Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Hope from a Century Past: The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the First Parliamentary Republic of the Muslim World
Hope from a Century Past: The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the First Parliamentary Republic of the Muslim World

Hope from a Century Past: The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the First Parliamentary Republic of the Muslim World

In the waning years of the 20th century, the global triumph of liberal democracy appeared to some of America’s leading thinkers to be, if not exactly imminent, foreordained. After first vanquishing Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese militarism in the greatest military conflict known to humanity, the Western democracies occupied and then successfully converted their former Axis enemies to liberal democracy. They scored another grand historical achievement by prevailing over Soviet socialism in the decades-long struggle known as the Cold War. Seemingly overnight, the Berlin Wall came down, Communism evaporated as a political force, and the Soviet Union dissolved itself. The countries of the Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Union announced their aspirations to liberal democracy, elections, and rule of law.

This track record of Western democratic success, it seemed, was no accident or contingency. The logics of economic development and social evolution, indeed, of history itself, seemed to suggest that democracy’s triumph was inevitable. As Samuel P. Huntington, arguably the greatest American political scientist of the 20th century, noted, a global wave of democratization had begun sweeping countries outside the Communist bloc already in the 1970s. In the course of their development, industrial economies create urban, educated middle classes that, having achieved a certain threshold of material wellbeing, tend to turn their ambitions to political freedom and self-rule, i.e., liberal democracy. Liberal democracy, with its embrace of the individual voter, seemed to validate human dignity and aspirations in a way that other political systems could not. Moreover, liberal democracies were better at generating wealth. Democracy’s values were more universal, more compelling, and its empirical reality more attractive than those of its rivals. All human societies would sooner or later embrace democracy. As Francis Fukuyama, who happened to be a student of Huntington, famously put it in his 1989 article “The End of History?,” “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Fukuyama’s bold thesis attracted its share of critics in America, few of whom grasped Fukuyama’s usage of “history” in the Hegelian sense to refer to the evolution of political ideologies, not to the mere record of human events. In fact, the thesis captured the conventional wisdom of American elites; namely, that democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that all human societies aspire, or will aspire, to it.

This faith—that democracy was the common fate of humanity—framed the American reaction to the September 11 terror attacks. Following social scientists, policymakers and journalists diagnosed the Muslim Middle East as suffering from a democracy deficit They saw the greater Middle East as an exceptional region stubbornly resisting a wave of democratization moving across the globe. By intervening to destroy the Taliban in Afghanistan and to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq, however, the U.S. would open the Middle East to the same processes that had been transforming the rest of the world into democracies. The political liberty and economic opportunity afforded by liberal democracy would “drain the swamp” of the extremism and terrorism that breeds in politically repressed and materially impoverished populations.

Despite the expenditure of enormous treasure and a significant numbers of lives, America proved incapable of transforming Afghanistan and Iraq as its political elites had imagined. It remains trapped in Afghanistan, where it struggles not toward building a democracy for Afghans, but to keeping the Taliban at bay. America managed to extricate itself from Iraq, but left that country not as a regional model of democracy but as a traumatized society with a fragile political order and under greater Iranian than American influence. The outbreak of demonstrations and displays of civil disobedience across the Arab world in late 2010 and early 2011 initially excited observers, who seized on the protests as evidence of the coming fulfillment of the overdue promise of the Middle East’s democratization and accordingly dubbed them the “Arab Spring.” Many of those fomenting the protests were, according to the New York Times, trained and financed by the U.S.. Nonetheless, the Arab Spring swiftly degenerated into Islamist rule, military repression, and civil war, making a mockery of the expectation that the democratization of the Middle East would arrive and bring stability in its wake. Egypt, Libya, and Syria, to name just three Arab countries, are all considerably worse off today than in 2011.

Today, more than a decade and half later, much has changed. Not only has the American project to transform the Middle East stalled out, but the deterioration of democratic norms and practices in Turkey, the absence of any democratic consolidation in Russia, and the stubborn and successful resistance of China to political liberalization have dispirited democracy triumphalists. Indeed, the elite opinion has grown openly anxious, histrionic even, about the viability of democracy in its Western European and North American strongholds, decrying such things as the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the emergence of so-called populist movements.

