More than last month's utterly predictable presidential ballot, more even than the November 2 meeting in Moscow between the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, a recent interview by the acclaimed Moscow-based Azerbaijani writer and film director Rustam Ibragimbekov has galvanized and polarized Azerbaijan's political elite and intelligentsia.
The brief interview was published by pravda.ru in late October. Asked whether the situation in Baku today is "better" than before the demise of the USSR, Ibragimbekov deplored what he termed a "demographic catastrophe" that has completely transformed the city's population. He pointed out that of a population of 1.5 million, approximately half -- mostly Azeris -- have left, and they have been replaced by 2 million newcomers who "are not ready for urban life."
As a result, Ibragimbekov continued, Baku, which used to have its own lifestyle and outlook on life, has become a totally different city, although "a few outposts" of the old mentality still survive. And even more crucially, what he referred to as the "national elite" has been largely destroyed, and its few surviving representatives sidelined. The very mechanism for sustaining such an elite has been destroyed, Ibragimbekov continued. And in a country without a true national elite, those who rise to positions of power and authority do so not on the basis of their abilities, but thanks to family or regional ties, or financial clout.
Azerbaijan's parliament scheduled an emergency debate on Ibragimbekov's interview on October 30. In its virulence and vindictiveness, the debate was chillingly reminiscent of Soviet-era intolerance of dissent. One deputy after another accused Ibragimbekov of lacking patriotism or seeking to split the nation. For example, Yagub Mahmudov, the director of the Institute of History of Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences, denounced the interview as an insult to the entire Azerbaijani nation, and in particular to the intelligentsia. He declared that if pravda.ru had distorted what Ibragimbekov actually said, he should disavow the interview, and that if he was quoted accurately, he should apologize.
Not a single deputy spoke out during the debate in Ibragimbekov's defense, although indefatigable oppositionist Panah Guseinov commented that if Ibragimbekov had the current parliament in mind when he spoke of persons who rose to authority despite their lack of abilities, his observation was correct. But some deputies from the ranks of the intelligentsia reportedly admitted privately that they considered the vilification of Ibragimbekov excessive.
By contrast, opposition politician Lala-Shovket Gadjiyeva lauded Ibragimbekov in a November 1 interview with day.az as "a true patriot," and argued that the parliament deputies' collective reaction only serves to underscore that "the tradition of exerting pressure on successful, honest, worthy people still survives.... We have never valued our intelligentsia," but always sought to destroy its finest representatives, Gadjiyeva said.
Echoes of the Soviet Era
Journalist Ramiz Abutalybov on November 3 compared the verbal attacks on Ibragimbekov to the 1930s denunciations of Mamed Emin Rasulzade, leader of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic from 1918-20, as an "enemy of the people," and to the later vilification of acclaimed Soviet Russian writers Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn by people who had never read a word they wrote.
The creative intelligentsia, meanwhile, rallied to Ibragimbekov's defense: a total of 286 people signed a statement affirming Ibragimbekov's right to express his views and criticizing the parliament reaction as "an alarming symptom of our lawmakers' low [level of] political culture," day.az reported on November 7.
Echoing George Bernard Shaw, Ibragimbekov told day.az on October 31 that while he does not share his critics' assessments, he respects their right to express them. He also confirmed that his original statements were not distorted, although he said they were shortened in a way that slightly changed the original emphasis. And he said he sees no reason to apologize.
But in a November 3 interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Ibragimbekov was more categorical, affirming that parliament deputies demonstrated "political illiteracy" by convening a debate on his interview without taking into account the political implications of doing so. "The parliament session was a direct refutation of [the existence of] freedom of speech in Azerbaijan."
At the same time, Ibragimbekov stressed to RFE/RL that he did not mean to imply in his pravda.ru interview that the present Azerbaijani leadership is composed entirely of mediocrities.
While much of what Ibragimbekov said in that interview is valid, two aspects of his jeremiad nonetheless require qualification. He fails to mention that the eclipse of Baku's reputation as a cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and tolerant city began before the collapse of the USSR, with vicious reprisals against Armenians in 1988 in retaliation for the campaign initiated by the oblast soviet of the then-Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast for the enclave's unification with the then-Armenian SSR. Many Armenian families fled Azerbaijan at that time in fear of their lives.
And Ibragimbekov's warning that in a country devoid of a national elite, connections and money, rather than ability, become the key to a successful career does not encompass the counterargument that during the Soviet era, membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and public adherence to the party line were the sine qua non for advancement.