Azerbaijan International

Winter 1995 (3.4)
Pages 44-45

Cultural Influences
The Path From Totalitarianism to Democracy

by Fuad Nasirov

Bookstores are my favorite place in America. Nothing brings me more pleasure than to spend time browsing through them. Maybe it's because I come from a part of the world where strong ideology used to prevail over each piece of writing, and people did not have a chance to explore anything other than communism. We used to feel the presence of Marx or Lenin even in our novels when the heroes were having love affairs. Reading for me is new, fresh, and thought-provoking in America.

"White-Bearded One"
Recently, I was looking at some magazines at one of my favorite hangouts when I was struck by a bright red cover. It was a man wearing a Santa Claus outfit-appropriate enough for the holiday season. But a closer glimpse revealed that Santa was really a computer montage of President Clinton. And on his lap, instead of an innocent child with a Christmas wish list, was a sensuous lady, half clad.

Under ordinary circumstances, I probably wouldn't have paid much attention. But this time was different. A few days earlier (November 12th), Azerbaijan had just held its very first elections for Parliament. It was an historical first for us. A legislature of 125 members was chosen and a new Constitution was ratified in nationwide elections. We had been waiting for this for several years.
The juxtaposition of our recent elections with that picture left me wondering if a magazine cover like that would ever be published in my country. The more I thought about it, the more skeptical I became.

Somehow the concept was too shocking and too disrespectful of the honor and authority of the nation's highest office.

Perhaps, I should have expected this kind of biting satire in America where people pride themselves that they have the liberty to express so many diverse opinions under the broad umbrella of "freedom of speech". Despite how newly independent my country is, that's not the way we Azerbaijanis think about the highest position in our government. We feel more self-restraint even if we don't like the President.

Azerbaijan's new Constitution guarantees Freedom of Religion to all. There is no official state religion. All religions are equal. Church and State are separate. Here Muslim, Russian Orthodox and Jewish worshippers express their faith in Baku. Photos: Oleg Litvin.

We have a tradition called "aghsaggal" (agh-sag-GAL) in our society. "Aghsaggal" literally means "white bearded one"; but, rather than a white-whiskered Santa, it refers to a highly respected figure in a community, village, town, or even among a circle of close friends. An "aghsaggal" is a person who is the most esteemed and honored in a specific group. Typically, he's a bit older, having had the chance to mature through years of experience. People admire and seek him out when they need solid advice and sound judgment. Somehow the concept of President seems to hold this kind of aura for our people. His position is more or less regarded as the greatest of "aghsaggals" even by those who did not vote for him.

Seeing that cover of Santa Clinton made me appreciate how history, culture and social discourse shape each country's unique government and get reflected even in something as mundane as a magazine cover.

Led and shepherded
The Soviet regime, under which I and my parents lived our entire lives, was designed to raise up obedient and submissive citizens who existed in complete isolation from the outside world. We were creatures of a strong belief system. We grew up always being led and shepherded. Many of us willingly made commitments and sacrifices when we were convinced it was for the general good. That's what we had been taught to do-to think about the group, not always ourselves. That's what we were rewarded for.

But quite suddenly all this collapsed. The ideology which had shaped our hearts and minds for generations turned out to be wrong. And this left many of us shocked and confused. Many of us had been true believers of this system. It's all we knew. Communism was our religion; Marx, Engels and Lenin, our gods. When the dissolution of that enormous Soviet empire occurred, we were left on our own, with no guide, trying to sort out in which direction we should move next. Like a newborn babe, we were suddenly thrust into a world that we knew nothing about. We had no models, no analogies, no experience.

Automatic Democracy
The Western world thought that the end of totalitarianism would automatically pave the way for democracy in the former Soviet Union. They read the ouster of oppressive regimes as the public's readiness to adopt democracy. They began spelling out their brand of democracy for us.
This new idealism-democracy-signified the dawn of a new era over that large prison camp which had been called the Soviet Union. We, ourselves, were so hopeful that it would automatically restore our dignity, untie our hands and unleash our thoughts. We flailed about, trying to grasp this new concept and make it ours.

And then something very wrong started to happen. Soon Western countries in their relations with us started to connect everything with democracy and human rights. They began imposing their patterns of behavior and development upon us. We were told we could have access to their assistance and experience but only if we would implement their vision of democracy. Our history, culture, and mentality were shoved to the background and too often ignored.