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic

However overwrought the rhetoric of the dying of democracy in the U.S. and Europe may be, there is no gainsaying that the record of the past decade and a half has shaken confidence in the future of liberal democracy. So in this despondent moment, it may be useful to recall the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), whose centennial was marked in 2018. Founded on May 28, 1918, the ADR was the Muslim world’s first parliamentary republic. Although it lasted a mere twenty-three months before the invading Red Army snuffed it out, the ADR represented a successful experiment in parliamentary government.

If you have never heard of the ADR, then you are not alone. Most people, if pressed, would cite the Turkish Republic as the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim world, despite the fact that it was founded in 1923, five years after the ADR, and did not host contested elections until 1950. Bernard Lewis’s seminal study The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961), the book that defined Turkey for the outside world for decades, was seminal in no small measure because it presented Turkey as the pioneer Muslim society par excellence blazing the trail toward secular and liberal democratic governance that the rest of the Muslim world would, sooner or later, be fated to follow.

Several reasons account for why Azerbaijan’s status as the first parliamentary republic is not well known or fully appreciated, even among scholars. One is that it was, as noted above, short lived, lasting just under two years. Another is that Azerbaijan is small, roughly the size of Serbia, the island of Ireland, or Minnesota. In 1918, its population was roughly 2,750,000. A third is that it is also remote, sandwiched between Iran and Russia to the south and north and the Caspian Sea and Armenia to the east and west. A fourth is that Azerbaijan was obscure. Unlike Turkey, which in the form of the Ottoman Empire had been a world power and for four centuries had been the center of power in the Middle East, Azerbaijan burst forth only in 1918, a new state with a curious name on the Asian periphery of an imploding Russian Empire.

The name of the new country was utterly unfamiliar in the global arena. It had heretofore never been associated with a state or people. The word “Azerbaijan,” scholars believe, likely derives from the Old Iranian name of a satrap in the Achaemenid empire with the meaning “Land of Fire.” For centuries, it served as a toponym for a vaguely defined region spanning northwest Iran across the Araxes River into the South Caucasus.

The people that in 1918 officially declared themselves Azerbaijanis were Turkic-speakers with a language similar to, yet distinct from, that of the Ottoman Turks. The history of the Azerbaijanis had been bound up with that of the Persians. So intertwined were the histories that the founder of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736), Shah Ismail (1487-1524), is known as the father of modern Azerbaijani literature thanks to his prolific poetry in the Azerbaijani tongue. Another of Shah Ismail’s achievements was to convert the population of Iran, as well as two-thirds of the Azerbaijanis of the Caucasus, to the Shi’i interpretation of Islam, thus making Iran a theological as well as geopolitical rival to the staunchly Sunni Ottoman Empire.

Azerbaijan’s location on the geographical periphery of Eurasia and the Middle East is another factor that helped relegate Azerbaijan to the conceptual periphery of scholarship. The Russian Empire acquired the territories that became the Azerbaijan Republic from Persia after defeating the latter in two wars at the beginning of the 19th century. When the Azerbaijani lands north of the Araxes River fell under Russian influence, they fell into the field of Russian Studies. Very few scholars of the Russian Empire and then of the Soviet Union, however, possessed the necessary historical training and linguistic skills to study Azerbaijan. Moreover, they had little incentive to acquire them. Azerbaijan was comparatively small and on the territorial margins of an immensely complex continental empire.

What is more, its Turkic and Muslim qualities indicated that it was a proper subject for members of another scholarly guild, Middle Eastern Studies. But, not unlike their Russian Studies colleagues, those in Middle Eastern Studies found Azerbaijan too small, too marginal, and too odd. It was an uneasy fit for a field of studies divided traditionally into three major branches: Arabic and Islamic Studies, Persian Studies, and Turkish Studies. Whereas arguably it could fit into both the latter two, its Turkic quality deterred Persianists, and Turkish experts, who focused overwhelmingly on Ottoman history, found Azerbaijan too alien and marginal to justify much attention, particularly when so many “central” topics deserved research.

The formation of the Soviet Union and later the Cold War reinforced these dynamics physically and conceptually. Although the new field of Soviet Studies swelled in numbers and resources thanks to generous government funding and other sources, that field’s resources were disproportionately directed to the study of not even so much Russia as Moscow. The closed nature of the USSR and Moscow’s extraordinarily tight control of travel and communication cut Azerbaijan off from the broader world, including the Middle East. Similarly, Azerbaijan’s location on the Soviet side of the border deterred or blocked Western scholars of the Middle East from conducting research on Azerbaijanis or even thinking much about their relationship with other peoples of the greater Middle East.

