The author’s project is ‘more about the past than the future’ (p. xv). According to him, the book attempts to list the particular challenges facing Azerbaijan today. In a relatively classic geopolitical approach, he tries to identify the historical and geopolitical factors that have lead to war and that are susceptible to re-emerge. By situating the narration of Azerbaijan’s history in the early soviet period, he manages to capture the various elements that make up Azerbaijani identity. An identity nurtured and formed both in a soviet environment and as a reaction to another type of nationalism. The book is organised in a chronological and thematic order. First we have a quick summary of the main events that occurred before the nineteenth century and the first independence followed by the sovietisation of the country in the second chapter. What ensues is five chapters relaying the bitter ethnic conflicts with Armenians and Armenia, ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This book also includes four pages of various illustrations often irrelevant to the subject (a map for example of the Tsarist Imperial troops’ manoeuvres during the invasion of 1809).
The different explanations of the origins of the word Azerbaijan are reviewed in few pages, after which the author studies the years running from the end of the nineteenth century to 1921 in only twenty pages. It is unfortunate given the stated purpose of the book to identify how the Azerbaijani identity was built. The state of the research considers that this period gave birth to the Azerbaijani nationhood, with the Difayi movement, the newspapers in Azerbaijani Turk and the movement in the society leading to the union between the elites and the Muslim peasant population (cf. Cengiz Çağla, “Les fondements de l’Etat-nation en Azerbaïdjan,” Cahiers d’études sur la Méditerranée orientale et le monde turco-iranien 31 ).
The author devotes more than half of the book to the conflict surrounding Upper Qarabakh. He begins from the creation of the autonomous region in the first years of the Soviet republics which ultimately generated the complaints of the leaders of the Armenian SSR until the cease-fire brokered in 1994 between the two young Caucasian states. It gives the author the opportunity to explain the events that led to the conflict in the context of a crumbling Soviet empire, as well as it reveals the motivations and discourse of the various actors. In this way, he manages to determine that the Brezhnev era was paradoxically a favourable cradle for nationalism. Azerbaijani nationalism thus constructed itself against the older and more elaborated Armenian identity. In this very important passage the author demonstrates an excellent knowledge of the various intrigues since the Soviet leadership of Heydar Aliyev to the fall of the Popular Front regime of Ebülfez Elchibey in June 1993. The major argument of his demonstration is to explain the apparent chaos that characterises the Elchibey presidency due considerably to the Soviet history and to the formation of the ministers and of all the leaders of this period. Although Elchibey could boast being the only head of state undeniably elected, his mandate was not that of a democratic regime. Mass corruption and abuse of power by the paramilitary units have brought the country to the brink of collapse.
It is again unfortunate that the author gives us only six pages describing Azerbaijan politics after Aliyev’s return to power. He was after all in power for seventeen years. Perhaps the author considers that this period has provided no further contribution to Azerbaijani identity. One only needs to address the current problem of the commemoration of Mehmed-Emin Resulzade by the opposition and the authorities to realise that the conflicts over the identity of Azerbaijan are still very much alive.
In conclusion, this book is very interesting for those who want to immerse themselves in the unbridled period of independence and the Elchibey Presidency. But, contrary to what is suggested by the cover illustration (a photo of a protest of the ruling party Yeni Azerbaycan in front of portraits of Heydar Aliyev) we will not learn anything about political life in Azerbaijan during the past twenty years.