Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Window on Eurasia: How Pre-Soviet Independence Bid Helped Azerbaijan

Paul Goble

Baku, February 12 – Many analysts have pointed out that since 1991 Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have had an easier time of it than many former Soviet republics because the three had had independent statehood within living memory and thus could restore it rather than build from scratch as was the case of the others.
But while the Baltic states certainly have the greatest advantage in this respect, at least a few of the other countries in the region which had succeeded in articulating a state however briefly following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 may now enjoy some similar benefits, albeit not as large or certainly not as much noted.
One of those is Azerbaijan, which existed as an independent if often troubled republic for almost two years after the Russian revolution until the Red Army invaded and whose population now celebrates the fact that its predecessor was, among other things, the first Muslim country to give women the right to vote.
But this current focus on the meaning of the first republic in Azerbaijan has called attention to yet another way that its existence not only affected Soviet arrangements in the southern Caucasus but also predetermined Azerbaijan’s emergence as an independent state in 1991.
In an interview carried in Baku’s Zerkalo newspaper on Saturday, Ramiz Abutalybov, a ethnic Azerbaijani who worked as a Soviet diplomat and served at UNESCO in Paris for 16 years, recounted what the last surviving diplomat of the first republic had told him (http://www.zerkalo.az/print.php?id=30258).
Although Soviet diplomats were not supposed to have contact with “anti-Soviet elements,” a rule perhaps doubly applied to non-Russian ones, Abutalybov described how in the 1970s he had met with Mamed Magerramov, the last surviving member of Baku’s delegation to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.
Asked by “Zerkalo” how the two of them got on, Abutalybov responded as follows: “I was a communist and Mamed Magerramov was an anti-communist. During one of our conversations, I told him” that he had helped create a country that had lasted only two years and had no impact on succeeding events.
To which Magerramov replied: “No, Ramiz! You do not understand the essence of what took place. If we had not made out country independent, then Azerbaijan in the best of circumstances would have been an autonomous republic within the RSFSR and, of course, without Baku as its capital.
“What we began,” the old émigré diplomat continued, “had reached the point that the Bolsheviks could not fail to take this independence into consideration.” As a result, “Azerbaijan received the status of a union republic, and exactly that is our main contribution.”
Neither Magerramov nor Abutalybov could know then just how long a shadow that achievement was to cast. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the United States took the lead in insisting that only union republics could aspire to independence. Had Azerbaijan not been one, it would thus likely not be independent today.
Abutalybov makes many other fascinating observations about his contacts with other members of the Azerbaijani political immigration in this interview, just as he has done in earlier articles, speeches and a remarkable book (Years and Meetings in Paris (in Russian, Moscow: SJS, 2006).
But his recounting of Magerramov’s observations may be the most important of all. Not only do they help to explain why Azerbaijan owes its independence to the actions of the leaders of the First Republic, but they also direct the attention of Azerbaijanis to a political model they can build on in the future.

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