Since only a handful of scholars took up the study of the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union, knowledge of Azerbaijan was esoterica. Azerbaijan’s experience was, albeit inadvertently, effectively ghettoized. It was not integrated into broader narratives of Middle Eastern history, Islam, or democracy—or in debates over the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

The Improbable Republic

What makes the example of the ADR all the more remarkable is that it emerged under conditions regarded as inhospitable to democracy: namely, from under tsarist autocratic rule, during wartime, amidst the ongoing bloody unraveling of the Ottoman Empire, and during the sudden, but similarly violent, collapse of the Russian Empire.

Let us first address the question of chronology. War is inimical to liberal democracy. Established democracies find it difficult enough to preserve or main liberties in time of major war, and building a democracy when the state faces violent threats from without or within is exceptionally difficult. The ADR was born in the middle of the most destructive and horrific conflict that humanity had yet seen, World War I. Research tells us that this conflict caused the deaths of some 16 to 19.5 million people. It is with reason that some have described the Great War as the suicide of European Civilization. The extreme nature of its violence has been blamed for the rise of Bolshevism on the one hand and fascism and National Socialism on the other, the great challenges to liberal democracy in the 20th century.

Moreover, whereas in Western Europe hostilities came to an abrupt end in November 1918, in Eurasia and the Middle East, violent conflict persisted and even intensified after the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires crashed and the struggle for their lands commenced.

The ability of the comparatively underdeveloped Russian Empire to wage industrial war had been in question before 1914. The social and economic stress and strain brought on by two and a half years of total war brought matters to a head in 1917. That March, burgeoning popular protests over the price of bread in the capital led the tsar to abdicate. Since the monarchy was the linchpin that held the empire together, the departure of the tsar plunged the empire into chaos. The Bolshevik Party’s subsequent seizure of power in November 1917 pushed the empire into civil war, a paroxysm that encompassed a set of overlapping ideological, class, ethnic, anti-colonial conflicts, and Great Power interventions across Eurasia.

As a former territory of the Russian Empire, Azerbaijan was caught up in these convulsions. It was also intimately connected to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, which had begun in earnest four decades earlier in 1878. As Turkic-speaking Muslims, Azerbaijanis followed developments in the neighboring Ottoman lands with great interest. Indeed, they were themselves active participants in them. At the start of the 20th century, Azerbaijani journals, such as Molla Nasraddin, used cartoons, verse, and short stories to savagely satirize corruption, clerical hypocrisy, and colonialism among other topics. Azerbaijani commentators thus helped drive cultural and political debates throughout the Ottoman Empire and Muslim societies in Russia, Iran, and elsewhere. Individual Azerbaijanis, such as Ali bey Huseynzadeh and Ahmed bey Agayev, assumed leading roles in Ottoman politics.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Muslims were hotly debating whether or not constitutional and democratic government was compatible with Islam. In 1876, the new sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdülhamid II, proclaimed constitutional rule and authorized elections to a parliament. It was a bold move, and while generally popular, significant doubt and opposition remained, particularly among religious authorities, many of whom regarded the constitution as a suspect innovation. Less than two years later, Abdülhamid II disbanded the parliament and suspended the constitution. Thereafter, he and his supporters portrayed proponents of constitutional rule as subversives and enemies of Islam.

In 1908, an underground conspiracy dominated by military officers known as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) mutinied and compelled the sultan to restore the constitution. The following year, a coalition of theology students, clerics, and disgruntled soldiers decried the constitution as anathema to Islam and mounted an abortive counter-revolution. The CUP mobilized the army to crush the counter-revolutionaries and thereby preserved the constitution. In the midst of the 1912-13 Balkan Wars, however, the CUP dispensed with constitutional rule and instituted a dictatorship, effectively capping the Empire’s constitutional project as failed. The Ottomans provided an example of constitutional governance in a Muslim society, but it was hardly a shining one.

If the timing of the birth of the ADR was highly unpropitious, the same could be said about its location at the intersection of the Muslim Middle East and the Russian Empire. As the Ottoman experience demonstrated, the question of whether or not democratic and constitutional government was compatible with Islam was fraught. It was not a simple debate, and extraneous factors—not least military interventions by Western powers—muddled the dispute. Many Muslims feared that the adoption of Western practices and institutions could not be disentangled from acquiescence to Western domination, and therefore tended to construe constitutional rule as inherently anti-Islamic.

