an oil- and history-rich country on the Caspian Sea’s western coast has a dream: to be a pragmatic, moderate, secular, tolerant Muslim-majority state which serves as good example to others in the region. Given its unique history—and despite its geopolitical situation–it may succeed.
The country’s basis is a unique combination of circumstances. After more than a century of Russian—Czarist, then Communist—rule, Azerbaijan achieved independence when the USSR collapsed. By that point, its largely Shia Muslim and Turkic population had been shaped by that long situation. To a large extent, it had lost any distinctive national or religious identity. Or, as one sophisticated Azerbaijani put it, “We thought we were Russians.” While many Azerbaijanis are still bilingual and switch between Azeri and Russian easily, the younger generation is now learning English as a second language.
Moreover, a large part of Baku’s population was Armenian, Jewish (both long-native and immigrant from the USSR), and Russian. In the early 1990s, there was a massive population exchange in the post-USSR era. Russians went to Russia; Armenians went to Armenia; Jews went to Israel; and Azerbaijanis returned from all parts of the former Soviet Union. So now the republic of Azerbaijan is, of all things, full of Azeris. At a time when Western Europe has been moving toward abandoning the nation-state, twenty-five new ones are born or reborn further east out of the old Soviet bloc.
For Azerbaijan, this means defining its national character and goals. As an Azerbaijani intellectual put it, “We’ve been around for centuries yet this is the first time we’ve really ever had our own country.” But wait, there’s more geopolitics first before we get there. It’s the combination of all these factors that makes Azerbaijan such an interesting place.
–Urbanization: About half the population now lives in Baku. The stereotype of the Caucasus as a place of village peasants is outdated.
–Islam: Azerbaijan isn’t comfortable with neighboring Iran’s brand of radical Islamism. Azerbaijan is a secular state, proud of its toleration of other groups. Azerbaijan is active in international Muslim organizations, presenting its own brand of moderate Islam. Women’s rights, a legacy of the Soviet era, are very much advanced.
–Oil: Azerbaijan has a lot of it in the Caspian Sea. A decade or so ago, pumping it out was still a vision and many believed that a huge pipeline to Turkey’s Mediterranean ports would never be built. Well, it has, and Azerbaijan has made a lot of money out of oil. Development has been rapid though lower prices now will slow it down.
–Democracy: This remains an aspiration rather than a current reality. It is clearly understood that Azerbaijan has a long way to go until it achieves that goal. Still, basic rights seem pretty well-entrenched.
–Turkey: Azerbaijanis like Turkey and they are themselves a Turkic people. But their identity, language, and history are quite distinct from their cousins in Anatolia. When one says the word “Turk,” they are talking about foreigners.
–Russia: In the Azerbaijani assessment, Russia is the principal threat to their country’s well-being and independence. There are certainly indications that the big neighbor’s regime is increasingly thinking about recreating the Russian empire in some way, at least by including Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus (including also Armenia and Georgia) in its sphere of influence. Russia’s alliance with Armenia has also brought Azerbaijan’s biggest problem.
–Armenia: This neighbor inflicted a humiliating defeat on Azerbaijan, seized the Nagorno-Karabakh region, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Azeri refugees. Responding to a lack of international sympathy and effort, an Azeri official proclaimed in exasperation, “But don’t they know that we were the ones attacked?”
The conflict is unresolved, there are all sorts of plans, groups, and peace processes going on and none of them are likely to lead to any actual progress in resolving the conflict. A key element on this issue is that Azerbaijanis view Russia as the real problem, egging on Armenia and even maintaining its own troops on their territory.
–Iran: A very worrisome neighbor as well. Azerbaijanis will tell you that there are 30 million Azeri Turks in Iran. The true number is about half that but still Azeris are about one-quarter of Iran’s total population. In general, there is no discrimination against Azeris as individuals—though there is a push toward “Persianizing” them and any specific Azeri identity is discouraged.
On the one hand, some Azerbaijanis dream of a united Azeri state, though no one seems to be pushing for one in practice. On the other hand, more Azerbaijanis worry that Iran thinks they are dreaming about a united Azeri state and thus views them as a threat to be attacked.
The export of Islamism to Azerbaijan could set off terrorism and even civil war. The threat seems to be contained so far rather effectively. –Strategy: Facing conflicts with three neighbors—Russia, Iran, Armenia—what’s a country to do? The answer is to seek allies strong enough to balance them out.
Thus, Azerbaijan’s approach is to seek strong relations with the United States, the West in general, Israel, and its other neighbor, Georgia. While hating to say so, nowadays I’m particularly fearful for countries putting their faith in the West. Western intellectuals and politicians might view such behavior as reckless and provocative, eager as they are to appease any state that threatens them.
Yet there is indeed a conflict between more aggressive dictatorial-type states and conflict-averse democratic ones. And there is indeed a battle between democratic-style modernization and merely grafting technology onto traditional authoritarian-oriented social structures. One can well expect that the internal and international fate of countries like Azerbaijan is going to determine the fate and direction of the twenty-first century
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).