Poly-ethnicity as a new problem for national unity in Turkey and Azerbaijan


Turkey”s poly-ethnicity problem (or, as the former USSR said, multi-nationality problem), along with such problems as the abandonment of Ataturk”s light in favor of sharia, Kurdish separatism, international Islamic terrorism, and the superpower struggle for regional supremacy, can threaten public safety and, perhaps, national unity.

This problem, smoldering for several decades, has again attracted public attention through President Erdogan”s recent statements that he is not an (ethnic) Turk, but rather a Laz (Georgian), and his wife is an ethnic Arab, as well as his questions about why people like him must repeat the daily school oath uttered by Ataturk (Andımız) – “I am a Turk, I am honest and I am hardworking” (Türküm, doğruyum, çalışkanım) and further “What happiness to be a Turk” (Ne mutlu Türküm diyene). Erdogan is obviously not alone in protesting this kind of oath. Recent studies show that ethnic Turks comprise only about 60% of Turkey”s population, while the remaining 40% are Kurds, North Caucasians, Albanians, Greeks, and Arabs, etc. However, the Turkish constitution does not recognize ethnic minorities in the country, calling every citizen a Turk (according to Article 66 of the present Constitution of 1982, “Everyone who is bound by ties of Turkish citizenship with the Turkish state”). Possibly, Atatürk and his supporters, while drafting the Constitution, did not set assimilation as a goal, wishing only to replace the population”s Islamic identity with a national one, and to unite the country. But today, ethnic minority representatives believe this constitutional provision aims at their assimilation, infringes upon their human dignity and makes them second-class citizens.

In 2013, Ataturk”s school oath was abolished as part of a package of measures proposed by Erdogan to democratize the country. However, the country’s Supreme Court overturned this decision and now the struggle for ethnic identity continues.

This issue, raised by ethnic minorities and the country’s liberal community, is more complicated than it seems. Opponents of ethnicity – Kemalists and Turkic nationalists – express concern that recognizing the population”s polyethnic nature and further granting all kinds of cultural rights may lead to a weakening of national unity and destabilization of the country, because Turkey is surrounded by countries where the superpowers struggle for control over the region. Everyone who raised this issue was accused by opponents of treason and betrayal of Atatürk”s heritage.

However, this movement towards gaining human dignity cannot be stopped. As elsewhere in the world, such movements require the restoration of rights, human dignity and historical memory for women and different races, as well as religious, cultural and ethnic minorities, repressed peoples and individuals. If Turkey moves along the democratic path, then it will have to adopt a different model for national unity than “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene”.

Erdogan himself very carefully promoted his idea of ​​introducing poly-ethnicity in the country. At first he said: “I am a Turk, but I am not a Pan-Turkist”. (Ben türküm, ama türkçü değilim). After a while he made a more honest statement:

“I asked my father: are we Laz or Turks? Some say that we are Turks, others – that we Laz. My father said: “My son, my great-grandfather was a mullah, I asked him: “Are we Laz or Turks?” And my great-grandfather answered my father “my grandson, tomorrow we will die, Allah Almighty will ask us: “Who is your Lord, who is your prophet, what is your religion?”. He will not ask you what kind/tribe/nationality you are? So, when they ask you, answer “Alhamdulillah, I”m a Muslim and continue”.

This statement helps us understand one of the reasons why Erdogan and his supporters are adherents of Islamism and neo-Ottomanism. After all, there are no nationalities in Islam. All ethnic groups are equal before God. You say – “Alhamdulillah I am a Muslim” and continue. Sociological studies show that the majority of ethnic minorities vote for Erdogan for the same reason.

After a little more time, Erdogan publicly declares: “And I am Georgian. Our Georgian family moved from Batumi to Riza.” And finally, as mentioned above, he spoke in favor of his dignity: I am not a Turk, why should I repeat this morning “What happiness is being a Turk”?

Yes, Islamism and neo-Ottomanism solve the ethnic problem, but they bring many other problems hindering the development that Ataturk spoke about. Why not look for a democratic way to solve the problem? Of course, for this you need a democratic state, but Turkey has already made some progress on this path.

First, a broad and free public discussion of the problem should begin. And we must try to ensure that radical nationalists and radical Islamists accept their respective emotions (this can be organized in Turkey). Further, why not try to deal with this notorious oath – to start with it. Replace the words “Ben Türküm” (I am a Turk) with the words “Ben Türkiyeliyem” (I am a Turkish citizen) in an oath. Then tackle the same substantial amendment to the constitution and replace the words “Türk” with “Ben Türkiyeli” (I”m from Turkey) there, just as in Russia, they replaced the word “Russian” in the corresponding cases with the words “I”m from Russia”.

By the way, in the United States, the Supreme Court declared a similar oath to the American flag at the request of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious sect, which doesn”t recognize any flag or idol other than its god. The oath was not binding, and nothing terrible happened, the sky did not fall.

The next step would be to endow cultural minorities with national rights in the “European Convention for the Protection of National Minorities”. It is not necessary to immediately enter into force all the provisions of the document, but we must move in this direction. This is much more productive than taking the Islamist position of blaming the West for all the country”s troubles.


