Where can Americans turn for inspiration rather than self-flagellation in today’s national dialogue on democracy? As many voices are heard for the first time and certain romanticized visions are abandoned, we need inspiration as well as self-examination.
The early 20th century in what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan may be a worthwhile destination for Americans pondering the practice of democracy. This trip into history, if nothing else, will remind us of the power of common aims in advancing common interests.
Bear with this.
Azerbaijanis in 1918 found themselves free of the Russian Empire and inclined to try out the modern democracy being talked about elsewhere in Europe. Amid a lively cosmopolitan ambiance in the wake of an oil boom, they discussed harnessing the power of their multi-ethnic society. They discussed Azerbaijani identity. And so, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) — the Muslim world’s first parliamentary republic — came into being.
Though it lasted only from 1918 to 1920, the ADR unified a diverse leadership and society with far-reaching policies. Its founders synthesized early modern European ideals with Eastern cultural traditions and philosophies.
More than a century later, the imprint of the ADR remains embedded in the attitudes and patriotic feelings of many Azerbaijanis. The republic’s legacy embedded in the national psyche may be even more powerful than the progressive reforms and procedures that took Azerbaijanis into the 20th century.
Embarking on the Modern Age
The ADR, and especially Azerbaijan’s modern-day capital of Baku, inherited an ancient culture meshed with the sophisticated oil-boom culture that began just a few years earlier. In the neighborhood of modern-day Russia, Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Georgia, the area attracted significant interest.
Baku had become a tapestry of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other groups seeking a stake in the oil business. As part of the Russian Empire, Azerbaijanis could only listen to talk of democracy coming from the West.
In 1918, the ADR founders rose to establish the parliamentary republic. “Proportionate representation” of the population in the parliament was one step in determining the representative makeup of the governing body.
By 1919, the ADR leadership had already implemented some progressive policies; enough so that they impressed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson is said to have remarked, 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.”
Advancing Rights and Justice for All
The ADR’s brilliant young leadership united citizens in a secular and independent state that granted equal rights regardless of origin, class, or gender. The republic’s declaration of independence committed to principles of democracy and the rule of law. The ADR also abolished censorship of the press, and indeed, during this period, periodicals in several languages, including satirical magazines, flourished.
Architects influenced by the ADR’s emphasis on Azerbaijani identity developed a new architecture that bridged past and present, East and West. Of particular note are the ADR’s accomplishments in the area of women’s rights. The republic granted women the right to vote in 1919, well before many other democracies. ADR leaders also built into the constitution articles ensuring equal pay, creation of child-care facilities, and paid maternity leave, among other advances.
ADR leaders made education a top priority, establishing Baku State University and a scholarship program for studying abroad. At the same time, they implemented economic reforms and acts designed for these students’ futures.
Applying a robust foreign policy, the ADR developed diplomatic missions around the globe, thus introducing Azerbaijan to the modern world.
When the Bolsheviks and Soviet Union took hold of Azerbaijan beginning in 1919, the ADR’s experiment in democracy formally drew to an end. The subsequent Azerbaijan S.S.R. endured until 1991, when the modern Republic of Azerbaijan was established.
Opportunities To Learn from the ADR
The National Museum of the History of Azerbaijan dedicates three galleries to the ADR. The country’s oldest museum center, the popular venue is housed in the mansion of a former oil baron and philanthropist. In and around the museum, monuments of Azerbaijani visionaries and cultural icons remind Azerbaijanis of their roots.
Dr. Mahfuza Zeynalova, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, speaks to the centrality of the ADR in understanding the country’s culture:
At the end of the 20th century, the restored independent Azerbaijani state [the Republic of Azerbaijan] declared its loyalty to the traditions of the First Republic….Measures were taken to preserve the memory of major national historic events.
Across the Hemispheres
Americans, whether looking ahead to the Biden presidency with hope or with dread, should recognize in the ADR the opportunity to rise — personally — to the occasion. This is as true for those who believe our democratic ideals are beautifully in practice as for those who find the reality woefully in contrast with the ideals. Committing as individuals to pulling together is as necessary as the probing questions we must ask ourselves as we advance to a new era.
What looks like chaos may be a moment of opportunity. The darkness of 2020, which 2021 has compounded, has afforded Americans new insights into what is at stake. If we do not learn from our failures, future darkness is inevitable. In addition to looking inward, we must take a hard look at how fairness and governance have played out in other democratic experiments.
The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic is one bright example of a multi-ethnic society that joined arms at a critical moment. In 2021, let us commit to doing the same.
This post is republished on Medium.
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