Saturday, October 22, 2016

Azerbaijanis Must Recover the National Name Stalin Took Away from Them, Baku Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 22 – Azerbaijan will not be able to formulate a national idea for the future unless its state-forming nation reclaims “its true and legitimate self-designator ‘türk’ that Stalin took away from them as a result of his anti-Turkish policies, according to Baku historian Farid Alekperli.

            Before the 1917 Russian revolution and up until 1936, the people who lived in Azerbaijan were known by that name. But in 1936, Stalin decided that the residents of Azerbaijan should call themselves Azerbaijanis and made any discussion of the Turkic roots of the nation “dangerous” (

            In 1991, Alekperli says, “we achieved independence and the most important task standing before us is the restoration of our historical memory. Without a return to our roots, without a rehabilitation of the memory of the people, without the re-establishment of its historic ethnonym ‘türk’ or ‘Azərbaycan türkü’ the formation of a viable national ideology will be impossible.”

            “Historically,” he continues, “Azerbaijani Turks have called themselves (and in Iran they do so now) the ethnonym türk’ or ‘Muslim,’ and also by family and clan names … However whatever names they used in various eras, they always remained and remain to this day Azerbaijani Turks.”

            What should they being doing today?  Alekperli makes four proposals:

·         First, he calls for a return of the expression ‘Azeri türk’ or Azerbaijani turks. That can be used in parallel with ‘Azerbaijanis’” which can refer to any resident of Azerbaijan “regardless of nationality.” “’Azeri türk’ will thus be used as Turks do when they speak of themselves as ‘Türkiye türkleri.’”

·         Second, he suggests that it will be impossible to come up with a national idea unless Baku takes into consideration “the main mass of our ethnos, the Azerbaijani Turks who live in Iran (approximately 30 to 40 million people) who have historically called themselves ‘türk.’”

·         Third, “the national idea of Azerbaijani cannot exist without reliance on the historical and cultural-political heritage of the state-forming nation, the Turks of Azerbaijan, that is, ‘Turkism,’ and on the idea of Azerbaijani patriotism and cooperation with all the nations of Azerbaijan … for the good of the Motherland as a whole, i.e., ‘Azerbaijanism.’”

·         And fourth, Alekperli says, it is both “natural and necessary” to recognize the succession of Turkic statehood on the territory of Azerbaijan from the Seljuks through the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-1920 up until today.

“Combining ‘Turkism’ and ‘Azerbaijanism’ almost always has been present in the policy of the Azerbaijani leadership of the post-Stalin period,” including since 1991.  Heydar Aliyev, for example, promoted the idea of “one nation, two states” (“’bir millet-iki devlet!’”) and ties with all Turkic peoples, Alekperli says.

Unfortunately, the historian says, “in the 1990s, the situation had still not matured to the final resolution of this issue.”  But “the situation is changing” and the position of Azerbaijan as an independent state, “despite all its internal problems is strengthening.”  That means that the time has come to address the issue of  the proper name of the nation.

Alekperli does not mention two other developments which are also playing a role in what he is talking about. On the one hand, the warming of relations between Russia and Turkey makes this kind of talk less politically explosive than it would have been only a few years ago when their ties were more complicated.

And on the other, both in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet space, there is increasing talk about the history and proper role of the state forming nations, and that too makes such discussions in Baku both more likely and easier. But that doesn’t mean that changing names will be easy or uncontroversial or that there won’t be massive resistance to it.

Alekperli says that he is confident that “sooner of later this issue will find its resolution. That is inevitable.”  He may be right, but the path to that outcome is going to be anything but easy.

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