Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2001 (9.3)
Pages 14-18

Envisioning the Nation
Interview: Azerbaijan's President, Heydar Aliyev
by Betty Blair

For this issue of Azerbaijan International devoted to "Ten Years After," Editor Betty Blair interviewed President Aliyev on July 5, 2001 about the importance of the Azeri language in creating an independent Azerbaijan. A few weeks before the interview, President Aliyev had issued a decree setting an August 1, 2001 deadline for mandatory conversion from the Azeri Cyrillic alphabet to the Azeri Latin alphabet.

Left: President Aliyev and Azerbaijan International's Editor Betty Blair perusing the newly bound collection of seven volumes of Azerbaijan International, which has been published since 1993. Photo: July 5, 2001.

Most foreign media that covered this event neglected to emphasize that Azerbaijan itself decided nearly ten years ago (December 25, 1991) to switch to the Azeri Latin script and that the choice of Latin script was a return to the alphabet that Azerbaijan had used in the 20th century (1923-1940). Here President Aliyev summarizes his efforts throughout his leadership to strengthen the use of the Azeri language and its establishment as the State language.

President Aliyev also discusses what he feels is the West's greatest misunderstanding about Azerbaijan's process of transitioning from a Socialist government to a democratic one over these past ten years.

Back in 1993, when I first interviewed you, I asked questions of a personal nature, not the usual ones that most foreign journalists ask related to economics and politics. Over the years, during our various sessions together, you've shared personally about your early years, about growing up in Nakhchivan, about learning Russian as a university student in the School of Architecture, about your experiences in the Politburo in Moscow and about what it has been like to lead an independent country during this very difficult transitional period after the Soviet Union collapsed.

I'd like to ask you about your perception of language in terms of nation-building. You have such a deep love for the Azeri language, which is evident in the many speeches you give. When speaking with some of the language experts in this country, I realize that your consciousness of the power of the mother tongue as an official language can be traced back to the late 1960s and 1970s. Today, I'm curious about your new decree [signed June 14], which has set August 1, 2001 as the deadline to switch the scripts from Cyrillic to Latin. Why are you concerned about the alphabet, and how did you decide to establish this rather short deadline for conversion from Cyrillic to Latin?

My recent decree is the logical culmination of all my efforts related to the Azeri language - the work I have done and my dreams about the Azeri language over the past decades. You mentioned my work in the 1960s and 1970s. Even though we were living in the Soviet era at that time and not independent, I was working to strengthen the use of the Azeri language as the official State language.

Left: President Aliyev met with U.S. President George W. Bush in the White House after the OSCE meetings to discuss the Karabakh situation brought him to Key West, Florida, on April 3-7, 2001.

In 1977 the Soviets adopted a new Constitution. A year later, each of the individual 15 republics adopted their own constitutions within the framework of the Soviet government. At that time I insisted that the Azeri language be the Republic's official language in our Constitution. [Of course, we had to share that status with Russian.] It's true that naming Azeri as a State language caused some uneasiness in Moscow.

There was a Constitutional Commission in Moscow, and we used to go there for discussions. I remember that when Ukraine's leader [Vladimir] Sherbitsky saw what we had done, he said that this meant that they should designate Ukrainian as the official language in their Constitution.

I asked him, "What keeps you from doing that? Ukraine has a population of 50 million people, so it's much easier for you to do it than for a small republic with six million like Azerbaijan." Of course there were some objections to declaring Azeri the state language in 1978, but if you look at the 1998 Constitution that the people approved in a referendum after our independence, I'm the one who created it. Azeri is listed as the single official State language.

Language is one of the main factors in building a nation. If a nation doesn't have its own language, everybody will be confused.

Left: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell opened the OSCE Meetings for the negotiation of a peace settlement to the Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both President Aliyev and Armenian President Kocharyan were present at the talks. In Key West, Florida, on April 3, 2001. Photo: Rafig Baghirov.

