Can Europe Make It?

Radical thinking in the Caucasus: an interview with a member of the resistance movement in Azerbaijan

Talking with an opposition educator about the Enlightenment, resistance and populism in Baku.

Arturo Desimone
30 July 2013

Police arrest dozens of opposition protesters at a rally in Baku. Demotix/Radio Free Europe. All rights reserved.

NOTE: The interviewee asked that we do not reveal his name as several of his colleagues have been arrested by the Azeri police in the past week. He will be referred to simply as O.

O. is in the opposition of Azerbaijan, a post-Soviet Republic bordering Armenia with whom it has technically been at war since 1991. The conflict has killed tens of thousands and young Azeri men face a compulsory draft.

He is one of the participants in the Azad Fikir or Free Thought University, an Alternative University in the capital of Baku which for some years became the nexus of educating young members of the oppostion. He obtained his academic degrees and training in the west, but has now returned to his homeland. Azerbaijan is a petroleum-state internationally condemned for its repressive media laws and human rights abuses, led by Ilham Aliyiev who inherited the presidency from his father in 2003.

This interview was given one week before the outbreak of the Taksim Square riots in Turkey, a country Azeris look to in admiration, despite having been culturally 'Russified' after a century of rule under the shadow of its powerful neighbour. At the other political extreme, George Friedman, head of the Stratfor Consultancy for military intelligence in Washington, recently posted a column on his website advising the United States to bypass the Armenian ethnic lobby and choose Aliyiev, the Azeri dictator as a new 'favored client', of whose hospitality he had this to say “"I continue to visit and continue to enjoy dinners that never end and rounds of toasts that test my liver," but "I am not in a position to have seen repression or corruption".He concluded that any resistance movement would only end by backfiring into a worse regime, a syndrome referred to as the “Arab Spring phenomenon.”  O. hoped that this interview might reveal a different reality in a way that will 'test the liver of all propagandists'.

Radical thinking in the Caucasus

AD: What has prompted the opposition movement in Azerbaijan?

O: I might be sitting on the grass in one of the big open parks that was built over the ruins of houses. A man - not a security guard, just another civilian - will come up to me and shout, “why are you sitting on the grass, you can't do that!” "Well, why not?" I ask. I don't need to bring up the fact that they were built on the ruins of the houses that were recently cruelly demolished while poor people still lived inside them. He cannot argue why not: he is indoctrinated by the official populism of our dictatorship, and its "traditional values.” 

Lately more young people, thanks to the education effort in our network, are standing up to so-called "traditional values" that have nothing to do with us. Our country had universal free public education for ninety years under the Soviet Union, despite the repression that accompanied the elimination of democracy and the rise of a rigid ideology after the revolution, after the destruction of the Sovietic enlightenment. People once lined up in the streets here to see theatre: we produced the first opera in the Middle East. We had a great culture once. Two centuries ago we had Akundov. He was an atheist philosopher who went into exile in Tbilisi when the authorities wanted to imprison and execute him.

Then in the 1980s we had fierce critics of both capitalism and the Soviet system, our free thinkers. There were also establishment Soviet writers like Anar. People in the network that I am in, who are translating books into Azeri and favour a kind of social realism very intensely repudiate much of the official Soviet establishment authors, though there were some good aspects to them. But now the government favours our dissident writers from decades ago - these same bureaucrats, often the same people who persecuted them. You know what the right analogy to this is? Joseph Goebbels listening to Beethoven at night. I love Beethoven. He was for revolution, for Enlightenment.

What are the traditional values the government advocates? The depth of the level of destruction of our culture, of our ability to think and reason, cannot be overstated. In the Free Thought University, our people are taught the basics: what is meant by democracy? What is a human right? How often have I heard it said by our elders, “Well I don't want democracy, democracy means that girls will be wearing short skirts!”

No, you idiot, this is what the government tells you. These so-called traditional values are alien to our culture. There is a tyranny everywhere, on the bus, because of government propaganda: an elderly man or woman says to a youngster, stand up, give me your seat. They don't have to thank the youth for it. I am all for kindness for the elderly, but here it becomes an extreme that is again foreign to our society. It is a small example. But if you say you aren't well and you don't want to give up your seat? - this is a violation of "traditional values'', and you can be condemned quite openly and publicly by the majority on the bus. What is the result? Now more and more young people are refusing to give up their seats.

