Le(f)t’s do it:Features, Problems and Prospects of the Left in Azerbaijan

To date, the leftist community of Azerbaijan is extremely marginal. It’s not a full-fledged movement, and does not have any sort of political influence either. Nevertheless, we see it exists and develops, slowly and chaotically. At the end of the year 2020, during the Karabakh conflict escalation, due to their anti-war position, Azerbaijan leftists, partially managed “to come out of the shadows”. Without consolidating with the government and also refusing to share militaristic enthusiasm of the traditional opposition, they stood strongly against military action. Perhaps, the time has come to take a closer look at them and think about their prospects and potential. The article is based on interviews with several of the most experienced and active members of the Azerbaijani left-wing community.

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Men's suits in the shop's showcase, on the left side, Che Guevara's picture is hanging.
Teaser Image Caption
Author: Araz Zeiniyev

Left-wing ideology in Azerbaijan – as it usually happens in the post-soviet space – is associated with the Soviet past, the era, most would love to forget about, rewrite, or even cancel somehow. Thus, it has a bad reputation. The last years of the existence of the USSR was marked for Azerbaijan by the aggravation of the long-standing conflict with the Armenians and the tragedy of January 20, 1990, when more than a hundred civilians were killed as a result of the entry of Soviet troops into Baku.

In those years, communism/socialism completely discredited itself in the eyes of Azerbaijanis, people defiantly burned their party membership cards, nationalist sentiments began to grow in society, which persist to this day, although not in such a radical form.Officially, be that in school textbooks or political speeches, the soviet era is regarded as a dark time of Russian colonization, human rights infringement, and violation of national interests. There is only a small number of episodes from the Soviet Union history that have not been revised. One of the examples for these would be the Azerbaijanis’ respective attitude towards the Great Patriotic War and country’s oil contribution to it. The later term itself is not used in textbooks anymore and the corresponding paragraph has a different name - “Azerbaijan SSR during World War II”.

At the same time, anti-Soviet rhetoric is not based on criticism of leftist ideology as such. It all comes down to the most simplified formula: the left are the communists, and the communists are the Russians. Accordingly, the left is Russian communists, who deprived Azerbaijan of independence in 1920 and insulted in every possible way for 70 years.

Formally, there are Social Democratic and Communist Parties in the country, but they do not take any part in political life and generally do not make themselves felt. A more or less active opposition consists of national democrats and national liberals, who do not have the slightest sympathy towards the left.

The attitude of the people towards the USSR is less straightforward. Among the older and the middle generations, there are both, ardent anti-Soviets, and those who, along with pointing out, numerous disadvantages, admit that there were some advantages then too, which are not present anymore (like free medicine for instance).  As for young people, the overwhelming majority either does not have a clear opinion on this matter or was brought up on the very textbooks mentioned earlier and other types of propaganda and has a sharply negative attitude towards the Union. Although, in fact, they know practically nothing about it. Only a few relate to the USSR without outright negativity and show interest in the Soviet culture, aesthetics, etc. from that era, considering it as an unsuccessful experiment, which should not be repeated. This small category also includes leftists.

The modern leftist community in Azerbaijan emerged in the late 2000s, when leftist ideas began to gain a "second wind" all over the world. By that time, the generation of millennials had just matured, having no traumatic Soviet experience, but having a lot of claims to the current political system and perceiving leftist ideology in isolation from the USSR. The modern Azerbaijani left is, in general, from 20 to 35 years old. It is very difficult to name at least an approximate size of this community, but, perhaps, we are talking more about hundreds than thousands (including those who live outside Azerbaijan).

photo of lenin statue in Baku
Orkhan Sultanov

Being a part of the global left movement, this community opposes itself from the liberals. Many of them prefer the definition of "libertarian socialists", as a mean for distancing themselves, most importantly from the authoritarian ideologies. Their position regarding capital and private property serves as the main marker for this separation. Their worldview is still based on Marxism, although incorporating the knowledge of modern realities and taking into account the changes that have taken place in the world. Marxism revived “In spite of despots, who were sure that they had buried it in the depths of history, and liberals, who were glad that they had imprisoned it within the academic walls” (1).