The Russian Empire was by appearances hardly a fertile land for a parliamentary republic. The tsarist regime defined itself assertively as an autocracy, and, throughout the 19th century, it suppressed liberalizing and revolutionary movements. Tsar Nicholas I’s readiness to suppress such movements, including some outside its borders, earned him nickname “the gendarme of Europe.” To be sure, the tsarist regime adopted a constitution and established a limited parliament in 1905 in response to the public disturbances that roiled the empire in wake of defeat by Japan earlier that year in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). But the tsar curtailed the parliament’s powers soon thereafter and preserved the monarchy’s primacy up until 1917.

Moreover, what came after the Romanov dynasty and the half a year of a dysfunctional provisional government was a one-party dictatorship with totalitarian ambitions. The Bolsheviks were disciplined, violent, and merciless. As noted earlier, to explain both the Bolsheviks’ extremism and their triumph, scholars have pointed to the brutalizing impact of total war on Russian society.

Other structural factors commonly cited as impeding democratization in Russia are its alleged lack of property rights and its overwhelmingly peasant population. Freed from serfdom, a form of slavery, only in 1861, many of Russia’s peasants in 1917 were poorly educated, servile, and habituated to despotism, the argument goes. Notably, scholars and observers both hostile to Soviet Communism and sympathetic to it have embraced this argument that Russia’s pre-Communist heritage decisively shaped the development of Bolshevism. Harvard historian Richard Pipes, who was a vigorous critic of Communism and served in the White House as an advisor to President Ronald Reagan, argued that Bolshevism found fertile ground in Russia in part because the Russian Empire was a “patrimonial state,” where all state property was effectively the personal property of the tsar. Russia’s alleged lack of a strong concept of private property predisposed it to Bolshevism, and the tsarist regime’s suppression of dissent paved the way to the emergence of the Soviet police state. Another historian, Moshe Lewin of the University of Pennsylvania, who was sympathetic to the Marxist project, faulted Russia’s peasantry for the triumph of Stalinism. Russia’s elemental backwardness dragged down the revolution. The belief that an intrinsic, even inescapable, inclination to despotism defines Russia continues to shape analyses of contemporary Russia.

Azerbaijan conjoined to this Russian Imperial legacy one that would seem scarcely more promising. In addition to the aforementioned problematic legacy of Islam, literacy rates and levels of education in Azerbaijan were lower than in the Russian heartland. Many Azerbaijanis in the countryside were still leading semi-nomadic lifestyles. Urbanization was only beginning.

Moreover, the oil boom town of Baku, which mushroomed from just several thousand at the beginning of the 19th century to become the largest city in the Caucasus with over 200,000 residents one hundred years later, was no laboratory for democracy, but rather an exhibit in how rapid economic growth can generate and exacerbate social and ethnic tensions. Baku, which accounted for one half of world oil production at the turn of the century, was an uneasy mix of Azerbaijanis, Russians, Armenians, and others from the Caucasus and Iran. No group constituted a majority overall, but Azerbaijanis comprised the bulk of the unskilled workers while the better educated Russians and Armenians dominated the ranks of skilled laborers, managers, owners, and investors. The exploitation of the tens of thousands toiling in the difficult, dangerous, and harsh oil fields fueled radical socialists. Meanwhile, the overlap between ethnicity and the sharply unequal distribution of wealth added further dissension with an ethnic edge.

That dissension blossomed into outright warfare when Armenian and Azerbaijani gangs and militias across the South Caucasus clashed in 1905-1907 until Russian authorities reasserted their control. The ability of the far better organized Armenians to inflict greater punishment was a major factor in spurring Azerbaijanis to start mobilizing politically. A decade later, fear of the Muslim majority in the countryside spurred Russians and Armenians in March 1918 to join together, violently suppress the Muslims of the city, and establish a pro-Bolshevik government, the so-called Baku Commune. The Muslims took vengeance that September when Azerbaijani militia units, supported by the Ottoman army, captured Baku.