Since ancient times, Azerbaijan has had its own language. True, there were interruptions. For instance, when the Arabs came, their language came into use here, or when the Persians came, the same thing happened. However, our own language survived.

In my decree I've stated that 500 years ago when the Safavid Dynasty [1499-1736] came into power, the first padishah [king] ruled all of Iran. His name was Shah Ismayil Khatai. (By the way, his father's name was also Heydar - Sheikh Heydar!) Khatai passed a decree that the Azerbaijani language should be used throughout the whole palace. And he tried to do it.

But later Azerbaijan lost its independence because of Iranian pressure, and we became a part of the Russian Empire for the following 200 years. So even though we used our own language, it wasn't the official State language. So my effort in 1978 during the Soviet period was the first ever to designate Azeri as an official language.

Secondly, you should keep in mind that when Azerbaijan became an independent republic in 1991 - even before I was elected President - Azeri was declared the national and official language, and Latin was declared the official alphabet back in December 1991. But still I was the one who ensured that that language law was included in the Constitution.

Above: SOCAR's VP Khoshbakht Yusifzade shows President Aliyev the model of proposed routes for the multiple gas and oil pipelines from Baku to Georgia and Turkey. Caspian Oil and Gas Show, Baku, June 2001.

The People's Popular Front made a serious mistake. Around October 1992, they adopted a law that was passed in Parliament by only 26 deputies declaring that our language was a Turkish language. That was a great treachery and caused serious discontent in Azerbaijan.

Most of the people living in Azerbaijan are Turks by origin. Our language does belong to the Turkic language family. But when they identified the Azeri language as a Turkish language, it caused an uproar in Azerbaijan.

Just as there is the Indo-European language family, the Slavic language family, and many others, so Azeri has its roots in the Turkic language family, just like 22 other languages in the world today. But the Turkish language itself is only spoken in Turkey.

Uzbek, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Turkmen, Uyghur, Tatar and other languages have Turkic language roots. That's why words are similar to each other in these languages. However, we each have our own language: the Uzbek language, the Kazakh language, the Turkmen language, the Tatar language and others. Our language is Azeri.

It's true that out of all of these Turkic family languages, Azeri and Turkish are the most similar to each other. That's why we can understand each other quite well. But when Uzbeks go to Turkey, they speak Russian and somebody has to translate into Turkish for them. Or consider that when we have meetings with any of the six countries where Turkic languages are spoken, the Turkish President and I are the only ones who can communicate in our native languages. I speak Azeri and he speaks Turkish.

But when the Turkish president meets with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan or Kirgizstan, they have to communicate in Russian. The Turks simply can't understand those languages. Or if they can, it's very difficult.

Turkey had its own language reform, too, back in the late 1920s, when the nation was led by Ataturk [1881-1938, in office from 1923-1938]. But they made a mistake at that time. I've mentioned it to them before. The task of reforming the Turkish language was given to Akop Dilajar [a Turk of Armenian descent].

Turkish people today don't know about it. When I talked to them several times and told them it was Akop who made their language like it is, they didn't know about it. But the older generation does. Suleyman Demirel [Turkey's former President, in office 1993-2000] knows.

Changes were introduced into their language at that time, and that's why more differences are found between our languages. For example, when I speak, Suleyman Demirel understands 100 percent of what I say. But I can't say the same about when he speaks. Perhaps I understand about 95 percent of it, not 100 percent. Our languages are very close, but that doesn't mean that we have to call our own Azeri language a Turkish language. The younger Turkish generation seems to understand about 70-80 percent of Azeri.

Every nation must love its own language. If people don't love their own country and if they don't have their own language, they can never become a strong nation.

I studied in Azeri at school for 10 years - Azeri Latin, I might add. But when I entered the university, and later military school and KGB school, it was all in Russian.

Russians tell me that I speak Russian better than they do themselves. During the Soviet period, the Russians used to say that among the Politburo members, Heydar Aliyev spoke better Russian than they did.