                                                “Romance Is the Beginning of All…”                                        

Araz Narimanov [pseudonym - approx. edition] One of the oldest from the Azerbaijani Left. He is 42 years old:

“I studied in Russian school until the fifth grade, and then my family moved to Turkey.

It was a dramatic shift. Being accustomed to the Soviet educational system with its humanistic massages, where boys and girls study together and mullahs are just the characters of satirical stories, suddenly I found myself in the middle of a closed, male-only school with religious bias.

In the beginning I even became imbued with the religion, performed Namaz. But eventually, the backlash happened and I entrenched in the left ideology, the seeds of which, I think had been sowed in from my early childhood”.

Karl Lebt [pseudonym - approx. edition] who was born and raised in Ukraine, at the age of 15, already considered himself a socialist:

“At first I got carried away by natural sciences, atheism, and Russian classical literature, in which politics is rarely bypassed, and only after that I came to Marxist philosophy. There were several left-wing Internet forums of various trends flourishing, by this time. That’s where I met left-wing activists from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv for the first time. "

In the case of Togrul Veliyev, we can say that "being determined consciousness":

“I grew up in a rather poor family. My father was a scientist and earned little. Nobody needed science in 90s Azerbaijan. Actually, it’s not needed even today. So, living in poverty, I would read books on philosophy and economy, analyzed this situation, reflected on it, and observed it. So gradually I became a leftist. "

Often the Azerbaijani youth makes a "turn to the left" thanks to Turkish culture. This is primarily due to the language factor. The Left ideology is mostly preferred by youth, the kind of people who have studied at Azerbaijani schools rather than Russian ones. They are fluent in Turkish and in their youth, as a rule, are more involved in the Turkish informational field. And in Turkey, as you know, there is a very strong left-wing tradition but Turkish influence serves only as a starting point and a kind of guide "to the world of great / Western Leftism." This happened with Araz Bagirov and Samira Alekperli.

 During my student years, I was deeply impressed by the work of leftist Turkish writers and poets. Especially the poem "Song of the Drinkers of the Sun" by Nazim Hikmet:

“This is the fiery felt of hounds.

Catching up with the beast howl

This is a mad tornado

On charred foreheads

Barefoot copper-footed heroes ... "(2)

It seems to me that in general, most young people become left-wing under the influence of the specific romance inherent in this ideology. It all starts with romance. And a serious understanding comes only later. "

Samira Alekperli:

“It all started back in the seventh-eighth grade, for me, right after I watched the Turkish Television series Hatırla Sevgili. It contained a lot of references to the radical left movement of the 60s, to the Vietnam War and protests against it, the Cuban revolution, student movements ... I became interested and even fascinated to some extent, by the leftist ideology and Marxism. However, it had not gone beyond cinema, literature, and teenage romanticism, at the time. It was only at the History Faculty of University where I finally became a Marxist. That is where I really got acquainted with these teachings and also managed to get rid of the nationalist and anti-communist stereotypes that were installed in me at school. "

The story of 26-year-old Giyas Ibragimov is more dramatic than the previous ones. He considered himself an anarchist, studied at the Faculty of Journalism and was engaged in activism, until the May of 2016, when he together with his friend Bayram Mammadov, painted protest graffiti on the pedestal of the monument to Heydar Aliyev [former President of Azerbaijan and father of current President Ilham Aliyev - approx. edition]. It was on the eve of H. Aliyev's birthday; for many years, the Day of Flowers was celebrated in Azerbaijan on this day. "Congratulations on the holiday of slaves" they wrote on the pedestal, adding an anarchist sign to this inscription. [Play on words: in the Azerbaijani language the words "flower" and "slave" are very similar]

Soon, both guys were accused of drug dealing and sentenced to 10 years of prison. The human rights organization Amnesty International recognized Giyas and Bayram as prisoners of conscience.  People varied in the perception of this incident. Some perceived them as daredevils, some thought of them as posers, others would consider them as vandals and hooligans, however,  the vast majority agreed on two things, the charge against them was fabricated and the punishment was too harsh. Three years later, along with many other political prisoners, Giyas was pardoned and released as a convinced leftist radical.

