My time in newly independent Azerbaijan

An interview by Cavid Ağa

First published at on July 11th, 2019. Azerbaijani translation posted at

(I have made a few minor sub-edits here and indicate them with square brackets.)

Did you have any opinions about Azerbaijan prior [to] visiting?

Nothing firm.  I worked for a few weeks in Russia (mainly Moscow) in the spring of 1992, and when I later told my Russian friends that I was going to Azerbaijan their typical reply was, ‘Тебе не страшно?’ (‘Aren’t you afraid?’).  So before going there, I bought a wallet with a chain which attached it to my clothes, as a precaution.  In general it has been very useful and I still use one like it (because of it, I always know which pocket my wallet is in!).  But I did not require it for security in Azerbaijan (or anywhere else).  What those friends said to me revealed more about Russian prejudices than the reality I found in Azerbaijan.

As for politics, I had followed the break-up of the USSR for my previous job in 1990-91, and Soviet politics generally for over 20 years before that, and I was familiar with the specifics of several countries, including the Baltic states and the Ukraine as well as Russia.  In the previous two years I had made working visits to all of those countries as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, but nowhere in the Caucasus region, and so I knew very little about what I discovered to be a very interesting situation in Azerbaijan.

How would you describe [the] socio-political situation during your stay?

Very unstable.  I arrived in September 1992, not long after President Mutalibov was overthrown and replaced by President Elchibey of the Popular Front, and then I lived in Baku through the worst of the war in Dağlıq Qarabağ [Nagorno-Karabagh].  I was evacuated back to Brussels during Heydar Aliyev’s slow-motion coup d’état the following summer, and returned for a few months before finally finishing my job there in about November 1993.  Despite the military reverses and political turmoil Baku never felt like a city at war or in serious crisis, but it also lacked the fervour one might expect in a small country that had gained independence for the first time in 185 years.  The atmosphere was quiet – almost too quiet in the circumstances, I thought – but subdued.  I put that mood down to the defeats in the war, which were reflected in the sad visits that people made to the memorials to fallen soldiers in the city centre.  But falling living standards [amid] economic and political confusion after the collapse of the old system may have contributed as much to it too.

Do you remember any interesting events that you found odd?

I’m sure there were lots of them!  That’s why I loved being there.  After all, I was in a distant country for the first time, I did not know the national language and the country was going through a very difficult time of change.  Perhaps the oddest thing was that, as it seemed to me, no foreign visitor would have guessed the country was at war if they had not known it.

Two other things occur to me right now.  One was the experience of working in an office in part of the former Soviet Union for the first time, because the arrangements and even some of the tools and equipment were very different from what I knew.  For example, the secretaries and typists who used to play a big role in Western office life were entirely absent, except for the occasional ‘референт’ [‘referent’], as were their accompanying skills such as touch-typing.  The same for some basic stationery, such as sticky tape: papers were attached with pins or glue or string.  And when the head of my office once wrote an important letter to a senior official, he showed me the draft.  I was struck by how little it said and how much space it took to say it, filled with flattery for the official.  That revealed something to me about the nature of official relationships, at least within the civil service, in what until just recently was the USSR: back home, business letters and memoranda deal with facts and generally in as few words as possible.  But in the outgoing culture facts and opinions were dangerous to set down in writing.  That, at least, is how I interpreted it.

My final oddity is a little incident in December 1992.  I returned to Baku after a couple of weeks at home feeling rather low, being in an unfamiliar place with a new job which had not been set up well by my employers.  The first morning I flagged down an old [two-door] Zaporozhets car for a lift to the office (under the system of the time in which private car owners used their cars as taxis to earn some money).  I had to sit in the back seat as the front passenger seat had been removed to make way, as far as I can remember, for a load of eggs.  My spirits immediately rose with that reminder of people’s lively spirit of improvisation and ‘making do.’

What about your contacts with dominant political figures? Have you personally met Elchibey or elder Aliyev? How would you describe them?

My relations were not that high up.  Unfortunately I forget the names now, but the most senior people I met were the acting Prime Minister (Ali Masimov?) and the President’s chief economic advisor (Mammedov?) in early 1993, in Elchibey’s time.  Meetings with the latter were due to my own work, while with the former I was an informal interpreter for a couple of EU officials who were visiting in connection with humanitarian aid.  But I do not remember very much about the meetings or what the personalities were like.

