But is it really that simple? It is not. The governance system of every country is a result of historical processes, influenced by two important factors:
- Reaching the peak capitalism.
- Ancient traditions of statehood.
The first category includes developed countries. They were not much different from the present-day Asian countries (such as Persia, which at that time included Azerbaijan) throughout history, while they were governed by a strong centralized power and the head of the state was always a monarch. Both Europe and Asia lived in the same economic formation—feudalism.
But the bourgeois revolution that swept Europe in the 16th century completely changed not only the church, but also the system of government. The power of kings gradually weakened, and common people had more and more opportunities to influence the authority. With the emergence of industry, socio-economic ties took on a new form—capitalism. Thus, the emergence and development of capitalism changed the system of government, and these changes brought about the birth of democracy.
Modern European democracy is a tradition created by advanced capitalism. Some countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, where capitalism developed poorly or hardly developed at all, are still experiencing issues with democracy. For example, in Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, Albania and Poland, capitalist relations were much weaker than in Western and Northern Europe, which hindered the establishment of a full-fledged institution of democracy there. And the relative democracy existing in these countries today has been formed only under the pressure and influence of the European Union.
Azerbaijan, however, never followed the path traveled by Western Europe. Although our country, being part of the Sassanian Empire, made the transition to feudalism earlier than Europe, feudalism lingered here right up to the late 19th century. In 1828, Azerbaijan was annexed to Tsarist Russia, and several decades later, with the emergence of the oil industry in Baku, capitalist relations were gradually formed. For this reason, it was here that the Baku Council was created—the only electoral democratic governing body in the history of the country. In other regions of Azerbaijan, feudal relations persisted until 1917.
In 1920, on the eve of the establishment of Soviet government in Azerbaijan, there was a deep chasm between Baku and the regions in terms of both literacy and political activity. This chasm began to shrink during the Soviet period.
First of all, illiteracy was eliminated in the country by the early 1940s, and, as a result of the development of industry in other parts of the country and other economic measures, the difference between Baku and the regions practically faded.
But the feudal-patriarchal traditions were still there. Even during the Soviet period, the state apparatus could not get rid of vestiges of feudalism, which were manifested in the unauthorized handling of state property, corruption and nepotism. Moreover, this was common not only in the Azerbaijan SSR, but also across the Soviet Union (with the exception of the Baltic States and Leningrad, the regions where capitalist relations had developed). As mentioned above, such European countries as Romania or Bulgaria have a high level of corruption because, like Azerbaijan, they never completed the transition from feudalism to capitalism. For example, the Communist leader of Romania Nicolae Ceaușescu gave his wife Elena public posts, which she clearly did not deserve, and in the 2000s, when the political system in the country had long since changed, President Traian Băsescu got his daughter a seat on the European Parliament. The manifestations of these feudal relations became explicit after the collapse of the Socialist Bloc.
After withdrawing from the USSR, the Baltic countries easily switched to a democratic system of government, something the other twelve Soviet republics failed to do. Many residents of Azerbaijan consider the current model of government in the country to be the Soviet legacy, while in fact, this is a historical pattern that applies to all countries that have not eliminated feudalism.
The second category includes states that never went through the stage of capitalism but developed democracy as a traditional form of government. Before proceeding to concrete examples, I will explain what a tradition of governance is. States belonging to the first category initially had a centralized power, and it took them some time for the people to become involved in the governance. This was facilitated by revolutions, weakening influence of the church, the elimination of feudal traditions by capitalism, etc.
Meanwhile, states that historically never had a centralized government never even needed to go through all these stages. Take, for example, the ancient Turkic peoples. In the Göktürk, Uygur, Kyrgyz, and Khazar Khaganates formed by the Turks (this form of statehood was also common for the Mongols), the head of state was elected at a kurultai (general meeting, congress) of leaders of various tribes. Unlike centralized states (such as Iran), power here was not transferred from father to son, and even the talent of a military leader and numerous military victories were not enough to be elected khagan. For example, Kublai Khan, who conquered China, could not take the place of Möngke Khan because he had damaged relations with other Mongol tribes. Each tribe convening its own separate kurultai resulted in a dual power in the country. The election of the Khagan required a general vote of all tribal leaders, and the seizure of power by force led to the division of the state. This is a special example of steppe democracy.