Putting together the above, we can describe Azerbaijan at the beginning of the 20th century as a largely undeveloped, agrarian land on the periphery of an autocratic empire, a colony of sorts in the Middle East with a largely illiterate, heavily Muslim, and partially nomadic population. Its capital city had been experiencing tremendous economic growth for over three decades, but this boom also fed inequality and ethnic tensions. In 1918, Azerbaijan became a site of invasion and civil war, and would remain in an embattled state until the Bolshevik conquest in April 1920. All these factors augured against the emergence of any democratic state.

Birthing a Republic

Following the fall of the tsar in November 1917, the peoples of Imperial Russia’s Transcaucaus, i.e., the Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis, found themselves thrust into a wholly unexpected position. The abdication of the tsar had meant that their governor, the tsar’s viceroy in the Caucasus, also had to quit. Left to themselves, the leading political parties opted to stick together in what they dubbed the “Transcaucasian Commissariat” with its capital in Tiflis (today’s Tbilisi), the administrative center of the South Caucasus. They formed a parliament, the Transcaucasian Seim, through which to govern themselves until a new all-Russian Constituent Assembly could be elected to chart a path forward on a new, democratic basis for the empire as a whole. The Transcaucasians had no ambitions for independence, and averred that they would remain part of a new Russia. Despite the tensions generated by the violent suppression of Baku’s Muslims by a coalition of Bolsheviks and Armenian revolutionaries in that city and by the advance of the Ottoman army from the west, the union of the Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis held.

In May, however, the Georgians precipitated the breakup of the union when they acted on a German offer to leave and declare Georgia a sovereign and independent state in exchange for German financial, diplomatic, and military support. The Azerbaijanis broached the possibility of preserving the union to Armenians. The idea was stillborn, and so they agreed to let the Armenians make the town of Yerevan, which had been part of a khanate by the same name before the Russian conquest and thus arguably was Azerbaijani territory, capital of a new Armenian state. The explicit rationale of the Azerbaijanis for this concession was that it be a gesture of goodwill that might forestall a cycle of violence between the two peoples. The gesture was real, but, as matters developed, it proved futile.

With the Georgians gone and the Armenians going their own way, the Muslim faction of the Transcaucasian Parliament resolved to form a republic of its own. On May 28, 1918, a remarkable group of men with an average age of just 35,[1] signed a document announcing the birth of a new country, Azerbaijan.

“From this day forward,” the Azerbaijani declaration announced, “the people of Azerbaijan possess sovereignty and Azerbaijan, which consists of the southeast Transcaucasus, is an independent state with full rights.” The declaration further specified that independent Azerbaijan is a democratic republic, aims for good relations with all nations and especially with the nations and states that it neighbors, and guarantees all its citizens full civil and political rights without distinction of nationality, confession, social class, or sex.

The founders of the ADR were predominantly members of the social-democratic Musavat (Equality) Party. Most had been educated in Russian universities, and it was in those institutions that they encountered and absorbed the ideas of democracy. Russian universities were gateways to the outside world and European thought and were sites of intense debate among students over the future of Russia and its possessions. Azerbaijanis alongside others from the Empire took active part in these conversations. Bilingual and at ease in using Russian as a language for politics and administration, these Azerbaijanis gave their new state a name in Russian, Азербайджанская Демократическая Республика, as well as in Azerbaijani, Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti. The former translates as the “Azerbaijan Democratic Republic” and the latter as the “Azerbaijan People’s Republic.” The meanings were not far apart. The republic’s founders chose the qualifier “democratic” to underscore that the new state belonged not to any aristocracy, like its former imperial overlord. Azerbaijan belonged to the majority, not a privileged few.

Accordingly, the ADR introduced to Azerbaijan universal suffrage. This made Azerbaijan a pioneer not just in the East, but put it ahead of the global curve. Azerbaijani women received the right to vote alongside Azerbaijani men, two years before American women in the United States, sixteen before Turkish women, and fifty-three before Swiss women.                 

The majority of Azerbaijanis were Muslims who spoke the Turkic Azerbaijani language. Somewhere between 60% and 70% were Shi’i Muslims, who were especially predominant in the east and in the south of the country. The rest were Sunni Muslims, who were more heavily settled in the west. Notably, the Sunni-Shi’i split was not a cause of significant social or political division, and, indeed, religion more broadly was not much of a factor in politics, barely receiving mention in debates.

