Winter 1996 (4.4)
Youth in Search of the Future
Identity Changes in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan
Guest Editorial by Elin Suleymanov
In the Far East, wishing someone to live in times of change is actually a curse. Over the past decade, people in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union have seen more change than in the preceding 50 years or so.
Whether cursed or not, these are very interesting and demanding times as the younger generation is facing both old and new challenges of dramatic societal transformation. Arguably, in addition to general difficulties shared by any changing society, the main long-term challenges for young Azerbaijanis are the questions of identity and those dealing with the consequences of war.
Identity is not only a generational matter. Entire societies must redefine themselves. Yet, in some parts of the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia, it is the younger generation which has to live with and choose between different, new and often conflicting identities. The problem is frequently rooted in history, especially in regions where influences of the past and modern reality are so interrelated. For about 70 years, our identity was clear-it was Soviet. It was simple. It was easy and it was wrong. The government of the Soviet Union attempted to create and enforce a common sense of identity for people from very different cultures, basically against the will of those involved. Now, five years after the breakup of the USSR, the question is no longer, "What does it mean to be Soviet?" but rather "What does it mean to be Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Russian or anyone else for that matter?"
In fact, this new generation's perception of who they are and who they should be will shape the future of these countries. They are the ones who are going to bring a very special meaning to the notion of citizenship because they are the ones who are building these new countries.
While under Soviet rule, new borders were marked, new states created and some of the previously existing structures replaced. Today, Islam is coming back. Socialism no longer exists, and the social system is confused. Many argue that life is simply returning to normal. So Central Asia and part of the Caucasus which were artificially separated from the Middle East are returning to where they belong, and the Baltic and Western republics are returning to Northern and Eastern Europe. If trade is any indication, Middle Eastern and Asian countries are increasingly dominating the markets of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Simple definitions do not work in regions like this, however.
The Azerbaijani people are mostly Muslim. At the same time, we have a Western lifestyle. We dress and behave like Europeans. While interest in Islam has been growing in the newly independent Azerbaijan, almost every young Azerbaijani still wants to study in the West. And the most popular subject in schools is English. In addition, the example set by neighboring Iran is not particularly appealing to most.
Searching for one's identity is not an easy task. For instance, many Azerbaijani-language newspapers have headlines in Latin letters and text in Cyrillic. This is because there is not enough capacity to print entire newspapers in the official Latin alphabet, so they have to revert to Cyrillic. In fact, over the last 80 years or so, the Azerbaijani language has changed scripts back and forth three times. Obviously, those advocating the use of different alphabets also have different views on how Azerbaijan should develop. For the younger generation, this means that the writing they learned in school is no longer the preferred script.
The content of education is another big problem facing students in most of the former Soviet Republics. In 1990, students at Baku State University still had to pass a test in the history of the USSR. All the books were very outdated, most of the heroes had turned traitors and vice versa, but the test was still there and had to be passed. The solution was easy: lecture time was spent chatting, and the grades were based on attendance.
Later in 1992, the contrast was even more pronounced with one professor teaching the virtues of a free market economy and another one demanding that students memorize Lenin's works of collectivization. One of the post- Gorbachev jokes circulating among Azerbaijanis was, "If the history of the USSR was a lie, it's a good thing I never bothered to study." Within a very short time the material which students are learning at school has begun to change. The teachers may not have changed, but what they teach is beginning to. The inter-generational gap in education and viewpoint is something which has not been fully understood yet.
The most surprising and, perhaps, worrisome development is not that people who have 20 years difference in age don't communicate well, but that people who have three to five years difference do not, either. This is a result of something which could be called "a collapse of time," as the processes which normally take decades to evolve now happen in months. What is unique for this region is that the pace of change has not slackened.
Baku is a beautiful southern and historical sea-side town. People there used to go out at night and spend their time drinking tea and visiting neighbors. In 1988, the first refugees appeared in the city, and no one really knew how to deal with the problem. So people ignored it for a while and tried to live as if nothing had happened. Then, by November of that year, the first non-stop demonstrations began in which students were protesting government policies. That was followed by the Soviet soldiers, tanks and curfew. We lived under a curfew for about five years. This is in a town which has never seen the direct effects of war before, not even during World War II. It was a shock then, and remains one now.
Baku residents have lived under the psychological pressure of the war with Armenians since 1988. Many younger people have grown up with it. It climaxed in 1990 when the Soviet Army massacred 150 civilians in the streets of Baku. Actually, that black mark in Azerbaijan's history made independence the only possible option for our republic. Amazingly, although most of the people were hesitant to demand independence in 1988, this was not even an issue two years later. This was a dramatic change. I left one of the Soviet Republics in 1989 to study in the capital, Moscow, and in 1992 I was traveling from one independent state to another.
Many younger Azerbaijanis have never been Soviet citizens. They were born into a newly independent country, while the older generations have had to change both their citizenship and their ways of thinking. In the past, it was fashionable to send your kids to universities in Moscow; now those who can, send them to the West. I've studied, myself, in both places. We are what I would call a "super-transitional" sub-group of the transitional generation, born roughly between 1966 and 1971 and "stuck" between the old and the new. Arguably, our group is the most active in this search for a new identity.
Azerbaijani society is developing under external and internal pressures. Our several years of independence have been years of political turmoil, war and economic decline. Young Azerbaijanis often have had to make very difficult choices- choices which previous generations did not have or could not have made.
And the answers for Azerbaijan are not as easy as they might seem to be. Having an independent state means being responsible for it. However, despite how much the youth in Azerbaijan carry the burden for this transition, they are still not adequately represented among decision-makers. These are not unique challenges, but it does not make them any easier to deal with.
These are only some of the problems facing young Azerbaijanis, of course. A shifting of values, economic problems, high unemployment and corruption are among the other familiar difficulties.
It is, however, very amazing and encouraging how similar young people are all around the world. We truly share much in common. The best way to discover this is by talking and meeting more often. The U.S. Congress, however, has excluded the Azerbaijani government from receiving any foreign assistance, with the exception of humanitarian aid which they began to allow in the fall of 1996. 1
Denying aid was not a well-thought-out decision and has made it difficult for people, especially the youth, to communicate directly with others in the international community. If there is one thing that should not be done, it is this. Communication is the lifeline for our youth.
It is fascinating to be participating in the development of our new country, and to be its future and hope. At the same time it is a painful experience. I once was asked whether Azerbaijan was in the Middle East or Europe. Frankly, even I, trained as a geographer, did not know the answer. It seems to depend on one's perspective. It also depends on the choices that the young generation makes, and on whether Europe and the West are ready to accept such a complex, but potentially enriching member to its family.
Elin Suleymanov is Regional Marketing Manager at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague. He has received an M.A. in Political Geography from Moscow State University and was awarded a U.S. Muskie Fellowship to the University of Toledo, Ohio, where he completed a Master's Degree in Public Administration.
1 The U.S. Congress passed the Freedom Support Act in the fall of 1992 to facilitate economic and humanitarian aid to the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union. However, Section 907 singles out Azerbaijan and prohibits U.S. aid from being sent directly to the Azerbaijani government. The Armenian lobby convinced Congress to cut Azerbaijan's aid because Azerbaijan had blockaded one of their supply routes. However, given the fact that a war was going on between the two countries, it is not surprising that Azerbaijan felt justified in not providing a supply route to those had guns turned against them.
From Azerbaijan International (4.4) Winter 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.