Giyas Ibragimov:

“The prison made me more radical, as it helped to better understand the existing political system, its foundations, and principles. You could even say that the prison was a miniature version of this system. "

Incidentally, this was far from the first "leftist graffiti" in Baku.

There had been similar cases earlier, like for example in 2010, young leftists painted walls and fences at night, with inscriptions like “Revolution - connecting people!”, “Oil belongs to the people,” “Don't be silent! Claim your rights!”, but the matter was limited to the fact that the city authorities simply erased these inscriptions the next morning, not attaching special importance to them and not trying to find the authors (3).

It was the same year of 2016, the graffiti artist Rbitsec painted portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara on the walls in the city center supplying them with the corresponding slogans (4). Some of these drawings have survived to this day. Particularly black-and-white painting of Marx declaring:

 "I came, even though you haven’t called me.”

 Community Instead of Movement

I use the term “community” not “movement” on purpose, because there is no left movement here in Azerbaijani yet. This means that neither the program nor any serious tasks are being discussed. In the meantime, the main goal for the community is to educate society in terms of debunking the malignant misconception surrounding their ideology. This is mainly what they have been doing for the last 10-15 years.

There have never been any official left-wing organizations in modern Azerbaijan either – only separate groups and circles, few and short-lived. Having existed for some time, they fell apart: on the one hand, due to a lack of time and resources, and on the other – because in the conditions of Azerbaijan it is generally difficult to engage in real political activity.

Solfront (“sol” means “left” in Azerbaijani language) – the joint organization uniting the activists of Marxism and anarchism, was founded in 2009 (5) and lasted for a relatively long period of time. Solfront members were the ones who organized demonstrations in reaction to the terrorist attack at the Azerbaijan Oil Academy in the spring of 2009 (6), they have also participated in anti-war activities in 2010-2015.

Solfront also translated and published in Azerbaijani language the works of Western left-wing intellectuals and prepared the magazine with the title «11-ci Tezis» (as a reference to the work “Theses on Feuerbach” by Karl Marx). 

From the year 2015 the organization's activities began to decline, but they have partially recovered last year, although not as actively as before. At the beginning of 2021 several Solfront members independently set up a publishing house – Egalite, to distribute the fiction and non-fiction literature of the left, being The Disadvantaged by Ursula K. Le Guin their first release.

There also have been other left-wing youth groups that keep on emerging these days. Using the social network as their platform they’ve touched various issues.They organized May Day action in 2013, held lectures and meetings and campaigned for students at the universities in the same year. In September of 2020, having teamed up with feminists, the left held a rally against the unjust arrest of Tofig Yagublu, the opposition leader. But for the most part, the majority of these actions, be those set in the real world or in the digital one, have remained subtle, or were being attributed to the vague label of abstract youth activism.

“No War”, or the Story of Becoming a Traitor

The escalation of the Karabakh conflict in September 2020, divided the Azerbaijani society into two unequal and irreconcilable camps from the very beginning. (Including the Azerbaijani people living abroad)

The overwhelming majority of Azerbaijani people have supported the military action as a method for problem-solving to one degree or another. Even the opposition announced that they, in solidarity, would temporarily stand next to the authorities considering the given matter.

The minority, on the other hand, including the considerable part of the left, was convinced that

This was not the way to restore the peace in the region, those human sacrifices were not justified, and that the war was a very bad idea.

