Azerbaijan International

Spring 2001 (9.1)
Page 19

The Spirit of Innovation

by Betty Blair

On December 17th of this year, Azerbaijan along with 14 other former Soviet Republics, will be marking the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and their long-awaited independence. It's been a rocky ten years - a decade full of reversals, uncertainty, frustration and suffering, as well as a period of opportunity, new beginnings, reassessment, and innovation.

Westerners, especially those who weren't around to witness the events of the early 1990s, often complain that not much progress has been made in these past ten years. But a closer examination of the situation in its historical-socio-political-economic context would indicate that tremendous strides really have been made.

Such impatience reminds me of when I lived in Greece in the mid-1970s. At that time, a military coup had taken power. Most people wanted to see the dictator George Papadopolous toppled. And I, in my naivete, thought that if this man were only ousted from power, everything would sort itself out, perhaps within a few days or so. But things didn't work out that way.

Nor has it worked out that way for the former Soviet Republics. Instead, change is measured out in inches, not miles. Sometimes, progress may seem almost imperceptible. Just because old political and economic systems have been declared null doesn't mean everything will change overnight. Until the old patterns and beliefs are substituted with new ones, people will continue to follow their old familiar habits, even if such pattern were shaped by what is now labeled as a defunct system.

Actually, human beings have an immense capacity for change; they have always been dynamic in their approach to life, constantly reassessing their needs and re-evaluating the most efficient ways to reach their personal goals. Even the rock carvings at Gobustan caves - an early human settlement west of Baku that dates back at least 5,000 years - bear witness to the innovative nature of man in trying to subdue nature for his own benefit (see Front Cover).

In these pages we've tried to explore a few of the innovations that we see shaping Azerbaijani society. Our coverage, admittedly, is not as comprehensive as we might wish. Conspicuously missing is any discussion about the building industry or the international banking infrastructure - a vivid barometer of today's pursuit of personal wealth.

Here are some of the characteristics of innovation that we've been noticing lately:

1. Led by Youth
As might be expected, young people in their 20s and 30s are at the forefront when it comes to innovation. Take Khayal Taghiyev, for example. He moderates a weekly television program aired on ANS TV, along with a counterpart in Armenia, discussing topics related to the volatile conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (See "Signals of Change," 20). In the West, a program on such a politically sensitive issue would probably be moderated by someone in his or her mid-50s or 60s. Khayal is 34.

2. Emerging Nationalism
These days Azerbaijanis are discovering their roots and redefining what it means to be Azerbaijani. This is a new concept. During the Soviet period, citizens were taught to think about their "Soviet-ness" and the grand union that comprised 15 countries and scores of ethnic groups living in the vast territory spanning twelve time zones. Azerbaijani young people have never given much thought to their own nationality. The articles about Industrial Mugham (46) and the Dayirman rap group (48) illustrate the trend to embrace new forms while proudly exploring the meaning of their own national identity.

3. Commercially Driven
During Soviet times, the Communist Party bureaucracy was the organizing force in society. Today, commercial interests are the driving force. People are discovering that if they can find ways to pay for something, they can transform ideas into reality. Insurance is one such example (64). In the past, they had not paid much attention to the costs as they assumed they would be taken care of.

4. Activism
Azerbaijanis are learning that they must take personal initiative if they expect to shape their future. They can no longer afford to be passive. Although they have long complained about the injustice of the U.S. Congress in passing Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which singles Azerbaijan out of all 15 former Republics of the Soviet Union and denies direct aid to the Azerbaijani government, perhaps, it should be noted (do we dare say it?) that one of the greatest benefits of such unfair, restrictive legislation against Azerbaijanis is that finally they are waking up and realizing that there is no such thing as a beneficiary godfather when it comes securing their own destiny. In the early 1990s, there was a tendency to hope that America would be the new savior, to replace the Soviet Union. Now they know differently: they're on their own.

With this awareness, a new spirit of activism is being born and shaping the nation. The most vivid example these days is the attitude of citizens toward the Karabakh situation. In early April, while the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents were in Key West, Florida, at the invitation of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, trying to mete out differences related to the resolution of the Karabakh conflict, people back home were adamantly insisting that they would not accept peace if it meant giving up the territory that they consider theirs - Nagorno-Karabakh. And they were ready to go to war, if necessary, to reclaim it. Such personal activism is quite new in Azerbaijan.

5. Climate of Optimism
Despite all the difficulties Azerbaijanis face as they try to overcome obstacles, many of which were artificially created during the 70-year rule under the Soviets, over and over in our interviews, people told us, "We're optimistic about the future."

And it's this climate of cautious and restrained optimism, rooted in the pragmatism of the past decade, that will serve to grease the wheels of innovation, which in turn, will generate even more hope and more possibilities for the future.

 Betty Blair, Editor


Azerbaijan International (9.1) Spring 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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