Describing his country's cultural predilections recently, Houssein Bagirov, the rector of Azerbaijan's Western University, quipped that "East is east and West is west, but somehow we fall in between." European and Middle Eastern influences meet in this Transcaucasian republic, which has ethno-linguistic ties with Turkey, shares a border with Iron, and has for 200 years put up with Russian imperialism.
Islamic fundamentalism isn't poised to fill the vacuum left by communism, as widely feared. Azerbaijan's national symbol is a burning flame, a pointed reference to the state's Zoroastrian origins. Hardly any upsurge in mosque construction or religious school attendance can be observed in the Azeri provinces; Muezzin are seldom heard issuing the call to prayer. Women wearing full-length chador, or head scarves, are a more common sight in Istanbul these days than in Baku, (Azerbaijan's capital and largest city), and pro-Muslim papers are a rarity at the kiosks, due not only to operational costs, but weak interest as well. When Baku residents were asked in a recently commissioned survey by Freedom House as to whether Islam should play an important part in Azerbaijan's governance, nearly two out of three answered negatively.
Despite sharing Iran's Shiite denomination of Islam, Azerbaijan has always maintained an uneasy relation- ships with its Persian neighbor. Teheran maintains good relations with Christian Armenia, Azerbaijan's archival, mainly to offset Turkey's presence in the Caucasus region. However, though the Azeri public prefers Turkey's secularist principles to Iran's "mullahtocracy," Pan-Turkism is not spreading along the ex-Soviet Union's southern frontier. Instead of Turkish bonding, there is a perceptible sense of edginess in the Turko-Azeri relationship. An Azeri colleague underscored this uneasiness in Baku recently. He had met a Turkish friend of mine who was supervising a U.S.-sponsored voter education program in the provinces, and they sat down over lunch to discuss Azerbaijan. What began as an amiable discussion grew increasingly tense as the conversation drifted toward the nature of Turkish-Azeri relations. The Turk had fallen into the common misperception that his Azeri kardes (brother) was waiting for Ankara to introduce democracy and capitalism. "It's annoying to have the Turks think we are basically a primitive society with Soviet habits," the Azeri remarked. "They don't know or care to understand that while the Ottoman Empire still existed, we were the Muslim world's first republic." The little-known fact irritating my cohort was that prior to its Soviet annexation, Azerbaijan had a short-lived democracy from 1918-1920, preceding the establishment of modem Turkey by several years. Another source of tension concerns the notion that Azerbaijanis deficient in free- market know-how. Nothing can be further from the truth in the Transcaucasus, where entrepreneurship is an integral part of the region's character. "It's from here that the Union began to fall," Azeris like to boast, referring to the conspicuous success of Caucasian-owned fruit and vegetable stalls throughout the ex-Soviet Union.
Azeris may resent the patronizing attitude of the Anatolian cousins, but nonetheless perpetuate this behavior toward "backward" Central Asian brethren. Bakintsy (residents of Baku) regard anyone from the eastern side of the Caspian as a country bumpkin. Central Asian visitors don't know they are being slighted when greeted with the Turkic word for "master" (aga). Instead of collegial respect, the similarly pronounced Azeri term for "hick" (eka) is actually being conveyed.
Recognizing these dissimilitudes help to define the Azeri character. Walk through downtown Baku, with its European ambiance, and you realize that this was Imperial Europe's easternmost outpost nearly 100 years ago. Azerbaijan (along with neighboring Georgia and Armenia) was then thought of as a European vacation spot renowned for its spas and outdoor lifestyle, or a place beckoning fortune seekers to the then-burgeoning oil industry.
Petroleum, not Orientalist concerns, dictates today's situation. The highly tauted 7.4 billion "deal of the century,"-consortium of foreign oil companies will develop Azerbaijan's vast Caspian Sea reserves over the next thirty years--harkens back to the nation's pre-Soviet "boomtown" period, when Baku was one of the world's primary energy centers. Commercial billboards announce the arrival of gambling casinos and Coca Cola, and video poker arcades mesmerize countless Bakintsy. In addition to the proliferation of Western-style supermarkets that have recently opened throughout Baku, an American bar competes with two British pubs for the rapidly increasing expatriate community. Even the Turkish clothing stores have noticeably upgraded their merchandise recently.
Whether this scenario continues to unfold however, depends largely on the results of the upcoming Russian election. The Bakintsy perceive this race to be an electoral straggle between competing economic power bases--Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's fuel energy network vs. the military industrial complex that nationalist and Communist factions favor. It is no surprise that Azeris prefer the negotiable approach of the oil and gas nomenklatura (the Freedom House poll overwhelmingly shows Chernomyrdin to be the most popular Russian politician in Azerbaijan) as opposed to the recidivistic psychology of the latter. All things considered, Azerbaijan gauges its freedom and security not by inter- regional rivalries, but the Kremlin's internal policies.
By Gerald Robbins
Gerald Robbins, a writer, is running a Freedom
program in Azerbaijan.