Although the first half of the 20th century was an era of ethno-nationalism, and the story of the hyper chauvinist post-imperial nation that persecutes ethnic minorities is familiar, the ADR’s founders did not go down that route, but instead sought to remain inclusive. As their declaration of independence made explicit, ethnicity was not a criterion for citizenship, and the National Council made sure to allot ethnic minorities seats in the interim parliament that it established. The parliament was intended to hold 120 members, with each seat supposed to represent an electorate of 24,000, although for a variety of reasons it never seated that many. Eleven parties or parliamentary groupings were represented. The Musavat was the largest, with thirty-eight deputies, followed by the Muslim Socialist Bloc with twelve deputies and the more rightist Union Party with eleven. Armenians, who numbered 500,000 inside Azerbaijan, were allotted twenty-one seats and Russians, whose population was 230,000, received ten. The Russian deputies, supported by the Armenians, boycotted the opening of the parliament in protest of Azerbaijan’s break from Russia. A little over two months later, however, eleven Armenian deputies reversed their decision and finally took their seats. Azerbaijan’s German, Polish, Georgian, and Jewish communities each had one representative in the parliament.

The ADR experienced many difficulties in its brief existence. In part as a reflection of those trials, it witnessed five changes of cabinets. Yet, the parliament continued to function without interruption, meeting in over a hundred plenary sessions, and sustained a high rate of activity, debating over two hundred draft laws. As part of its commitment to multi-party politics and free speech, the ADR permitted a wide range of publications and parties to exist, including even those who rejected the idea of a sovereign and independent Azerbaijan. Its tolerance arguably went too far. Among those whom it permitted to operate openly were Bolshevik sympathizers, such as the Muslim Social Democratic Party, who in coordination with Moscow agitated for the fall of the republic and thereby sowed doubt and confusion in the republic and softened it up psychologically for a Bolshevik invasion.

The Azerbaijanis’ most troublesome relationship by far was with the Armenians. Language, ethnicity, and religion set the two peoples apart, yet, in their settlement patterns, they were not merely neighbors, but intermingled, especially in the western reaches of Azerbaijan in and around Karabakh and Zangezur and, of course, in the city of Baku. The Armenians were generally better educated, wealthier, and better organized. As noted above, clashes with Armenian militias in 1905-07 had convinced many Azerbaijanis that they had better mobilize themselves politically and thereby stimulated the spread of a new national consciousness.

The ADR’s start was a rocky one. Several complications accompanied its birth. To start, it did not control its obvious capital city, Baku. In March 1918, a coalition of Bolsheviks and Dashnaks, representing that city’s Russian and Armenian inhabitants, had seized power in the city and violently suppressed the Muslim majority. Thus, whereas the Georgians could inherit Tiflis as their capital and the Armenians (thanks in part to Azerbaijani forbearance) could adopt Yerevan as their capital, the Azerbaijanis had to set up a temporary capital in the city of Ganja in the west of Azerbaijan. The ADR government would have to wait until Azerbaijani forces with Ottoman assistance captured Baku in September 1918.

Upon taking the city, Azerbaijani forces took vengeance upon the city’s Armenian population for the latter’s excesses that spring. That was, unfortunately, not the final clash between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. As wholly new and acutely insecure states with overlapping and intermingled populations, the Armenian and Azerbaijani republics found themselves in border disputes and resorting to warfare. Clashes over the provinces of Mountainous Karabakh, Zangezur, and Nakhichevan were chronic sources of destabilization.

Another destabilizing factor was internal: opposition from some of Azerbaijan’s wealthy landowners. Fearing a republican form of government and the Musuvat Party’s plans for land reform, some of those advocated annexation to the Ottoman Empire, which they hoped would squelch land redistribution. The Azerbaijani leadership, not to mention the Ottoman, categorically rejected the idea of annexation. The ADR’s founders were committed to the idea of a sovereign republic.