On October 1, 2020, several leftists published a joint anti-war statement (7), calling on Azerbaijani and Armenian youth not to succumb to the nationalist propaganda and to look for more peaceful ways of dealing with the situation, pointing out, that the real enemy was not to be seen in a random Armenian, but it rather appeared  in the face of the very people in power, who, in favor of their private interests, have been robbing and exploiting both, society and the resources of our countries for more than two decades already”.

This was the moment of transformation, when all the individual/separate anti-war statements at social networks, united into one, single movement under the slogan – “No War”! and its participants were given the nickname “ No War - ists”. People of various political views and social strata would join this spontaneous movement. There’s one particular social network post by one of the gender activists, that describes the prevailing situation pretty accurately.

“Life’s fool of surprises, who would have thought, I’d found myself standing together with The Left.”

Those who could not stand each other would unite. It’s hard to say whether it was just a coincidence or it really were the Left who directed the scattered voices of the discordant into one concordant channel.

In the eyes of the society, "No War - ists" were just naive fools at best, or the traitors, the enemies of the people, the mercenary grant-eaters at worst. Everyone who has posted at least a single anti-war message on social networks, (no matter the political inclinations, be that Marxism, liberalism, or even escapism.) received their portion of insults and accusations. There were even people who got summoned to the prosecutor’s office due to somebody’s complaint. Giyas Ibrahimov who stood out with the degree of harshness in his statements was one of those.

At the same time, there are still some people who identify as leftists, and have not joined the “No War” movement yet.

Araz Bagirov:

“Some said that for the sake of popularity, the leftists should support the war because there is a strong military sentiment among the broad masses. But one cannot support the masses in everything and thus seek their favor. Moreover, militarism and nationalism contradict the very essence of leftist ideology. "

While the anti-war stance jeopardized the left and further marginalized it, ultimately, it did far more good than harm. For almost the first time during its existence, this community has so loudly and seriously declared itself and was heard not only in the country but also abroad.

Secondly, it helped to win the sympathy among pacifists and anti-militarists - even the people who previously had referred to them as “those idiots’ began to treat the left better.

Samira Alekperli:

“The position of the Left stood out favorably against the background of the fact that the majority of political forces showed themselves from an aggressive nationalist side. I think this clearly showed that if progressive ideas come from someone in Azerbaijan, it is from the leftists. "

And, thirdly, the internal contradiction, in a sense, "healed" the left community.

Togrul Veliyev:

“The true state of affairs has become clear. It became clear who is a real leftist, and who today positions himself as a leftist, and tomorrow will become a nationalist or a supporter of the authorities. "

And although the movement of "No War - ists" did not bring any real result, it is probable that we see the effect in the long term.

 Karl Lebt:

“Nationalistic frenzy and euphoria will come to naught, sooner or later. Opinions considered as marginal today will be perceived differently over time.”

“Neither Press nor Bribe”

The Azerbaijani authorities, known for their intolerance of opposition and dissent of any sort, have been indifferent towards the left so far. Even cases of leftists being subjected to repression like those of Giyas and Bayram, or detained at rallies, took place outside the context of “political orientations”. 

Araz Bagirov:

 “The authorities do not take the left seriously enough to either press or bribe us. In fact, it’s not even established that they’re aware of our existence”.

It’s a small wonder that the left-wing community does not represent a real political force, and has not got any support from people. Although in February 2020 they tried to do this - Togrul Veliyev ran for snap elections, formally as an independent candidate. In reality, he was nominated on behalf of a group of leftists, to represent their interests, in case of success. During the election campaign, his team chose to focus on the social agenda – rather than the ideological component. They put the emphasis on things like free higher education, raising pensions, lowering the retirement age - believing this was the only way to capture the interest of the electorate. This does not necessarily suggest that they made promises without intending to keep them. The fact that people are too used to hearing false promises from the nationalists, (and not from the left) is another topic for discussion.

There are plenty of social issues in Azerbaijan that are demanded to be addressed. This is what the parties with nationalistic bias actually do, they occupy this niche and create the image of defenders of popular interests for themselves. There are also several left-wing groups and platforms that touch on these topics as well, (for example, the topic of labor rights), but it’s much more difficult to hear the voices of the left.