A tragedy happened recently. A young girl called Nilofar committed suicide. Her death is weighing on us today. Nilofar was in the network, a sympathizer who kept a blog where she posted notes criticizing the government. Police agents began interrogating her parents. Officers confronted her. Her parents did not sympathize with her for one moment, instead they blamed and humiliated her. Maybe she was humiliated by how the police had threatened or lied to her parents about her, I cannot say for sure. She jumped from a tall building. All of us are mourning her.

Recently we had the most massive demonstrations in the history of our country since the fall of the Soviets. It concerned the mysterious deaths of soldiers in the barracks on the frontlines with Armenia (all young Azeri men are subject to be drafted into the army due to the permament war against Nagorno Karabakh, a region supported by Armenia). The government tried to doll up the dead bodies, presenting them as heroes killed by Armenians. But autopsies revealed broken ribs that had been inflicted after death. They had committed suicide and then been set up as martyrs: the government needs to fabricate martyrdoms when the morale inspired by hatred and the ceaseless war against Armenia is finally at a low ebb.

20,000 people signed up - for the Facebook-event, of course - but seven thousand showed up in the streets and demonstrated.

[ Here O.quotes some lines in what he admits is his own very awkward English translation of Gunel Movlud, a young woman who is one of the Azeri poets in the opposition network ]


we will feel the sincerity of the streets

by the amount of faces we recognize in them


the burden of broken cutlery falling onto the floor

will be so loud that it will exhaust us”

This was unimaginable ten years ago for our dictatorship who was used to a stupid populace, used to being able to disperse masses and beat people in the streets. It is thanks in part to our network, to the solidarity system, and to seven of my friends who are now in prison. It is thanks to Azak Fikir, our alternative school called The Free Thought University, which is the only healthy educational institution in our country, which didn't stop the government from closing it down a month ago.

AD: How did they close it down?

O: We showed up one day and there was a sign saying that the government had sealed off the area of the Free Thought University of Baku, and if any of us violated the mandate they would drag us into court forever.

We had a popular lecture series, which we recorded - perhaps you can get an idea of it here - a little like Ted Talks, although I hate TED Talks! TED Talks are to me the ultimate end of capitalist education, the ''success-story” that bankers and managers might tell, about success and why unsuccessful people always become leftists.

The idea behind our lectures is bringing an activist to speak about, “what is it like to be an actor in Azerbaijan today” a lawyer to speak of what this means, or to give a lecture on Republicanism, on the subject of What is a Human Right? Our best lectures were probably by the emerging Azeri writers and novelists, like the well-known Seimur Baijan. We record these and put them on the website.

But now Azad Fikir is closed: anyone entering the building is up before the courts. We were too successful. People in the network who were too daring are in jail. The rest of us in the network are now concentrating on our printing presses: we translate books into Azeri. Recently I read Stephan Zweig, who I am translating. Many in the network have voluntarily translated Marquez, Kafka, and Bertrand Russell's books, among others.

The fact is, we have to create something from zero - let me try to explain. For example, we got hold of an old translation of a Kant essay and everyone understood what they were reading, the concepts were quite clear to them. But would they understand Michel Foucault's criticism of Kant's Enlightenment? Very few would understand it. The translator of course hopes otherwise. Would they understand Habermas? Heidegger? As a society, Foucault, sadly, cannot be a subject of discussion, because without understanding, without living through it, the despair and disillusionment of modernity, people cannot yet grasp this criticism.

In terms of dress, consumption, technology, yes, we have a modernity. We have a lot of traits of bourgeois lifestyle in the city centre. But an average middle class person cannot afford to spend more than half an hour in the city centre.

AD: Why's that?

O: Gradually they are forcing cheap pubs and tea-houses and anywhere social life takes place to the limits of the city, there is a fight for the city center. But many of our people fail again to understand it: they are told it is development. Oh, look at it, it is beautiful, people will say. Yes, but can you go and sit there? A cup of tea for seven euros. They don’t realize that we are also engaged in a geographic battle for the city. Seven euros for a tea, prices like in Paris and Moscow. Who the hell can afford it?

I know who can. The bureaucrats, businessmen and foreign investors, people who work at foreign companies like I do. Shop owners, hotel owners—they have created this area basically for themselves.

AD: Did you undergo some kind of transformation before deciding to become part of the opposition?

O: In 2005 I was a radical nationalist. I was for (Azeri) Turkish nationalism. I still keep up my book collecting of Turkish racist, romantic-nationalist poetry, with its lines that go like this: "I am seeking day and night for an Armenian, to cut off his head, to cut off his ears, hang it on my neck, and sing songs to the Great Ataturk.” These are poems by the racist writers of the Turkish nationalist movements, they reinvented their legends: [ More poetry, this time, in a tone of rueful self-mockery]

Oh, I see the white wolf,

which came down from the mountains

and led the armies of the Great Turkish Khans

Oh The Great Tamerlane and The Great Babur shah, who invaded from India to Finland, Kublai Khan, all these great nations of Turkey, the Mighty Ottomans...