David Heaps, writing in the "Washington Post" ("The Democracy Placebo", October 28, 1994) observed, "Collapsed dictatorships are not immediate fountainheads of democracy. They bequeath fragile political twilight zones that are neither full democracy nor total despotism. Their lapses and derelictions arise from inexperience, incompetence and inadvertence as well as design and malice. Their problems require awareness of cultural and historical disparities seldom heeded by over stressed Washington mandarins or one-dimensional human rights moralists."

Changes are occurring at amazing speed in the region of the world from which I come. Regrettably, the mentality of the nation is failing to keep pace. What we need today is intensive education about what human rights and democratic principles, legal systems, and institutions are all about-not platitudes and clichés.

So far the outside world has only preached at Azerbaijan. The Western democracies, including the United States, have distanced themselves from active involvement. The U.S. Congress, bowing to pressure from the influential Armenian-American lobby, has imposed sanctions on any assistance to Azerbaijan (Section 907 of the "Freedom Support Act") for the past three years. What this means is that the United States has denied itself the chance to significantly influence the recent Parliamentary Elections and the overall development of democracy in our country.

At the same time, members of Congress like Senator Alfonse D'Amato (Republican-New York) who is Co-Chairman of the Congressional Helsinki Commission, an International Human Rights Watch Group, did not lose any time in criticizing and censuring Azerbaijan for irregularities in the elections. But the standard of democracy that many of the foreign observers measured us against was that of a full-blown, ideal democracy-a concept that they themselves had not even attained.

Note the irony two weeks later (November 29th) when a "New York Times" editorial turned the spotlight on the Senator, lambasting him for being part of a conspiracy to turn "New York's G.O.P. ("Grand Old Party", meaning Republican) Primary into a process that mocks democracy." It turns out that for months D'Amato had been defending a plan that would effectively deny other Republican candidates a fair chance to challenge Mr. Dole in the New York state Primary Election on March 7. Fortunately, a Federal Judge stepped in and ruled the action unconstitutional.

Democracy evolves over time through mistakes and hardships. It does not rise full blown from the ashes of tyranny. That's why we're looking to the outside world to help us. We're looking for honest, workable models, not empty platitudes or self-righteous piety.

Instead of criticizing us, it would be more farsighted to open channels of assistance for democracy-building measures. What we needed before the November elections was for someone to come and educate both the leadership and citizenry about the principles of democracy and democratic behavior. We needed them to help us use our media, especially TV, to propagate democratic concepts.

Azerbaijan has more than 40 political parties today. Most take on the personality of their leaders as everybody has delusions of grandeur and dreams of heading his own party. But, to tell you the truth, the majority of these candidates do not even know how to begin to campaign or how to work out a platform. They only address the "bread and butter" issues of the day. They don't know how to strategize to resolve our basic dilemmas of ending the war, returning refugees to their homes, jump-starting the economy, solving our health and educational needs, and nourishing our cultural and historical heritage.

A few understand and respect the boundaries of others' freedom. Take for example, coups against the government which some see as the only possible way to solve differences. This is not barbarism, since our nation has all the potentiality to be called civilized. This is mere lack of knowledge and familiar models to understand that there are other channels available to bring about responsible change. These are some of the concepts we need to incorporate into our own historical, cultural and psychological framework. What we need is for others to share their experiences with us while at the same time respecting our historical, cultural, and psychological limits.

Election Irregularities
Cultural patterns and traditions are still strong in Azerbaijan. For example, international observers monitoring Azerbaijan's elections were alarmed to discover that one person often voted for the whole family. Or that two people entered the election booth simultaneously. These incidents were reported as irregularities.

American husbands and wives pride themselves in being independent and politicized. It's not unusual to find families with wide differences of political beliefs. A husband might vote Republican while his wife votes Democratic. It's doubtful that either of them would ever allow the other to vote for him or her or, for that matter, to enter the voting booth together.

But an Azerbaijani family is different. A family may consist of more than five adult members and rarely would they have conflicting preferences. Unity and loyalty are notions that guide Azerbaijani families. If any single member desired to follow an independent route, he or she would never challenge the unity and interests of the family. The head of the family would always enjoy complete respect. So, culturally, it is not considered irregular or an abuse of human rights when the head of the family votes for the entire family. On the contrary. A man is viewed as fulfilling his responsibilities as head of the family unit.

Neither is it considered odd for two people to enter the voting booth together. It's quite natural, for example, for a wife to stand close beside her husband when a major decision is being made.