Theoretically, if the left got a seat in parliament, it could promote the social agenda. But the elections, as usual, ended with the new parliament being formed mainly from representatives of the ruling party and pro-government candidates.

 Togrul Veliyev:

“We managed to officially engage in propaganda for at least some amount of time. So, the residents of my polling station, which is one of the Baku districts, are aware of our existence now.

However, it’s the false claim to say that the authorities do not see the left at all. After the “No War” occurrence, it would be practically impossible. According to Giyas Ibragimov, at the beginning of 2020, long before the war had started, a survey was conducted among the university students in order to find out which political groups they belong to, the questionnaire also included a question regarding leftism.

At the same time, the left has long-standing and insoluble contradictions with the rest of the opposition. If you think about it, these contradictions are not only ideological but also historical in nature: for the most part, the opposition considers itself the successors of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, created in 1918 and ceased to exist two years later with “the light hand” of the Bolsheviks. So, it could be said that mutual hostility is something they’ve inherited from the past. After the war of 2020, the conflict between the leftists and the opposition has worsened even more.

Things appear a little bit better with the feminists. They have at least one point of contact, which is the rights of women and LGBT +. Despite the fact that there is a lot of work in this regard, in patriarchal Azerbaijan, feminism around here is still rather liberal in its nature. There isn’t complete mutual understanding between these two communities.  But, although they argue and reproach each other for the wrong approach, they still cooperate. There is no left feminism in Azerbaijan (at least in the form of an independent movement), the left-wing community mainly consists of men. Women make up only a third of the left. And even those, aren’t among the active feminists.

Is it better together?

Some of my respondents are sure that in order for their activities to make sense, it is necessary to unite with the leftists of the South Caucasus, Russia, and/or Turkey, one form or another, creating a kind of international union. Since socialism is inherently international and supranational and doing this on the scale of a single country is futile. Especially if it is a small, authoritarian peripheral country dependent on strong capitalist neighbors - Russia and Turkey. Political changes in these neighboring states will inevitably affect the situation in Azerbaijan, which means that it makes sense for the Azerbaijani left, for example, to support Russian / Turkish comrades. And also - to establish communication and coordinate actions with leftists from Georgia and Armenia, with whom they have many similar problems.

Araz Narimanova:

“The South Caucasian leftists need to have very good connections, common strategies, and tactics. The change will not start in Baku or somewhere in the Caucasus. It will start from the center - in Moscow, Istanbul or maybe Berlin. An actually it is already happening. The South Caucasian left must be prepared for the wave of change hitting these lands. I hope that the change is going to arrive pretty soon.”

Some rapprochement between the Azerbaijani and Armenian leftists was another "bonus" of anti-war protests in the fall of 2020. Following the statement of the Azerbaijani leftists, the Leftists from Armenia also spoke with a similar tone of voice, saying that: “we all suffered defeat before capital and the undeniable power of the bourgeois ideologies” (8).

At the moment, peacekeeping seems to be the most powerful argument in favor of consolidating the left in the region. As for the rest, despite the common past and similar present, each country has its own challenges, its own experience, and its own socio-political situation.

Karl Lebt:

“Therefore, I would not use the word 'consolidation' if it implies merging. No one will create favorable conditions for progressive changes in a particular country, from the outside. The importance of international cooperation and left-wing coordination is undeniable. Both on global issues and on purely regional ones. But I wouldn't rely on this as a “formula for success” to create a broad movement. "

Well, ideally, I would like not to be limited to my region at all, but also to interact with the Western European leftists, to receive some kind of support from them and to be involved in global activities in order to feel more like a part of the world movement and, possibly, to enter a qualitatively new level.

