The flag once raised will never fall!
By Mammad Amin Rasulzade
Despite being divided by Russia and Iran and deprived of its own statehood in the early 19th century, the Azerbaijanis in both north and south underwent the national awakening and fought for liberty in the beginning of the 20th century, this struggle peaking with the declaration of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic on 28 May 1918.
It was a tough time for the whole region: despite internal turbulences and civil war, the Russians, both Whites and Reds, retained their claims over the South Caucasus. The British, victorious out of the First World War, was gradually penetrating into the region. Different ethnic groups and political movements were struggling over each village.
Interestingly enough, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the National Council in Tiflis (Tbilisi), the capital of another newborn state, Georgia. To cover its sovereignty over the entire Azerbaijan, the founding fathers not only built a new army but also requested military aid from the Ottoman Empire. Terribly defeated Ottomans with their resources exhausted, however, managed to dispatch an army to the Caucasus, which, during the entire summer of 1918 liberated the Azerbaijani lands from different political groups (Bolsheviks), ultranationalistic movements (Dashnaks) and various gangs, finally victoriously entering Baku in September.
Within short time, the main state institutions were built and divided into three branches of governance. Six months into the independence, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic also celebrated a parliament which reflected all ethnic and religious groups in the country 80 seats to the titular ethnic group, Azerbaijanis, 21 – Armenians, 10 – Russians, 1 – Germans, 1- Jews, 1 – Georgians, 1 to Poles.
The newly-formed republic faced challenges almost in all spheres. A national army was set up for protecting the territorial integrity, a task which it fulfilled by restoring sovereignty in a number of territories, including Karabakh.
Education was paid big attention to, with old schools were being modernized or replaced by new ones. An important milestone became the opening of Baku State University in 1919, making it the first modern university in the territory of Azerbaijan. Despite hardships and financial shortages, the Azerbaijani authorities sent 100 young people to various educational institutions in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.
A big achievement in democratization process was the abolition of censorship, a remnant of czarist period.
Another big achievement, which laid foundation of a democratic and secular statehood in Azerbaijan, was women suffrage. By granting women the right to vote in 1918, the same year as Poland did, Azerbaijan, however, pioneered the universal suffrage before the Benelux countries (1919), the United States (1920), France and Italy (1945).
From the very outset, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic conducted an active foreign policy. Besides building bilateral relations with a number of countries, establishing and hosting numerous diplomatic missions, the Azerbaijani government also sought international recognition at the highest level. A delegation sent to the Paris Peace Conference met with world leaders, including Woodrow Wilson, who initiated the first discussion of the Azerbaijani question at the Council of the Four in May 1919. Although Wilson, who had presented the concept of self-determination for ethnic groups from former empires, failed to proceed with the Azerbaijani issue, he himself later recounted his meeting with Azerbaijani delegates. In his September 1919 speech in San Franscisco, Wilson outlined his positive impression of Azerbaijani delegation: “Do you know where Azerbaijan is? Well, one day there came in a very dignified and interesting group of gentlemen who were from Azerbaijan. I didn't have time, until they were gone, to find out where they came from. But I did find this out immediately: that I was talking to men who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice.”
However, Azerbaijan found support by British Prime Minister Lloyd George. At the initiative of the British side, the Paris Peace Conference issued a resolution of de facto recognition of the Azerbaijani government by the Allies and the Entente in January 1920.
This recognition, historic, albeit came very late. Azerbaijan’s participation in the international system of international relations was interrupted due to the military intervention of Soviet Russia in April 1920. Having consolidated its power within Russia, the Bolsheviks started collecting former parts of the empire and chose Azerbaijan as the number one target in the South Caucasus as they desperately needed to collect Baku`s huge oil deposits.
Despite the fall, the national idea that bore during the 23-month independence survived and revived the independent Azerbaijan towards the end of the 20th century. Having restored its independence in 1991, the Azerbaijan Republic declared herself a successor state of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
The founding fathers of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, Məmməd Əmin Rəsulzadə, Əlimərdan bəy Topçubaşov, Fətəli xan Xoyski, Nəsib bəy Yusifbəyli and others, were committed to build a parliamentary republic in a country with a population having majorly Oriental mentality and traditions. Under circumstances when the South Caucasus became a scene confrontation among the various powers, both dying and triumphing in the world war, and when the Azerbaijani people became subject to ethnic cleansing by neighboring nationalists, a bunch of progressive, Western-minded people proclaimed the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim East. Thus, 28 May is not only an Azerbaijani date; it should be an important date throughout the whole Orient as it celebrated democratic and republican values. And these values will be a guiding star for many peoples into the 21st century.
Rusif Huseynov is the co-founder of the Topchubashov Center. His main interest is peace and conflict studies, while his focus area covers mainly Eastern Europe, Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia.
Elmira Hasanova is a research fellow of the Topchubashov Center.