The Republic of Azerbaijan is the proof that Islam and democracy can go hand in hand.
Azerbaijan, a presidential republic, its capital, Baku, is a former member of the Soviet Union. Bounded by the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, the country is a major Silk Road hub between Asia and Europe.
The date April 28 marks a rather morbid centennial for Azerbaijan. For exactly 100 years ago, on April 28, 1920, the Soviet Red Army invaded Azerbaijan and put an end to the first secular-Muslim democracy, known as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
The First Two Years Democracy
On May 28, 1918, Azerbaijan established the Democratic Republic. This was a historic event on a great scale.
For one, the country became the first parliamentary secular republic in the Muslim world; moreover, in July 1919, a law was passed that made the country the first majority-Muslim population nation to give women the right to vote and run for office.
What made this law so exceptional? It made Azerbaijan one of the first countries in the world to ensure inclusive voting and election rights for all its citizens.
The law gave equal voting rights to men and women, from the age of 20 onward, regardless of the person’s racial, ethnic, and religious background.
Consequently, the government – the Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers – formed was a mosaic of Azerbaijan’s population. It embodied the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious population, represented by its religious and ethnic minorities, to name, Azerbaijani Muslim, Jews, and Christians, Azerbaijani Armenians, Russians, Germans, Poles, and more.
To achieve international recognition, the nascent democratic republic, placed between Soviet Russia and the Persian Empire, pursued energetic and active diplomacy.
One of the new democratic republic’s first international diplomacy actions was to send a diplomatic delegation, led by Alimardan Bey Topchubashov, the Speaker of the Parliament, to the Paris Peace Conference.
The Paris Peace Conference, AKA, the Versailles Peace Conference, of 1919 and 1920, at the end of World War One, was the victorious Allies’ meeting its goal was to set the peace terms for the defeated powers.
On May 28, 1919, in Paris, the Azerbaijani delegation met with the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, which marked the first Azerbaijani-U.S. high-profile diplomatic encounter. History attests that President Wilson was most impressed with the Azerbaijani diplomats. Upon his return to the United States, he referenced that meeting several times in his public speeches while touring western and southern U.S. states during September 1919.
While researching the U.S. historical archives, Mr. Nasimi Aghayev, the Consul General of Azerbaijan to the Western United States, found an interesting reference to President Wilson’s visit with the Azerbaijani delegation in Paris.
On September 10, 1919 while in Bismarck, North Dakota, President Wilson said:
“Almost every day of the week…I was receiving delegations … some from parts of the world… I do not think they were in geography when I was at school…Did you ever hear of Azerbaijan, for example? A very dignified group of fine-looking men came in from Azerbaijan … it was a very prosperous valley region lying south of the Caucasus and that it had a great and ancient civilization…”
In San Francisco, eight days later, President Wilson mentioned:
“Do you know where Azerbaijan is? … one day there came in a very dignified and interesting group of gentlemen … from Azerbaijan … men who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, right, and justice.”
Interestingly, out of all delegations President Wilson met in Paris he only mentioned – several times – the Azerbaijani delegation, what indicated the warmheartedly impression the Azerbaijani diplomats, representing their nation, left on President Wilson.
In January 1920, as a result of the Azerbaijani diplomats meeting with President Wilson, as well as conducting other productive meetings and efforts while in Paris, the United States and other democracies de-facto recognized the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
The strategically located, independent Azerbaijan, having one of the world’s largest reserves of oil, was a key target for the Bolsheviks. As Vladimir Lenin famously said: “Without Baku’s oil, the Soviet state cannot survive.”
On April 28, 1920, Azerbaijan’s independence era was cut short when 30,000 Red Army soldiers invaded the country, followed by incorporating it into the USSR in 1922.
The Red Army invasion was carried out to install a new Soviet government in the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The invasion led to the dissolution of the Democratic Republic and the establishment of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. As many as 20,000 Azerbaijani soldiers died resisting what was effectively a Russian reconquest.
After Azerbaijan’s first republic fell into the hands of the Soviets, the Sovietization of other independent republics, such as Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine ensued.
There were Azerbaijani communists who championed the Soviet invasion. During the 1930s’ Stalinist purges, charged with “counter-revolution,” their betrayal ended up with execution by firing squads. As Jacques Mallet du Pan’s adage goes: “Like Saturn, the revolution devours its own children.”
Azerbaijan restored its independence loss to the USSR in 1991.
Today, the Republic of Azerbaijan is the fastest growing economy in the region, vastly contributing to the European nations’ energy security.
Coincidentally to Azerbaijan’s temporarily losing its first independence centennial, Israel celebrated the San Remo Conference centennial, when the country became a sovereign nation. On April 19-26, 1920, as the conclusion of World War I, in accord with April 28, 1919 Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, the Supreme Council of world’s powers, signed, ratified, proclaimed and put into effect the British Mandate System in the Land of Israel; it is from this conference the State of Israel derives its legal existence. Nowadays, Azerbaijan is the only Muslim country to conduct open bilateral relations with the Jewish State, Israel.
One century ago, Azerbaijan lost its independence to regain it some 70 years later, never to look back. The dynamic country is proud of its Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews interculturalism. All live in harmony and mutual respect, values Azerbaijan devotedly promotes in the region and beyond.