Conclusions: Hazy Bright Prospects

Despite the unfavorable conditions, over the past 15 years the left-wing community in Azerbaijan not only emerged but survived and at the very least expanded, continuing to acquire new adherents and almost without losing old ones. Another thing is that it is passive, disoriented, and continues to remain in its infancy, at the level of theory and "initiative", not forming into a full-fledged movement and deprived of public support. It should be taken into account that now there are no real political forces in Azerbaijan at all, except for the ruling party, and there is no alternative political course that would be of interest to the masses. Especially taking into consideration the fact that - the government earned even more points in the eyes of society, after the war, and the opposition, on the contrary, lost it. Apparently, nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future, the country presumably will remain in a state of political stagnation (in the euphonious formulation - stability). This would hand the left the time to finally create a movement and, perhaps, even develop a program, and when the chance comes along, offer it to the people. Most of them do not doubt that such a chance will appear sooner or later.

Samira Alekperli:

"When conservative and nationalist ideas prove their inadequacy, the Left, having accumulated resources during this time and gaining authority will be able to increase its influence."

Karl Lebt:

“The primary goal of every leftist in the country should be the creation of a broad movement. This requires meticulous activism, research, and creativity. At the same time, the Left must develop alternative programs for getting out of the "no analogue" swamp. "

According to Giyas Ibragimov, even a large-scale movement can be dispensed with if there are “at least a few true intellectuals who also come across as brave radicals” among the left.

The Later is the most optimistic of the possible scenarios.

The second option: the strengthening of the left movement in the entire region, particularly in Russia and in Turkey, will play into the hands of the Azerbaijani leftists. That would be the scenario of the early 20th century repeating itself, although most likely without revolution this time).

There is also the third option, where if it ever comes to existence in Azerbaijan, then the left movement will manifest itself in the form of trade unions, not the intellectuals.

Togrul Veliyev:

"Exploitation is increasing in the country and perhaps trade union movements will emerge to counter this at some point”

One way or another, each of these options presupposes the advancement of ideology, self-organization and, pulling society over to its side, roughly speaking. Accordingly, we need an educated, qualified, and energetic personnel who will methodically engage in this promotion, realizing that it can take many years to achieve at least some results. And the staff must have resources, enough free time most importantly.

The lack of these resources is precisely one of the reasons why there is still no left movement in Azerbaijan, and all organizations have eventually collapsed. In addition, not seeing any prospects for themselves in the country, many left-wing activists (as well as young people in general) are leaving in all directions, to study or work. Although, it is almost impossible to engage in political activism - organize actions, rallies, communicate with employees of enterprises, etc. at the current stage, anyway, as it will be immediately stopped. Online propaganda and education on the other hand, can be done from anywhere - quite effectively and without being exposed to danger. Although some leftists believe that emigration is still incompatible with the struggle to change the situation in their country. Worth mentioning that there are no leftists among the numerous Azerbaijani political emigrants.

And yet another (perhaps controversial) advantage of the left in Azerbaijan is that its "well-forgotten old" rhetoric is new enough to have a chance of success in the future. Whereas the rhetoric and tactics of the traditional opposition have already managed to tire and disappoint. Against their background, the left looks very advantageous - especially in the eyes of ideologically hungry youth who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Moreover, whatever one may say, it has in fact, some romantic value to it.


Sources and links:

1. Magazine "11-ci Tezis", 1st issue, 2014;

2. http://www.friends-partners.org/literature/20century/bagritsky/bagr6-1a40.html(opt,mozilla,mac,russian,koi8,new)

3. https://www.meydan.tv/ru/article/10-let-za-graffiti-delo-uznikov-pamyatnika-v-azerbajdzhane/

4. https://www.facebook.com/RbiTsec-1536737683297974/photos/?ref=page_internal

5. https://www.facebook.com/Solfront-1684749438455586  

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azerbaijan_State_Oil_Academy_shooting

7. https://lefteast.org/anti-war-statement-of-azerbaijani-leftist-youth/

8. https://www.colta.ru/articles/society/25717-karabah-armyanskie-zhurnalisty-aktivisty-antivoennoe-zayavlenie  

 The views expressed in the article belong to the author and might not reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region.