Calling Azerbaijan a “strategic player,” Hikmet Hadjy-zadeh, Reagan-Fascell Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy, and President, Far Centre for Economic and Political Research, Baku, Azerbaijan, discussed the political, economic, and social climate in Azerbaijan and its role as a global actor at a 13 February 2012 Kennan Institute event. Hadjy-zadeh traced the evolution of Azerbaijan’s domestic politics since the fall of the Soviet Union; the development of the state’s national identity; its existing challenges, and hopes for the future.
Hadjy-zadeh described the resurgence of religion in Azerbaijan. Religion evolved from ancient Zoroastrianism to Islam, followed by decades of official atheism under Communist rule. Since gaining independence, Azerbaijan has developed into a nation with religious tolerance, including tolerance between its two biggest religious groups: Shia and Sunni Muslims. “Azerbaijan is the only country in the world where there is no antagonism among these two religious affiliations,” noted Hadjy-zadeh. “Both can pray together in the same mosque.” However, Azerbaijan has also experienced an influx of foreign missionaries, especially Iranian Shias and Saudi Arabian Wahhabis, who promote radicalism and the implementation of Sharia law.
Ethnic tensions rooted in present-day Azerbaijan are likewise rooted in the country’s history. Stalin’s nationalist policies brought forced assimilation to the region, which unified small and ethnically-diverse Persian groups under a new Azerbaijani nationality. The legacy of Stalinist policies still resonate in Azerbaijan today and cause many disputes, according to the speaker. Nevertheless, twenty years of independence have forged a stronger sense of Azerbaijani national identity. Hadjy-zadeh noted the national shift from the use of the Cyrillic to Latin alphabets, and claimed that “the history of Azerbaijan has come back to us,” along with hopes for pluralistic state and free economy. Some indicators of progress include open borders for trade, improvements in communication, exchange programs for students and scholars, and the belief in the potential for a new political system.
Despite the positive attitude and much improvement, challenges still persist in Azerbaijani politics. There is still minimal discussion allowed on topics such as human rights, demographics, religion, and political corruption. In addition, transparency in the political system is very limited. According to the Heritage Foundation survey, the county’s economy and government are among the most corrupt countries in the world. Hadjy-zadeh observed that Soviet practices remain even with the “new” Azerbaijani ideology. For example, former president Heydar Aliyev, a retired KGB officer, incorporated Soviet methods in the Azerbaijani education system.
Hadjy-zadeh characterized the Azerbaijani system of governance as similar to the Soviet style of government, but with an economic orientation toward the West and Europe. Ninety percent of the country’s economy is based on the oil industry, which makes Azerbaijan a strategic player in the global arena. Hadjy-zadeh pointed to statistics on trade between Azerbaijan and its partners, which indicated that the country currently does most of its business with its neighbors than with foreign powers: 40 percent of Azerbaijan’s trade is with Turkey, while only five percent of the country’s trade is with the United States.
Although the Azerbaijani economy is growing, progress on political issues, such as freedom of the press, is still needed. Hadjy-zadeh stated that while there are multiple newspapers and scholarly works issued, publications with a circulation above 30,000 are censored by the state. Another obstacle to political reform was the “peaceful transfer of power” from the president to his successor, exemplified by the former president Heydar Aliyev’s transfer of power to his son, Ilham Aliyev. This partially dynastic approach to governance is undemocratic and conflicts with the new direction toward which the country is moving. Hadjy-zadeh concluded that while President Ilham Aliyev may profess his commitment to reform and progress, his enthusiasm for change is ultimately brought into question by his record of troubling human rights abuses, political repression, the deaths of journalists, and overall lack of political openness.
By Elena Volkava
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute
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The Kennan Institute speaker series is made possible through the generous support of the Title VIII Program of the U.S. Department of State.
- Reagan-Fascell Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy, and President and Co-Founder, Far Centre for Economic and Political Research, Baku, Azerbaijan