Elchin Karimov: "Politics is None of Our Business": What Impact has the communist legacy had on political participation in Azerbaijan?

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21 June 2016
Elchin Karimov, CRRC Azerbaijan 2016 Fellow
Introduction
Much research has been conducted on the reasons behind passive political participation in
post-communist countries (Pop-Eleches et al 2011; Gaidyte & Muis 2015; Hooghe & Quintelier, 2013;
Letki, 2003). It has been found that the legacy of authoritarianism, corruption, bad governance and
low income levels have a strong negative impact on political participation. A high level of public
distrust toward the political sphere is also a common characteristic of the post - communist space.
In Azerbaijan, empirical studies have found that interest in the political sphere and level of
participation among ordinary people is lower: World Values Survey
data for 2011-2012 shows that
32.4 % of respondents are "not interested at all" in politics (a further 43.9% describe themselves as
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"not very interested"), and 32% of the respondents answered that they “never” vote in the national
elections. CRRC data for the same year shows a similar trend: 38% of respondents answered that
they did not vote in the last national elections. This number declined to 27% in 2013, in a
presidential election year.
Interestingly. Azerbaijanis care more about presidential elections (the turnout level was 71.6% in
the last presidential election) than other national elections, the turnout level of which is generally
less than 50%. Trust in the president is also higher than other political institutions. CRRC data for
2013 suggests that 56% of Azerbaijanis fully trusted the President in 2013, while only 17% fully
trusted in parliament, 20% in executive government and only 16% in local government. This
phenomenon is likely to be culturally rooted in Azerbaijani society, but not connected to the
political participatory capacity of the people. This article attempts to explain the reasons behind
political passivity in Azerbaijani society, and how much can be attributed to the legacy of
communism.
The Historic Legacy of Communism
Unlike Central and some Eastern European countries (which experienced communism in only
post-World War II and had already enjoyed a certain level of education, industrialisation and
democracy prior to communism), Azerbaijan experienced the harsh totalitarian repression of the
Stalin years in the interwar period, and did not have democratic governance experience other than
a brief two years of independence (1918-1920). This 70-year experience of communism strongly
discouragedpeople from participating in politics and left no room for the development of a political
culture.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Azerbaijan could free herself neither from the communist elite
nor from its systematic barriers. The coming to power of the former communist elite in 1993
fostered the persistence of certain symptoms of communism in post-Soviet Azerbaijan.
What Legacy?
One should keep in mind that political activities during communist times were formulaic – people,
willingly or not, were forced to participate (Pop-Eleches et al, 2010). Indeed, people could hardly
criticise the authoritarian regime during communist times and thus their limited interactions with
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political parties and political institutions created a general distrust toward political sphere. Such a
set of norms and behaviors between society and state continued in post – communist Azerbaijan.
According to Pop-Eleches et al. (2010), this distrust has a left deep "attitudinal legacy that severely
undermines the sort of interpersonal and institutional trust necessary for civic participation".
Institutional legacy
As an ex-communist country, Azerbaijani’s experience illustrates several political, economic and
institutional legacies of communism. Thefirst is the domination of one political party. Although the
Popular Front movement immediately following independence resulted in the emergence of some
nationalist, pro-democracy parties in Azerbaijan, they lost power in the early 1990s. The war over
Nagorno-Karabakh war disenchanted the Azerbaijani nation with the pro-democratic nationalist
movement and resulted in the emergence of semi-authoritarian rule in order to stabilise the
country. Thus, communist successors came to power and their political party has been dominant in
the political scene ever since.
The second institutional legacy ofcommunism is the attitude of the incumbent regime toward civic
organisations in Azerbaijan. Civil society, as one of the main pillars of the democratic system,
promotessocial-political participation in any society. As a common rule for all communist countries
in the past, the post-communist government in Azerbaijan prefers to establish civic organizations
(NGOs, cultural groups, labor organizations, etc.) with statesupport, thereby controlling them. This
complicates their engagement in the democratic process. Meanwhile, communist legacy behavior
includes violent campaigns against certain groups of independent civil society to prevent potential
political challenges (Pop-Eleches 2010) - as seen in Azerbaijan since 2013.
The third component of theinstitutional legacy of communism is state control over the economy in
Azerbaijan (Pop-Eleches 2010). Although 25 yearshave passed since communism disappeared, large
state-owned enterprises have not yet been privatised in Azerbaijan.This is a communist pathology
and is common across the Soviet space. Sustaining the central planning logic in the economy has
resulted in the systematic suppression of private enterprises andthe hesitance of foreign investors
to enter the country. These economic factors have a strong impact on the political participatory
capacity of post-communist citizens.
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