Even though I was good at speaking Russian, I didn't forget my own language. When I came back from Moscow, rumors circulated that Heydar Aliyev didn't know his own language. Or that Heydar Aliyev was not even an Azeri. But it wasn't true; I had not forgotten my own language.

Why were you so intent on putting a deadline on converting from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet?

Ten years ago [December 25, 1991], a law was adopted that declared Azeri as the official language in Azerbaijan. That's the first point to understand about this decree. But to this day, that law has not really been put into effect.

One of the reasons is that most of the experts here in our country are Russian speakers, and they're used to writing in Russian. So the usual correspondence between the Ministries and other businesses is carried out in Russian. They still haven't switched to the Latin alphabet, even though the law was passed 10 years ago. But how long can this go on? Isn't 10 years enough?

When I wrote this decree, the opposition complained in the media that Heydar Aliyev wanted to abolish their newspapers, to make them go bankrupt. But they themselves are Turkish lovers. They often carry on as if they love Turkey more than we do. And, in truth, they prefer Latin to Cyrillic.

But when I passed this decree, they protested. They said that I had passed this decree so that people couldn't read the opposition newspapers. But they're not the only ones publishing newspapers. What about the party that I belong to? I, too, have an official Azerbaijani newspaper. If people stop reading newspapers, it means that they won't be reading our newspapers, either. Or take Khalg newspaper or several others belonging to my political party ["Yeni Azerbaijani Parti" (YAP), (New Azerbaijan Party)].

But the decree is not restricted to just newspapers. What about books? From now on, all books must be printed in Latin as well. For instance, in our schools, all of the textbooks, up through high school, are already in Latin. This means that our youth already know how to read the Latin alphabet. It's only the older people who don't know it because they studied Cyrillic.

But how long do I have to wait for them to switch to Latin? Azerbaijan was the first country in the entire Islamic world to switch from the Arabic script to the Latin alphabet earlier this century [1923]. We did it even before the Turks chose the Latin alphabet [1928]. In 1923, while we were already under Soviet rule, Azerbaijan dropped the Arabic alphabet that we were using and switched to Latin. So our alphabet was officially Latin from 1923 until late 1939. Then in 1940 Stalin imposed Cyrillic so that everybody would become Russianized.

The opposition says that we need some more years to learn the Latin alphabet. But in my speech at the celebration of Military Day [June 26], I reminded our people that we had changed our alphabet from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin alphabet back in 1923. Five years later, when I started school, I studied in the Latin alphabet. I didn't study Arabic in grammar school. We studied the Latin alphabet back then.

It's true that later on I learned the Arabic alphabet. But as you see, even during the Soviet period, they made the switch to Latin in the course of only three or four years. In 1939 when they imposed Cyrillic, the conversion was carried out in just two or three years.

And now in our independence, I have to wait so many years for our people to learn Latin? That's why I adopted a concrete law. It includes the following provisions: (1) By August 1, all official documents in all of the governmental offices must be in Azeri; and (2) Azeri must be written only in the Latin alphabet. All of my decrees and writings issued from the President's office are and have been issued in the Latin alphabet for quite some time. But in other offices, they are still writing in Russian. I know it's a little difficult. But I am a very experienced person when it comes to leading people, and I know that if you are serious about a problem, you must set a deadline by which time a person must be obligated to fulfill it. If you don't establish a time frame, people won't make the effort. That's why I did it.

Most people seem quite happy about it. I've talked to a lot of people and have discovered that most are very positive about it and think that it's necessary, even if it is hard.

But the opposition criticizes me.

What are you asking from the international community in terms of the Latin alphabet? What do you expect from foreign companies and embassies that are operating in Azerbaijan?

The same. Their signage, their official documents and correspondence as it relates to our people should be in Azeri, not Russian. All communications related to visa applications should be in Azeri, not Russian. And the script should be Azeri Latin. If they respect our country, they must respect the laws of our country. And Azeri is our official language, not Russian. The Latin alphabet, not Cyrillic, is our established official script.

