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Azerbaijan Democratic Republic: The first democratic, parliamentary and secular republic in the Islamic East

Closing in on the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, what did it mean for Azerbaijani statehood at the time? What does it mean for the Azerbaijan of today?

June 1, 2018 - Elmira Hasanova Rusif Huseynov - Articles and Commentary

Map of the territories claimed by the first Azerbaijan Democratic Republic 1918-1920. Made by: Emin Bashirov (cc) wikimedia.org

Note from the author: The map gives a general understanding of the country in 1918-1920, when the borders between the three South Caucasian republics were vague and not clearly defined. The map itself points out disputed areas as well.

Despite being divided by Russia and Iran and deprived of its own statehood in the early 19th century, the Azerbaijanis in both north and south underwent a national awakening and fought for liberty in the beginning of the 20th century. This struggle culminated with the declaration of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic on the 28th of May 1918.

It was a tough time for the whole region – despite internal disagreements and civil war, the Russians, both Whites and Reds, retained their claims over the South Caucasus. The British, coming victorious out of the First World War, were gradually introducing themselves into the region. Different ethnic groups and political movements were struggling over each village.

Interestingly enough, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the National Council in Tiflis (Tbilisi), the capital of another newborn state, Georgia. In order to establish sovereignty over entire Azerbaijan, the founding fathers not only built a new army but also requested military aid from the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The defeated Ottomans with their resources nearly exhausted, managed to dispatch an army to the Caucasus, which, during the entire summer of 1918 liberated the Azerbaijani lands from different political groups (Bolsheviks), ultra nationalist movements (Dashnaks) and various gangs, finally victoriously entering Baku in September of that year.

Within a short time, the main state institutions were founded and divided into three branches of governance. Six months into the independence, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic also celebrated a parliament which reflected all ethnic and religious groups in the country. With 80 seats to the largest ethnic group – Azerbaijanis, 21 – Armenians, 10 – Russians, 1 – Germans, 1- Jews, 1 – Georgians and 1 to Poles.

The newly-formed republic faced challenges in almost all spheres. A national army was set up for protecting the territorial integrity, a task which it fulfilled by restoring sovereignty in a number of territories, including Karabakh.

There was much attention paid towards education, with old schools being refurbished or replaced by new ones. An important milestone became the opening of Baku State University in 1919, making it the first modern university in the territory of Azerbaijan. Despite hardships and financial shortages, the Azerbaijani authorities sent 100 young people to various educational institutions in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

A big achievement in democratisation process was the abolition of censorship, a remnant of Tsarist period.

Another significant achievement, which laid the foundations for democratic and secular statehood in Azerbaijan, was women suffrage. By granting women the right to vote in 1918, the same year as Poland did. Azerbaijan, was a pioneer in the universal suffrage  movement being ahead of the Benelux countries (1919), the United States (1920) and France and Italy (1945).

From the very outset, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic conducted an active foreign policy. Besides building bilateral relations with a number of countries, establishing and hosting numerous diplomatic missions, the Azerbaijani government also sought international recognition at the highest level. A delegation sent to the Paris Peace Conference met with world leaders, including Woodrow Wilson, who initiated the first discussion of the Azerbaijani question at the Council of the Big Four in May 1919. Although Wilson, who had presented the concept of self-determination for ethnic groups from former empires, failed to proceed with the Azerbaijani issue,

President Wilson later recounted his meeting with Azerbaijani delegates in his speech in San Francisco in September 1919 , Wilson described his positive impression of Azerbaijani delegation: “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 spoke the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice.”

Azerbaijan did find support with British Prime Minister Lloyd George. A British initiative at the Paris Peace Conference ended with the issuing of a resolution of de facto recognition of the Azerbaijani government by the Allies and the Entente in January 1920.

This recognition was historic, albeit very late. Azerbaijan’s participation in the international system of international relations was interrupted due to the military intervention of Soviet Russia in April 1920. Having consolidated its power within Russia, the Bolsheviks started collecting former parts of the empire and chose Azerbaijan as the number one target in the South Caucasus as they desperately needed to collect Baku`s massive oil deposits.

Despite the fall of the state, the national idea that was fostered during the 23 month independence survived and helped revive an independent Azerbaijan towards the end of the 20th century. Having restored its independence in 1991, the Azerbaijan Republic declared herself a successor state of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

The founding fathers of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, Mammad Amin Rasulzadeh,  Fatali Khan Khoyski, Nasib Yusifbeyli and others, were committed to building a parliamentary republic in a country with a population with a strong eastern mentality and tradition. With the South Caucasus becoming a scene for the confrontation between various powers both disappearing and triumphing in the world war, the Azerbaijani people were subject to ethnic cleansing by neighboring nationalists. At the same time a group of progressive, Western-minded people proclaimed the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim East. Thus, the 28th May is not only an Azerbaijani date; it should be an important date throughout the whole region as it celebrated democratic and republican values. And these values could be a guiding star for many peoples into the 21st century.

Rusif Huseynov is the co-founder of the Topchubashov Center. His main interest is peace and conflict studies, while his focus area covers mainly Eastern Europe, Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia.

Elmira Hasanova is a research fellow of the Topchubashov Center.

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