"Great game" on the Azerbaijan chessboard


“The Great Game”, a classical concept in Central Asian politics commonly refers to rivalry between Russia and Britain for control of the region during the period 1814 to 1907. There are numerous academic and other publications on the great game; some even indulge in bizarre theories and myths. Such myths were often invented by rivals in order to fuel tension in the region. The modernized version of the great game began after the de-facto collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Today’s great game encompasses the Caucasus region and has several players in it apart from Britain and Russia but its most important battleground is the Republic of Azerbaijan. It is here that the Islamic movement will either have to take a bold stand as it did in Iran in 1979 or be smothered under official dogma. To understand the crucial events unfolding in Azerbaijan a proper appreciation of the current situation and key players is, therefore, essential.

Before analyzing the existing state of affairs in Azerbaijan its historical background must be considered. Historically, Azerbaijan was never defined by the ethnic Azeris who inhabit as the territory today because modern Azerbaijan never existed in its current form. It was either much larger in size or part of an empire. This claim is commonly disputed because Azerbaijan’s history was often tailored to suit the needs of occupying powers or by the local ruling castes. However, there are certain facts that cannot be disputed. For more than 500 years, Azerbaijan has been inhabited by Turkic people who mixed with the ancient native Caucasian tribes and adopted Islam as their religion but not from the ruling Khilafat in Turkey. Instead, they adopted the Shia school of thought from persecuted people who migrated from the Hijaz and Iraq to Azerbaijan. It is these three peculiarities of the Azeris that aroused enmity of the Ottoman establishment during the rise of Safavid rule in Iran. Today, they are viewed with concern by the Russians because of the Azeris’ relations with Turkey –” a NATO member-state. NATO is trying to exploit this to use the Azeri ethnic card against Islamic Iran that also has a substantial Azeri-Turkic population.

Azerbaijan: The process of transition

The Soviet Union’s collapse started with events in Azerbaijan in 1988. On February 27, 1988 street fighting erupted between ethnic Azeris and Armenians in the city of Sumgait. Animosity between the two communities goes back to the early 1900s. In 1921 Armenians living in Azerbaijan assisted the Red Army in taking over the country and forcibly incorporated it into the USSR. The primary reason for the 1988 riots was the motion proposed in Moscow by the Armenian Soviet Republic to grant the Azeri region of Karabakh independence or incorporate it into the Armenian Republic. Of the nearly million people living in Karabakh, only 200,000 are Armenian. The Armenian communist leadership began to pressure Russia, the real power wielders in the Soviet Union, to give in to Armenian demands. This was a death sentence for the USSR; if a country of hundreds of ethnicities publicly starts talking about nationalism it will tear itself apart.

Between 1988 and 1990, Azerbaijan was dominated by the outcome of events in Sumgait and low intensity war in Karabakh. The Communist appointed “leadership” of Azerbaijan was completely caught off guard by events in Sumgait. Azeris began demanding from the Moscow-appointed leadership concrete steps to prevent the loss of Karabakh. That “leadership”, however, consisted of corrupt bureaucrats whose primary job was to act as KGB informants so they lacked the imagination and competence to formulate a coherent state strategy. This was the opportunity for then deposed former KGB General Geidar Aliyev to return to power. Appointed by Moscow, Aliyev ruled Azerbaijan from 1962 to 1982. Mikhail Gorbachev fired him in 1986 for stealing large sums of money from Azerbaijan’s cotton industry and placed him under house arrest in Moscow.

Since Gorbachev was in power during the Sumgait riots, Aliyev exploited this turmoil to create new opportunities for himself. He contacted his former Armenian colleagues in the KGB and offered them a deal: land for power. The bureaucrats in Baku who were used to taking orders from their former boss Aliyev and many of whom owed their positions to him, intentionally and unintentionally became the executors of his strategy. Cooperation between the Armenian communist establishment which nurtured strong nationalist ideas and Aliyev in order to escalate the conflict in Karabakh led to the attack by Soviet troops on Baku in January 1990. This has since been confirmed by a top-secret report dated January 27, 1990 prepared by the KGB chief investigator V.A. Chudin for KGB bosses in Moscow, and leaked in 1999 by Faik Rahimov, a dissident Azeri intelligence officer.

The Soviet collapse led to the establishment of Azerbaijan Republic. Immediately a full-scale war erupted in Karabakh but Azeri society was in disarray. It was looking for ideas and ideals around which it could mobilize. More than seventy years of communist rule which had banned religion and created strong antipathy towards religious values had excluded Islam as a solution to the society’s problems. Nationalism became the vehicle around which people mobilized. The nationalist movement was made up of two camps. One was led by a radical-populist movement, the Popular Front (PF), whose head was the former KGB translator of Arabic, Abulfaz Elchibey. He was planted by Moscow long before 1988 as the leader of a “clandestine” independence movement. The second camp was composed of a new breed of inexperienced but dedicated people, mostly military commanders who were fighting in Karabakh. The clash between the PF and the military leaders was orchestrated by Aliyev leading to the collapse of the PF government’s credibility and resulting in chaos in Baku (The Daily Telegraph, UK. December 15, 2003). Aliyev was invited to Baku to assume power by the PF leadership that suddenly presented him as the only alternative to inexperienced “adventurists.”

