Azerbaijan & the West

Caucasus nation forges new path

In 2012, Baku hosted the 57th Eurovision Song Contest. What’s behind Azerbaijan’s shift to the West?

Azerbaijan’s Aisel performs “X My Heart” during the Semi-Final 1 for Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Lying between Iran and Russia, two major historical powers continuously at war with each other between the 17th and 19th centuries, Azerbaijan has always been closer to one or the other at different junctures.

However, the nation maintained its unique identity, never becoming Persianized or Russified, although the Azeri culture has absorbed and localized certain elements from both Russian and Persian languages and cultures.

Azerbaijan has a shared past with the Middle East in general and Iran in particular. Until the end of the 19th century, Islamic values had a very strong foothold in Azerbaijani territories such as Baku, Ganja, and Nakhchivan, and Persian and Arabic were used and understood by Shia clerics, literati, and scholars.

Indeed, Iran and Azerbaijan still continue to have deep cultural ties as there are twice as many Azeris living in Iran than in Azerbaijan. Although the majority of Iran’s 15-17 million Azeris identify themselves primarily as Iranians, they speak fluent Azeri Turkish and act as facilitators of trade and cultural interaction between the two nations.

In the early 1900s, however, western ideas such as the concept of democracy and other values of the enlightenment reached the Caucasus and Azeri territories via Russian intellectuals. These concepts took root in the Caucasus, and intellectual circles were formed in Baku, whose output was published in Azeri, Persian, Russian, and even Arabic.

By the fall of the Tsarist Russia in 1917, Azerbaijan was entering a period of constructive self-reinvention which was cut short by the Sovietization of Azerbaijan in 1920. The Soviet influence left a mark on how Azeri people saw the world and their place in it, and this can be observed in the art, literature, and popular culture of the Soviet era Azerbaijan.

Despite all the flaws of the communist system and its undemocratic nature, Azerbaijan improved in fine arts and cultural areas during the communist period. Azeri artists of the period managed to present their local subject matter and aesthetics using the disciplined medium of Russian-style theater and opera.

Although the Soviet system promoted arts for their use in communist propaganda, the widespread awareness of music, drama, and literature among Azeri people was put to good use after Azerbaijan’s independence.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Azerbaijan had a rich cultural reservoir of its own to fall back on. The country was finally free to construct its cultural identity as a democratic republic. Obviously, different forces within the newly established republic were pushing in different directions.

While small fringe groups yearned for a rebirth of communism, advocated radical Islamism, or resorted to ultra-nationalistic worldviews, the republic was steered to the better path of European-style development, taking pride in the country’s identity as a part of the larger Turkic-speaking world, and maintaining good relationships With the west and—to a large extent—with Azerbaijan’s three powerful neighbors: Turkey, Iran, and Russia.

The fact that Azerbaijan has chosen a western-style model of development could be due to a variety of reasons. It is safe to say that western industrialists who came to Azerbaijan during its first oil boom at the turn of the 19th century have influenced the country and its culture.

However, the stronger driving force behind the westernization of Azerbaijan is an internal one: after freeing themselves from nearly seven decades of Soviet suppression and systematic dysfunction, Azerbaijanis opted for the exact opposite of communism—i.e. a system ostensibly built on a free market economy and Western values.