If we can change the topic, I'd like to ask you questions related to your role as leader during this transition period. Again, I'm interested in your personal perspective. Since you have led during the Soviet period and now in Azerbaijan's independence, what do you feel the West least understands about the process of transition between these two antithetical forms of government?

You know, that's a big issue. Unfortunately, in Europe and America there is such an opinion, and a policy pursued on the basis of that opinion, that when the Soviet Union collapsed and independent states appeared and all of these states gave up the Socialist system, they wanted us to follow the way of democracy. But they need to understand that it doesn't happen overnight. It can't happen in one day, one month, a single year or even within five years. This is the greatest error of the West. They don't understand how enormous this transition is.

Yesterday in my speech at the American Embassy [Independence Day, July 4], I said, "You've achieved a lot in 225 years. The basis for the foundation was the Constitution. After the direction was set, then the work began. But I believe the greatest fortune for America has been that since the North-South [Civil] War [1861-1865], there have been no wars on America's land.

In contrast, consider how many wars have been fought on European territory. Azerbaijan has become an independent state now, but Armenia is still occupying our territory [since 1992]. And even here in Azerbaijan, there is a struggle for power. There are armed groups and other criminals. In such a situation, it's impossible to bring democracy from America and impose it here.

Unfortunately, people from America and the West don't understand this. They think that everything should be like it is in their country. But that's not right. I've said it many times.

During the Soviet period, we had an expression - "the export of Socialist Revolution". What did it mean? Before World War II, there was only one Socialist country - the USSR. It was Lenin's idea to establish Socialism throughout the whole world. The Soviet leaders tried to do it after World War II, but they couldn't achieve it.

Following the victory over Fascism and the gradual collapse of colonialism, and after countries in Asia and Africa had gained their independence, the USSR tried to export the Socialist Revolution to some of those countries.

Cuba is a typical example. When Fidel Castro came out against Batista [in 1953], he didn't have it in his mind to become a Socialist. He simply didn't accept the traditional way that his country was being governed. It took Fidel five to six years to become a Socialist-Communist.

On the one hand, he was influenced by Russia, on the other hand - by China. One can say that it was only then that the Socialist Revolution was exported to Cuba. And you know the situation today in Fidel's Cuba.
Or let's take the African countries - Angola, Ethiopia and others. They also tried to establish Socialism. In the Arab countries, they tried Arab Socialism. For example, in Egypt, Jamal Abdul Nasser [1918-1970] freed the country from the grip of British colonialism. The USSR immediately introduced a party called the Arab Socialist Party. In 1973 I went there and met with the leaders of that party. I was acquainted with Nasser as well - once he came here to Azerbaijan. I was also acquainted with Anwar Sadat [1918-1981]. But Socialism did not suit the Arab mentality.

It took these countries a long time to transfer to that type of Socialism. These facts show that you can't impose political systems by force. For example, after the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks came into power with their Socialist Revolution. And what did they do? They did everything by force. They carried out so many repressions. What for? To impose Socialist ideology. Many people died, many fled, many were forced into exile. But the rest were obliged to accept the ideology to survive.

When I was born, Azerbaijan was already being ruled by Socialism. I was a child, I didn't know anything about those repressions, even though they had only happened a few years earlier during my youth. And when I went to school, I began studying the works of Lenin, Marx and Stalin. We weren't told about the events that had preceded that period. My brain was filled with that stuff about Socialism. Do you understand?

For example, yesterday, the State Duma [Parliament] in Moscow wanted to make a decision about the labor code. They wanted to change the system that had been carried over from Socialism. But the people became very angry at the Duma members. Television showed how they were beating Jirinovsky. Why? Because for 70 years, people have lived with this system and become used to it. And they have learned how to benefit from this system. It's impossible to change it so soon.