I used to memorize this crap! Then one day I woke up and asked myself, what kind of bullshit is this? Since then I have sought learning, an Enlightenment of sorts. Many factors helped me along the way: reading, studying abroad for some years, travelling. But especially the people I met, both abroad, and through the network at home, emerging writers, poets and political theorists. I emphasize the word ''emerging!” We are basically in a position of having to create something from zero. In the way people dress and consume and videos they watch, yes, they, we, are very modern. In our mindsets we do not yet have modernity, which I would define in its positive sense as critical thinking.

When I refer to 'modernity' or 'enlightenment' I do not mean what is described in Foucault's criticism. My work here and now is in the department of a form of education and pedagogy that will help us all, me included, to develop better tools for resisting oppression. Our work is to help us reflect on our society and country so that once dramatic political and economic changes get under way, we will know what to do and how to take charge of the country afterwards in order to build a free and radical society. The project of enlightenment will provide the new young activists and intellectuals who are capable of challenging the system.


A government mural in Baku. Cinemobile Caucasus/Archil Khetagouri and Ileana Stanculescu. All rights reserved.

Re-establishing a civil society in Azerbaijan

AD: So what is happening now in Azerbaijan?

O: What is now happening in our country is very similar to what is happening in other countries in the world. Our government will say that we are always different, that we are isolated. The official propaganda speaks of the miracle of our development. We are unique and must have faith in the miracles of the magicians in the winter palace built over the houses of starving people.

AD: What is the relationship of your regime to Erdogan's party?

O: Erdoganism is at once both friendly towards and critical of this establishment. Critical, since our bureaucrats and leaders are Russified, they are secular oppressors who were educated in the Soviet Union and speak Russian well. Erdogan of course is a populist leader elected by a majority and officially concerned with religion and identity. In fact Erdoganism has led to a revival of Ottomanism in Turkey. But beyond these important differences, Erdogan's party and Aliyiev's regime are allies.

I mentioned the mass demolitions of houses built in the 80s by people from the countryside who migrated to Baku's city center to cobble them together in an amateurish fashion. After the merciless demolition of the houses by tractors and bulldozers while the people were still inside, they built a huge parking lot and buildings in the Napoleonic Imperial Style. Who does this remind you of? Try googling: 'Baku Four Seasons Hotel' or 'Baku City Center' and you will see the Napoleonic building style, the imperial architecture. The officials build white elephant projects trying to show off their loyalty by using marble in bombastic monuments. This is a way to gain legitimacy and favoritism from the government - as if anything looking cheaper in the streets would ''delegitimize the government.''  Given the lack of public accountability, they simply get away with it.

AD: What about teaching people an understanding of economics?

O: We are trying to create a civil society in Azerbajan - better, to re-establish one, where people read and discuss politics, and can have different political affiliations. But the government don't want people to see what takes the burden for this 'miracle'

AD: What takes the burden?

O: Right now, I would say oil is taking the burden. But the oil is draining away fast, and pretty soon people will be feeling the forceful burden crushing them. We have no other resources.

AD: What exactly do you mean when you say that in such a society students and youth are unable to think?

O: The official university systems are fraudulent and corrupt: people are encouraged to hope that they will become civil servants or work in offices and somehow be a part of this economic miracle in the form of petroleum-money favouritism. This will go nowhere for them, but they want to buy into consumer culture, to buy cars or go four times a week to the brothels.

As things stand, the average Azeri student reading about such events as the house demolition cannot understand it. He cannot reach any conclusion other than that it is certainly unjust and terrible. It is terrible, he will rationalize, but probably necessary, believing that we must need more parking lots, more open spaces with monuments. This is what I mean when I say they cannot think: a high level of literacy is necessary in order to really understand. Here a right winger could argue “this is a total violation of the rights of property law, of the rights of the people living there and their legal owners!”

A leftist then would say, “this is basically what Moliere said about the demolition of parts of Paris during the construction of the avenues!”

But in order for the people to be able to have different political opinions about it, we need to provide a higher level of literacy—from an underground movement.

AD: It seems you have dedicated your life to this...