Setting the boundaries of the republic was no straightforward matter. As a wholly new state, it had no precedents, ancient or recent, to provide examples of borders. Indeed, “Azerbaijani” was a new category of identity, and was still unfamiliar even to many of the new republic’s own citizens. For most Muslims of the South Caucasus, two forms of collective identity had traditionally been dominant. One was religion. Among Azerbaijanis that was either Sunni Hanafi or Twelver Shii Islam. The other was the village or locality. The notion of a national identity was novel. There was no formal definition of who an ethnic “Azerbaijani” was, but, in essence, it meant a Muslim who spoke the Turkic Azerbaijani language. An ethnic Azerbaijani state could, in principle, have extended southward across the Araxes into Iran, to include the city of Tabriz, northward to include the city of Derbent in Dagestan, and west to the city of Kars in today’s Turkey. Only roughly one-third of the world’s Azerbaijanis live on the territory of the Azerbaijan republic. Most of the other two-thirds live in Iran. The potential for Baku to make claims on the north of Iran did alarm Tehran, but the ADR’s leaders, demonstrating a sense of prudence and realism uncommon among new state elites, studiously avoided making claims outside the Caucasus, and to mollify Tehran, they placed the qualifier “Caucasian” before “Azerbaijan” in materials they prepared for foreign audiences.

The Curse of Geopolitics and the Failed Bid for Recognition

The victory of the Entente powers and the ascendance of Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” one might have expected, would have augured well for a post-colonial republic on the Eurasian periphery. But for the ADR, the reality was different. No great power had a strong interest in helping it preserve its independence. Britain, which for a century had gone to great extents to contain Russia in the Eurasian periphery, prioritized defeating Bolshevism and so threw its support to the so-called “White” forces battling the Red Army across Eurasia. Whereas the Bolsheviks were ensconced in the Russian geographic heartland, the Whites were operating in Russia’s borderlands. It was an uncomfortable fit for the Whites. Led by former tsarist generals, the Whites were determined to reconstitute Russia as a more modern, more tightly centralized state, and they categorically rejected the idea of autonomy, let alone independence, for the empire’s former possessions, including Azerbaijan. Thus, although the commander of a British military force that arrived in Azerbaijan in November 1918 acknowledged that the ADR government was legitimate and competent, London refused to recognize Azerbaijan as a sovereign state out of deference to the Whites.

America’s Woodrow Wilson, despite his loud endorsement of the principle of self-determination, proved no more useful to Azerbaijan. On November 10, 1918, the President of Azerbaijan, Fatali Khan Khoyski (1875-1920), and the acting Foreign Minister, Adil Khan Ziatkhan (1877-1957), sent a telegram to Wilson announcing their country’s existence and appealing to him as a “defender of small oppressed peoples.” The following year, the ADR sent a three-person delegation led by Alimardan Topchubashi (1863-1934) and including Ahmed Agayev (1869-1939) and Jeyhun Hajibeyli (1891-1962) to the Paris Peace Talks in the hopes of achieving official recognition there. The British and French remained uninterested.

Wilson and his assistants did meet with the Azerbaijani trio on the afternoon of May 28, 1919, by coincidence the one-year anniversary of the ADR. The Azerbaijanis pointed out to the American delegation that their country was geographically and ethnographically distinct from Russia. They explained further that they hoped for recognition of Azerbaijan’s independence, the application of Wilson’s Fourteen Points to Azerbaijan and the Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s inclusion into the Paris Peace Talks, the establishment of diplomatic ties with Washington, and the delivery of American military assistance.

Unfortunately for the ADR, the American president had no idea even of where the men were from. They left Paris empty-handed. Nonetheless, they did leave an impression on Wilson. In September, 1919, while delivering a speech in San Francisco, Wilson remarked:

Do you know where Azerbaijan is? Well, one day there came in a very dignified and interesting group of gentlemen who were from Azerbaijan. I didn’t have time, until they were gone, to find out where they came from. But I did find this out immediately: that I was talking to men who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice.

And I did find this out, that they, with all of the other delegations that came to see me, were, metaphorically speaking, holding their hands out to America, saying, “You are the disciples and leaders of the free peoples of the world. Can’t you come and help us?”

America could not, would not, help Azerbaijan. In principle, Washington favored the restoration of a unified Russia, with the exceptions of Poland, Finland, and Armenia. Americans had some familiarity with these three. Armenians in the Ottoman empire had been a leading interest of Protestant American missionaries since the late nineteenth century. And in practice, Azerbaijan was much too remote for Washington to know, let alone help, as Wilson’s comments revealed. Vladimir Lenin, by contrast, made it a priority to recover this former imperial borderland. The Russian “workers’” state had to have heavy industry and so needed oil. Lenin ordered the Red Army to take Baku as soon as possible.