How was your relation with locals? By what means did you communicate with them? How many of them spoke English?

My relations with local people were good, conditioned by the strong Azeri and Muslim traditions of hospitality, which would always have protected me from any harm that might arise (but in fact never did).  At that time there were very few people from the western world in Baku and we could be immediately identified as such from our style of dress and so on.  I made particularly good friends with a young man in our office and his young family, who I visited several times.  By training he was a physicist but he had moved to that job like many people who had to change career paths suddenly in that era (while others simply lost their careers); he was very intelligent and interesting to talk to.  Very few people spoke any English but it did not matter because I spoke good Russian.  I tried to learn Azerbaijani but did not get very far because not only at work but in the bazaars and everywhere else everyone knew Russian, so it was not easy to try out the little Azeri that I learnt.

Did you monitor events in Azerbaijan after your departure? If you did, how would you evaluate [the] Western media’s view of early Azerbaijan? Positive? Negative? Curious?

I have remained curious about Azerbaijan, but at a distance.  When I returned home I had to look for other work somewhere, and the next jobs I did, in the first half of 1994, were in the Ukraine [and] Serbia/Montenegro.  In the end by 2000 I worked for at least a short time in every ex-Soviet country except Armenia, as well as Mongolia and some countries further west, so Azerbaijan was only one of many countries that I became acquainted with.  However, it was special as my introduction to a very interesting series of experiences.  So I have fond memories of the place.

As for the Western media, I would describe their attitude as incurious but also negative, in spite of that lack of knowledge.  The USSR had always been seen through Moscow’s eyes and the wider world had little understanding of its many complexities.  To this day, that Russian viewpoint often colours the understanding of the Ukraine, let alone smaller and more distant countries.  In England, the famous Azerbaijani linesman in the 1966 football World Cup Final was until very recently remembered as Russian: people did not distinguish between Russia and the USSR.  The large Armenian diaspora (especially in the USA and France), Azerbaijan’s Turkic and Muslim associations and the rather closed nature of Azerbaijani society (with almost no contact with the world outside the USSR) all led to further prejudices and misunderstandings, and probably still do to some extent.  I find all of that very regrettable.

Something of this arose only this spring with the Armenian footballer Mkhitaryan’s refusal to play [for Arsenal] in the Europa Cup Final in Baku.  English journalists made no attempt to understand the politics of the situation, or what Mkhitaryan had himself done to earn Azerbaijan’s displeasure.  They just assumed that he was right and the Azeri authorities were wrong – even though, as far as I could see, they behaved very correctly throughout the affair.

What do you think about current situation of Azerbaijan? How much did it change?

Since I have not visited Azerbaijan since 1993, I find it very hard to say.  While I was there I sympathised strongly with the Popular Front government in spite of its failings.  Alongside it, I was impressed by the deep roots of the country’s independence movement when I found out about it, with (as I understood) working class [people] much more involved than in other Soviet republics, where the demands for political freedom and independence came mostly from middle-class intellectuals.  Naturally I was disappointed by Aliyev’s return to power, even though he was a very experienced politician and managed to restore order in an unruly situation.  I remain saddened by authoritarian rule there, but enormously impressed when I read of the determined spirit of some activists and journalists in spite of it all.

Would you like to visit Azerbaijan again?

Of course!  I have fond memories of a small, remote country trying to make its own way in the most adverse circumstances.  A few years ago the England football team played a World Cup qualifying match in Baku and I thought about going there for it, but unfortunately it wasn’t a practical proposition.  Baku is a beautiful [and historical] city and I would love to see it again, although it was in a very poor condition after several decades of neglect at the time.  (I am a keen student of architecture.)  From everything I hear it has been transformed in the intervening period, with some world-famous new buildings that I would love to see.  I would also love to try the fresh sturgeon, the pomegranates, the wonderful fruits, nuts and vegetables, Azeri plov and so many other delicacies again!

Reference to Azerbaijani translation added on July 23rd, 2019.

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