It would be an exaggeration to say that. I am not doing that much. But I can say this is what I consider important to invest our time and effort in. I see this type of action as promising. I would like to think that I was involved in a form of Enlightenment that avoids Foucault's criticism of it – Foucault saw in the Enlightenment a rationality the government imposes to run its biopolitics.

But if you return to the eighteenth century enlightenment, I can defend myself here by saying that there are two phases. In the early phase, it is pure. This “purer” phase is what was used to liberate people from the claws of not being able to criticize, not being able to think, which resulted in Europe in universal education. You could argue that this was really the struggle of the working-class in Europe.... Then you have the second phase where it can become corrupt, and used to establish the early mode of capitalist production.

AD: Do you worry that if you say 'enlightenment' you will be accused by western intellectuals of a use that is white and Eurocentric?

O: In fact I would not deny that it is Eurocentric. But it is something universal first of all, more than western. The accusation I more often hear, is “Hey dude, we have passed the age of Enlightenment long ago, and we are now in the postmodern age!” Which seems rather stupid, because if the cultural development of your society has not yet reached its modern age, then you cannot have a criticism of modernity. You cannot build a culture in Azerbaijan based on a criticism of European Enlightenment and European modernity. I think we have to start now with realism, actually depicting the sufferings as they are, in their immense intensity and contrast, in all their extreme dimensions.

AD: So what can you tell me about the actions you take?

O: For example, there is a network of people who are providing food for prisoners.

AD: How does the food get smuggled in?

O: It is not really smuggling. The law allows us to take it in. However, some police at the gates create difficulties, while others do not. It depends on the person usually (if an order from above concerning the food intake into the prison is not issued, then it is solely dependent on the soul of the prison guards. Many of them deliver the food in a secretive manner too, supporting the guys inside). To take one package of food to a prisoner that will suffice for two days costs more than 50 euros. It is very expensive, imagine every week forty packages going in there.

AD: How do you raise all that money?

O: People donate. Lately it has become tricky: the government passed a law that donating to such funds is illegal and they have already started harassing several NGOs for that. People make the meals at home - usually mothers. Bringing food to the prisoners is not forbidden by law, but the guards, the police bully people at the gates anyway. In one of the protests against the deaths of young soldiers in the army, twenty people were arrested. They were taken to court, each fined around 1000 euros. We organized a public campaign raising money to pay the fines...and in two days we had collected enough to pay all the fines! The government got frustrated and increased the fines tenfold.

AD: Would you say there are serious divides between communists and anarchists in your movement? 

O: We have anarchists, communists, liberals. At this moment we are still developing ourselves, reading, discussing in teahouses - so maybe in ten or twenty years we will have these kinds of divisions. We have some serious anarchists, communists, and the rest are mostly teenagers, often populists.

AD: Hopefully you will never have the sectarian divides that exist in the European left! Today everywhere there is populism—in Latin America they think it is socialism, in the Arab countries Islamist populism took over. What do you think of populism rising in the world and what is its relation to an enlightenment of the kind that you call for? 

O: This government also uses populism, it promises the people a great deal, it tries to get at their heart-strings preaching traditional values, sentimentality. It appeals to the people all the time with all these puffy words, appealing to their tradition and the conservation of it. The government presents itself as a social welfare state, taking care of everybody in the society. You can definitely see some of the traits of populism clearly emerging.

Even if there is no democracy in the sense of free elections, populism of this kind is invoked to gain legitimacy from the masses. It is the main enemy to understanding. Not that I view all populism as the enemy. I support populism in the mechanical sense: the majority of the people wanting certain things, expressing this through elections.

But you can see still see some connection between this type of populism and global capitalism in its unification of things. Liberals say “Let the market diversify everything.” On the other hand the market does not diversy, it attempts towards a unification of everything, on the level of people and commodities. The unification works for them. It lowers transaction costs for business if everyone thinks the same way. It allows for a better consumer culture, acceptance of more skyscrapers.

Actually I think the Occupy movement played a role in opposing this capitalism. But dialectically Occupy was powerless. We need to bring forth a new form of resistance against capitalism, and this dispersed form of resistance will not work.

I can see the need for a new form of resistance already in Azerbaijan. Our struggle is not that of a classic working class - we have no class of people that Marx would call ''proletariat'', our struggle is not the classic working class struggle of trade unionists, what we have here is more a “periphery capitalism.”

Our method of resisting is a new form, a more flexible, network-based underground, the type of resistance that can even seem to break up and disappear under an umbrella. In a way our resistance is in a leftist spirit. I find it hard to express myself on this. But the challenge for us around the world is to think of the new ways in which to resist global capitalism.



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