The legacy of communism has left Azerbaijan very vulnerable and volatile. Poverty has never been more severe. The eight-year-old war still drains enormous resources from our government. More than 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory is still under occupation by Armenians in a region that contains some of Azerbaijan's most fertile soil and mineral resources. More than one million refugees have had to flee their homes, many with only a few moment's notice. A great number have lived a transient life for three years or more. The combination of war and economic hardships has brought about more than one collapse and transfer of government in our short, four-year history of independence.

In uncertain times like this, Azerbaijan cannot afford the luxury of Western-style democracy. War and democracy have never walked hand in hand. If an enemy attacks, nobody expects a leader to hold a national referendum to debate whether to counter or retreat. But this is our reality today. The best that we, or any country under such circumstances, can hope for is a wise, experienced, benevolent, responsive, decisive leader-an "aghsaggal" in the truest sense of the word. We need an "aghsaggal" who has a vision of where the country must go and how to take it there.

As strange and uncomfortable as it might sound to a Westerner, injecting a perfect full-blown democracy into a country like Azerbaijan, even if it were possible, would only create complications. Even Western countries admit that democracy, by far, is the most difficult form of government to lead.

In fact, democracy, as exemplified in the West, may not even be the best form of government for emerging nations likes ours. Each country must forge its own form of management and administration according to its own needs. Too often foreigners take concepts like democracy for granted, forgetting that their own governments have wrestled with these ideas for centuries.
The process of becoming democratic must necessarily be slow. We shouldn't expect it to be otherwise. We need to be circumspect and careful. We need to crawl before we walk and run. Democracy will evolve in Azerbaijan over time. It will require knowledge and understanding on the part of our leaders and our citizens and it will necessitate forging out a social contract between them characterized by mutual responsibility and responsiveness.

Azerbaijan's New Constitution Highlights
On November 12th, 1995, Azerbaijanis ratified a new Constitution, the first since independence and the fourth in the history of the country. The last Constitution was adopted in 1978 under the leadership of Azerbaijan's current President, Heydar Aliyev, who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan at the time.

The following are some distinctive features of the new Constitution:

Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The government guarantees equal rights and freedom to every one regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender, origin, status of property, position, ideology, political party, trade union, or public organizations membership. These rights can not be restricted.

Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of public gathering, freedom of information, freedom of marriage (everyone can marry when they reach the age determined by law).

Freedom of Religion. Religion and State are separate. All religions are equal (Islam is not declared the national religion). The educational system and society are both secular.

Right to Privacy. The inviolability of homes, houses and apartments.

Right to Work in a safe and healthy environment. Right to a salary no less than minimum set by government. Right to social security if unemployed. Right to strike. Right to take vacation (at least 21 days annually).

Right to Live in a safe environment. Right to intellectual property and creativity, Right to culture, education, health care. Right to acquire a house or home.

Right to Cultural Life. Right to participate in cultural life. To make use of cultural resources. Everybody should respect historical, cultural, and moral heritage and protect historical and cultural monuments.

Right to Ethnic identity. Right to use native language. Right to receive education in his own language. Right to maintain own ethnic identity. Nobody can force a person to change his ethnic identity.

Rights of Foreigners and those who have no citizenship. Foreigners who are in Azerbaijan are eligible to all rights, freedoms and responsibilities as Azerbaijani citizens. Their rights can only be restricted in accordance with international norms and laws of Azerbaijan.

Status of Nakhchivan. Nakhchivan has separate Autonomous Republic status within the Republic of Azerbaijan. Falls under the Azerbaijan Constitution as well as Nakhchivan's own Constitution. The division of powers is between the legislative branch (Parliament). The executive power is carried out by a Cabinet of Ministers.

Right to Private Property. Property can belong to state, private and municipal. Property cannot be used against human rights and freedoms in the interests of the society and state and dignity of a person.

Restrictions of human rights can only occur in the case of war, military situation, or national emergency.

Elections. Right to participate in elections. Right to appeal. Right to unite. Protection of rights and freedoms by court. Possibility to get legal assistance.

Right to citizenship. Right for citizen protection. Right to participate in the management of the government. Protection of Constitutional system which cannot be changed by force.

Right to judicial process. Right to take your case to court designated by law. Right to appeal. Protection against being indicted twice for the same crime. No one can force you to witness against a relative (meaning immediate family-self, spouse, children, parents, brothers and sisters). Responsibility for breaking law (you go to jail). Right to claim for damages.

Right to free entrepreneurship100.

Political asylum is extended to all foreigners in accordance with universally accepted international norms. It is impossible to return persons to another state where they will be persecuted for their political ideas or for anything that is not considered a crime in Azerbaijan.

Powers-Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. All relationships are defined.

From Azerbaijan International (3.4) Winter 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.

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