Autumn 2001 (9.3)
Azerbaijan's President, Heydar Aliyev
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
. We did it even before the Turks chose the Latin alphabet
. 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
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.
(9.3) Autumn 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.
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