Swiftly rolling in from Dagestan in the north, the Red Army seized Baku on April 20, 1920. The overmatched Azerbaijanis had barely time to react. Russia’s Bolsheviks framed their ambition not as territorial domination, but as class and national liberation. They, and the small number of Azerbaijani Bolsheviks, portrayed the advancing Red Army as an agent of liberation from a bourgeois and illegitimate government. When the following month resistance to the Red Army did flare up in Ganja to the west, it was too late. Azerbaijan was now under the Red Army’s control and its fate was sealed. Azerbaijani democracy was dead.

The ADR had lasted a mere twenty-three month, but it left a legacy. The achievement of statehood in 1918-1920 guaranteed the preservation of formal, if not actual, sovereignty. The Bolsheviks’ rhetorical commitment to self-determination meant that after they conquered Azerbaijan as a sovereign state, they could not deny Azerbaijan’s nationhood. Thus, although it was subjugated to Moscow and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan preserved its nominal sovereign status and eventually was incorporated into the Soviet Union as one of what became 15 constituent Soviet socialist republics. Although a largely meaningless administrative form under Soviet rule, republican status acquired immense significance in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart. The 15 republics each acquired sovereign independence automatically. Those parts of the Soviet Union that did not have that status did not achieve independence, even when, as in Chechnya or Abkhazia, they fought for it.

The example of the ADR helped orient newly independent Azerbaijan during the heady but disorienting years of the 1990s. Azerbaijanis were eager to disassociate themselves from the exhausted and failed Soviet project, but, having been under thorough Soviet domination and closed off from the outside world for over three generations, the new country had little preparation for the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The memory of the ADR, however, reminded the Azerbaijani people that they had achieved statehood and instituted a parliamentary republic of their own, without either the Russians or the Soviets. They revived the tricolor flag of the ADR. They renamed prominent public landmarks in remembrance of the ADR, such as the central subway station whose name they changed from “April 20,” the date in 1920 when the Red Army entered Baku, to “May 28,” the ADR’s birthday. The portrait of the president of the ADR, Mamed Emin Resulzade (1884-1955), was placed on the new Azerbaijani currency. The figures of Resulzade and prominent politicians of the ADR such as Khan Khoyski, Topchubashev, Mehemmed Hasan Hajinski (1875-1931), were celebrated as founding fathers and heroes of Azerbaijan.

The legacy of the ADR lives on in today’s Azerbaijan, albeit in muted form. The current government of Azerbaijan of Ilham Aliyev has ratcheted downward the homage and attention paid to the founders of the ADR in favor of highlighting the contribution of his father and predecessor as president, Heydar Aliyev, who held that office from 1993 to 2003. Heydar Aliyev was a remarkably talented politician who managed to ascend from the far Soviet periphery, Nakhchivan, to the very center, the Politburo, before being cast down and then rising again to become president of his own state. Papa et fils Aliyev have ruled Azerbaijan for a quarter of a century, and have come under frequent criticism for failing to meet democratic norms in elections, tolerating corruption, and for suppressing political opponents and critics. Supporters of the regime point to its stability and comparative prosperity, its secular orientation, and its delicate foreign policy, whereby it has managed to balance relations with Russia, Iran, Israel, and the U.S. without alienating any of them. Unlike Russia’s Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan) to the north, Iran to the south, and Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan has remained comparatively immune to political Islam and religious violence.

Does the example of the ADR offer anything to us today, an era when liberal democracy is seemingly in retreat around the globe? As a state born on the Eurasian periphery with a brief life-span a century ago, the ADR’s very obscurity would seem to answer that question with a clear “no.” For the reasons discussed at the beginning of this article, however, that obscurity is not merited. Paradoxically perhaps, the example of the ADR has been overlooked precisely because its existence continues to appear so improbable: a post-colonial Muslim society on the edge of Eurasia and the Middle East that established a parliamentary republic under a Russian-educated elite in the middle of the greatest violent conflict humanity had witnessed. Thus, one thing the modest example of the ADR does have to offer is counsel against despair, for it demonstrates that the factors so commonly cited as inimical to democracy are not as determinative as they may appear.

[1] Fatali khan Khoyski (1875-1920), Hasan bey Aghayev (1875-1920), Nasib Yusifbeyli (1881-1920), Jamo bey Hajinksi (1888-1942), Mustafa Mahmudov (1878-1937), Nariman bey Narimanbeyov (1889-1937), Shafi bey Rustambeyli (1893-1960), and Javad Malik-Yeganov (1878-1942).