Aliyev was elected president in the summer of 1993 with the support of military commanders on the condition that he let them repel Armenian extremists in Karabakh. In early autumn of 1994 Azeri Special Forces known as OMON, along with Afghan volunteers managed to regain some ground in the famous “Fizuli Offensive”, but Aliyev suddenly halted it. He “negotiated” a cease-fire deal in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) that left 20 percent of Azeri territory under Armenian occupation plus a million refugees. This is still the case today. As soon as Aliyev concluded his deal on the Armenian front he turned to the elimination of his potential competitors in Azerbaijan. By the summer of 1995 all of Azeri patriotic forces formed between 1988 and 1994 were killed, imprisoned or exiled. Geidar Aliyev suddenly transformed himself into Heydar Aliyev and went for Hajj.

Azerbaijan joined the ranks of other Muslim countries ruled by brutal dictators and family interests. From 1995 to 2003 Aliyev’s family monopolized all industries in Azerbaijan and extreme poverty forced millions to become “guest workers” in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere. The inability of westoxicated and genuinely liberal-nationalist oriented opposition to do anything against corruption, incompetence, and excessive unemployment and state brutality, totally discouraged the population in supporting them. Aliyev died in a Cleveland (US) clinic in 2003 and left Azerbaijan as a perfectly polished trophy for his son Ilham.

Islamic revival

Between 1990 and 1994 Azeri society started to express interest in issues restricted during the Soviet era; Islam was one of the major topics. Serious interest, however, started in 1998. At first the authorities did not pay much attention to Islamic revival because ex-communist bureaucrats believed religion was something regressive and could not be used to mobilize a population to demand their rights. However, the picture started to change with the start of the second Chechen War in 1999 and movement by Azeri dissidents to Iran who were associated with the camp of military commanders that was formed between 1988 and 1994. One method used by the regime to counter a potential uprising inspired by Islamic principles was to revive anti-Iranian nationalist ideas and the rhetoric of Popular Front years. The other was the creation of controlled space for the operation of Wahhabi thought imported from US ally, Saudi Arabia. Permission for the Wahhabis to operate in Azerbaijan was mainly done to discredit Islam in the eyes of the people to whom Islam was something very new and alien and also to counter the growing Iranian influence. From 2001 onwards the regime used the excuse of al-Qaeda to further restrict Islamic revival. As the Muslim world turned into a battle zone, Azerbaijan also became embroiled, although to a much smaller degree.

From isolated terror plots by Wahhabi circles to bulldozing mosques by the regime, the Azeri Islamic community is becoming the target of regime’s repression. The fundamental question is what will be the community’s reaction to such brutal policies of the regime? Based on ground realities it seems the Islamic community in general has decided to “work within the system” and “change it from within.” There are of course groups that want to challenge the regime. Such groups, however, are being isolated by the regime with the help of movements that want to work within the system.

It does not mean that mainstream Islamic organizations are willing tools in the hands of the regime; they are simply too indecisive and lack confidence, hence open to manipulation. They are unable to formulate clear goals or what their objectives should be and how to achieve them. The regime fully understands this and controls Islamic organizations by playing with their basic rights: taking them away to exert pressure and after a while giving them back for appeasement. This strategy has worked so far because this gives the impression to the Islamic community that the regime is taking steps to satisfy their “demands.” However, as the regime becomes increasingly vulnerable due to massive poverty and social degradation, it is likely to overplay its hand and push the Islamic movement too far. At this point Azerbaijan may experience a short brutal civil war that will create a new and totally unexpected reality. The most likely result of this may be a much more active and organized Islamic movement. Taking into account the strong presence of ethnic Azeris among the most prominent revolutionary Islamic jurists in Iran, the rise of an Islamic movement in Azerbaijan is merely a matter of time.

There is a vast socio-political and ideological vacuum in society. Since westoxicated and nationalist opposition movements have been in power for a long time without any tangible results, it is logical to conclude that the force that will fill this vacuum will be different. The regime and its foreign patrons also realize this and are making preparations. These consist mainly of fostering radical nationalism and sectarianism through takfiri groups in Azerbaijan. How long it will take the Islamic movement to overcome such obstacles will depend on how the wider population views it in terms of its position vis-a-vis the regime’s ongoing oppression. If the Islamic movement manages to present itself to the broader Azeri society as the only force effectively standing up to the regime, it is likely repeat the success achieved by the Islamic movement in Iran.