This tradition of statehood existed among the Turks until the moment they “got involved” with Iran. The Karakhanid state was the first to abandon the steppe democracy and began the transition to centralization and a hierarchical system of subordination from the bottom up. Subsequently, this trend was continued by the Ghaznavids, Seljuks, Ottomans, Hulakus, Shirvanshahs, Safavids, Qajars, Sheibanids, Teymurids and other Turkic states. Thus, after the 10th century, the traditional system of government common for the Turkic peoples was preserved only among the Kyrgyzs, Uighurs and Mongols. The Oghuz Turks, who formed present-day Azerbaijan, were also part of an Oghuz confederation. But then, under the name of the Seljuk Turks, they began to move south, took possession of Iran and completely forgot their traditional system. Thus, although the territory belonging to Iran passed into the hands of the Turkic people, they lost their steppe culture within this territory and became Iranians.
We see the consequences of this historical transformation to this day. The fact that the system of government in the countries with ties to Iran—Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan—is characterized by strict administration, centralization and hierarchy is an echo of that very system. Super-presidents, gripping firmly the reigns of control over all areas, and the nepotism inherent in these countries is nothing more than modern manifestation of the tradition of inheriting power that existed in medieval Iran, passing it from father to son. And the dictatorship existing in such countries is also a historical pattern. In other words, a nation perceives soft governance as a weakness of the authorities, which leads to chaos. Mirza Fatali Akhundov very vividly described this in his short novel The Deceived Stars.
As for the Kyrgyzs and Mongols, their traditional governance model never changed, which is why Kyrgyzstan (once part of the USSR) and Mongolia (once part of the Socialist Bloc) made the transition to democracy so easy. Although Kyrgyzstan was under the dictatorship of Askar Akayev for some time, the people were able to overthrow him, and after the second revolution, which overthrew President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the country finally became a parliamentary republic. At the moment, Kyrgyzstan is confidently moving towards creating a democratic society. Mongolia, on the other hand, did not need a transition period compared to Kyrgyzstan, and the transition to democratic governance here began in 1991. Now, Mongolia is considered one of the most democratic countries in the world.
In the history of Azerbaijan, there were also states that did not adhere to the Iranian model of centralized governance. For example, Kara Koyunlu and Ak Koyunlu. Both of these states were created as a result of the confederal unification of nomadic Turkic tribes. The difference between Kara/Ak Koyunlu and the first Turkic states was that the formers’ heads of state were not elected by tribal leaders. That is, Kara Koyunlu and Ak Koyunlu followed the Iranian example in terms of hierarchy and preserved the Turkic tradition of governance in terms of the tribal confederation.
The attitude towards these states in Azerbaijan is rather indifferent. According to the orientalist Vladimir Minorsky, although the palace and literary language was Turkic (Azerbaijani) both in Kara Koyunlu and Ak Koyunlu, modern historians do not attach much importance to this fact. They “prefer” the Safavids as the main basis both in terms of the formation of the Azerbaijani people and the basis of public administration and the official language.
Another example of confederate governmance in Azerbaijan was the Djaro-Belokani communities. This group, consisting of the Djari, Belokan, Tali, Mukhakh and Dzhinikh communities, resembled a federal democratic republic. And it was from this group that Tsarist Russia suffered its only defeat in Azerbaijan (Djaris battle of 1840). But while Javad Khan, who put up serious resistance to the Russian Empire, is idealized as a hero, there is little to no mention of Aliskandi, who defeated Russia. This can be explained by both regional and other reasons. In my opinion, this is the result of the fact that these states are perceived as “non-native” in Azerbaijan, as some kind of alien elements outside the tradition of a strong centralized state. According to popular belief, a strong state is a state formed by a leader who has unlimited powers and does not allow the regions even minimal self-governance. For a society with this mindset, even a minimum transfer of power to the people is a threat to the foundations of the state. If the authorities allow the people to run the state even a little, the masses with this way of thinking perceive it as a threat to the foundations of the state.
Thus, the legitimacy of dictatorship in Azerbaijan should be explained by the direct transition to socialism without completing capitalist socio-economic relations and by the centrist despotic tradition inherent in Iranian rule. And since it is impossible to change the historical tradition, now only external influence is capable of remaking this established model of governance. And this is a matter of time.