This article examines highly controversial identity building in Azerbaijan since the end of the Soviet period.  The roots of this process go back to the Russian conquest of the Southern Caucasus and the ensuing nation building.  Colonial rule united the Muslim, mainly Turkish-speaking population of these territories under the new power, and a new secularised intelligentsia made its appearance.  Focusing its modernisation project on a struggle against the Muslim religious personnel, this intelligentsia dropped Islamism from its agenda, mixing it with Turkism.  In the immediate aftermath of the February Revolution, the independence of a first Azerbaijani Republic was proclaimed, which marked the beginning of a new statehood building process that ought to be developed, though in a completely different context, during the Soviet period.  The first decade of the new era was characterised by the blossoming for the Turkish identity, notably in the press and literature, in the framework of the new ideology.  In the mid thirties, the “Turk” denomination was replaced by the “Azerbaijani” one for most Muslim citizens of the Azerbaijani SSR, including non-Turkish speakers.  The short-lived Thaw of the late 1950s – early 1960s paved the way for the revival of old disputes, accompanied by the rehabilitation of some repressed Turkist writers.  Even some Communist Party leaders like Imam Mustafayev or Shixali Gurbanov engaged in the promotion of national identity related agendas.  Azerbaijani historians and philologists once again tackled the issue of Caucasian Albania, inspired by the nationalist intellectuals of neighbouring Georgia and Armenia.  The process was revised when Heydar Aliev took the leadership of the Azerbaijani Communist party in 1969.  His key innovation was the instrumentation of yerlichilik (regionalism), which was to have a deep impact on identity related issues even after the disappearance of the Soviet Union.  Then, the old local nomenklatura represented by Aliev’s favourites from Nakhichevan and Azerbaijanis from Armenia opposed the new local Communist Party leaders like Vezirov and Mutalibov, originating from Qarabakh and Shirvan.  (Through Vezirov’s appointment as the Azerbaijani Communist Party chief, Gorbachev intended to weaken the position of Nakhichevanis and Armenian Azerbaijanis inside the republic’s apparatus).  Regionalism is currently regarded by many analytics as a key obstacle to democratisation, whence influential ideologists of the ruling elite justify it as a matter of fact and make it part and parcel of the new statehood.  Although it remains difficult to provide an informed picture of nation building in Azerbaijan without a deep examination of the last two centuries, this article offers an interesting approach in political anthropology of the developments observable in the 1990s—a lot of the material collected in these years through interviews being outdated by the subsequent evolution of a majority of the author’s informants. (See notably the replacement of the notion of “Azerbaijanism” coined under Aliev’s presidency by that of “statehood [dovletchilik],” a key notion in the 2000s.)  Conversely, we have to deplore the lack of attempt by the author to replace in its specific context the public political discourse developed during the first decade of independence.

Altay Göyüshov, Baku State University
CER: I-7.3.B-626