Here I carried out reforms in quite a short period of time. I retuned the land to the villagers, for example. But when I was doing it, major countries like Russia and the Ukraine had not yet managed it. Why? Because here in Azerbaijan, the people trusted me. I said, "You know that I've been your Communist leader for 14 years here, followed by six years in the Politburo. I developed most of the Socialist system programs in this country. But I'm telling you that those 'kolkhozes' and 'sovkhozes' [collective farms] that I once put into practice don't give good results anymore. So I give this land to you to abolish the kolkhozes and sovkhozes." People believed in me, and now we are beginning to see the results.

Becoming a democratic nation is a process. Different countries require different time frames. In some countries, the process might take five years; in others, 10, 20 or 30 years. You cannot impose democracy either by force or by revolution. Democracy is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one.

Last summer when I was speaking with father Bush [Aliyev was invited to George Bush Sr.'s summer home in Maine], we both agreed that in countries that have just taken the path of democracy, this concept must be introduced in such a way that the people will both accept it and find it appealing. If it isn't an attractive concept, if people can't comprehend it, then you can't establish your government on it. You can't do anything by force. From the outside you can say, "Yes, it's a democracy," but inside, there will be no democracy.

Now you say that I have lived both in that system and in this system. I have experienced the positive sides of both systems. Azerbaijan gained enormous benefits from the Soviet system. I built huge factories here, power stations, roads, bridges, apartment buildings.

Here in Baku within a single year, I built one million square meters of apartment buildings. Do you see all these buildings? They all were built by me.

Yet, as a member of the Politburo in Moscow, I understood that this system had reached its limit and couldn't develop further. I knew that there would be stagnation and gradual decline. I understood that. And that's when my opinion of Socialism changed.

For example, now I'm saying it openly, the system of market economy is a very significant economic system. As compared to a government that is built upon a Socialist economy, it makes more sense. But we have people who lived 70 years under the Soviet system and who were once treated equally. Nowadays, with the market system, some people have become rich while others are very poor and have no jobs.

In America, many people used to be poor. As the economy developed, some of those people became rich thanks to their hard work and ingenuity. But others remained poor. After the State became rich, then it started to find ways to support the poor and provide jobs for the unemployed.

But that's still impossible here. We need about 20-30 years to reach that level. That's why I said in my speech at the U.S. Embassy that if we don't have any more war, if there is peace, then we can probably pass the way that America has passed, in an even shorter period of time. Socialism brought enormous profit to people during a certain period. It's true, there was no freedom of human rights, media or thought. But people were used to that. People thought that that was how the world should be.

Soviets thought, "Why do I need freedom of media?" "Why do I need freedom of thought?" At that time there was only one thought - Marxist-Leninism - and everybody lived with that ideology; there was only one party - the Communist Party. And until the Soviet Union began to collapse, most people thought like that.

Only after the Iron Curtain fell did people start to change. But much of the population, especially in the villages, were still satisfied with how things were going. They lived well and figured they could go on living like that.

Yesterday I was watching TV and they were giving the results of a public opinion poll: "Which was better - socialism or capitalism?" Most of the people were saying things like: "I used to work as a teacher and my salary was 240 rubles. I lived very well. Today I still am a teacher, I get 20-25 'shirvans' [one "shirvan" equals 10,000 manats], but I can't live like I used to live back in those days."

These are the problems of the transition period. But not everybody understands that. And the opposition takes advantage of the situation. On the one hand, they say that we need to have a market economy, entrepreneurs and a bourgeois society; on the other hand, they ask: "Why are people poor and unemployed?"

A market economy needs to be developed so that the State will become stronger and richer. After that, the State must help the poor and unemployed. Right now it's impossible. We must either return to Socialism (which is no longer possible for us) or follow the path of capitalism, which has its own difficulties. That's the situation. These are the present alternatives.

Azerbaijan International (9.3) Autumn 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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