A similar ethnopolitical drama is observed in Azerbaijan. Ethnic minorities do not speak loudly about this problem because, in our country, in general, all discussions are prohibited, and it has become unacceptable to demand their rights. But in imaginary democratic Azerbaijan, we would have witnessed considerable drama on this topic.

We would know that at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Islamic identity, through the efforts of the Azerbaijani Enlightenment, began to change into ethnicity, and people with Turkic roots began to call themselves not Muslims, but Turks. By that time, about 59.6% of the total number of Turks lived in Azerbaijan (Soviet Encyclopedia, 1926., t. 1., p. 641.) – about the same percentage as the number living in Turkey. Then Stalin decided to ban Turkic identity and called the country’s Turks Azerbaijanis. Most of the country’s ethnic minorities were also forcibly enrolled as ethnic Azerbaijanis. As a result, in 2009, 91% of those living in the country were Azerbaijanis. Now it is difficult to accurately calculate the number of citizens who, at the beginning of Soviet power, were forced to change from their homeland ethnic identity to “Azerbaijani”, because, as a result of the collapse of the USSR and the Karabakh conflict, large numbers of Russians and Armenians left the country. We can only roughly estimate this number, which, in our opinion, today may amount to several hundred thousand people.

If we set ourselves the task of forming an ethnically united nation, that is, of striving to assimilate ethnic minorities, then this Stalinist method is very successful, and he would have removed all sorts of ethnic contradictions. But the unexpected happened: “Zeit Geist” – “The Spirit of the Earth” has changed — towards democracy and human rights. Now, human life and dignity are infinitely more valuable than in past centuries.

The process of restoring real ethnic identity is also gaining momentum in Azerbaijan, but it faces the following difficulties. Defenders of Turkic identity demand replacing the ethnonym “Azerbaijani” with the ethnonym “Turks” or “Azerbaijan Turks”. For example, President Elchibey urged all Azerbaijanis to be aware of their Turkic nature, to understand that violence has been committed over their identity, that the name “Turk” should be reclaimed and that we should be friendly with Turks worldwide. But the problem is that several hundred thousand modern Azerbaijanis have other, not Turkic, roots … and Elchibey and his supporters somehow forgot about them.

This is what a former member of the Musavat Party Gurban Alakbarov wrote on his Facebook page: “… My wife and I sat down at the TV to listen to the New Year congratulations of President Elchibey to the citizens of the country. And suddenly he says: “My Turkic people, I congratulate you on the New Year! … But neither I nor my wife is a Turk, and no one congratulated us. We felt humiliated.” Later Gurban Alakbarov left both Musavat and the country.

So, the Azerbaijanis of Turkic origin endlessly proclaim that “we are all Turks”, and the Azerbaijanis of non-Turkic origin assert that “we are all not Turks” and “we are opposed to Azerbaijanis being called Turks again.” Just imagine that several hundred thousand Azerbaijanis are not thrilled with all sorts of Turkism or international Turkic solidarity, proclaimed mainly by politicians who have emerged from the overcoat of the Popular Front. Recall that one of the Popular Front”s main tasks was restoration of the Azerbaijani Turks” repressed ethnic identity.

Azerbaijanis of non-Turkic origin will not vote for national democrats, so the latter will have to work out a different all-encompassing model for national unity than “we are all Turks”. The country”s non-Turkic population is sometimes even more respectful than the dictatorship, which prohibits any free discussion on this (and any other) topic, other than the rule of the Turkists, who (according to minorities) claim that Azerbaijan is the land of the Turks and thus cannot turn non-Turks into guests on their own land.

Just like Erdogan is trying to solve the problem of polyethnicity in Turkey with the help of Islamism, the current government of Azerbaijan is trying to solve this problem by banning any discussion of it.

But it seems that for Azerbaijan there is a democratic way to solve the problem of multi-ethnicity. Again, for this the country must be democratic, and freedom of discussion must be ensured. So far we have no such freedom. But at least such an open discussion can take place in a democratic camp.

Of course, it is necessary to organize a wide-ranging scientific public discussion of the problem. The following obvious recommendations could emerge from such a discussion:

– Citizens of non-Turkic origin should understand how Turkic identity in Azerbaijan was subjected to repression and humiliation, and the Turks” desire to restore their ethnonym. It should be accepted that Azerbaijanis of Turkic origin have the right to reclaim the Turkic ethnonym – that is, by right to call themselves Turks or Azeri Turks.

– Citizens of Turkic origin must understand all the anxieties appearing among non-Turks who observe the activity of Turkists. Azerbaijanis of non-Turkic origin have the right to choose an ethnonym corresponding to their roots; or, they can continue to use the ethnonym “Azerbaijani”.

– Every citizen of the country has the right to choose an ethnonym for himself, and the ethnic origin of a citizen of the country will not be indicated in any government document.

– Citizens of Azerbaijan of any ethnic origin will be united by a political name – Azeri. Like the Austrians, Azeris will be called Turks, Lezghins, Talyshes, Russians, and representatives of any other ethnic group living in the country.

– Representatives of all ethnic groups are equal before the law and the land of Azerbaijan is homeland, and in most cases the historical homeland of all citizens living on it.

– The schools should cover the history of people of all ethnic groups who populate Azerbaijan.

– Ethnic minorities should be able to maintain their language and culture in accordance with the European Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

If these conditions are ensured, then all citizens will be proud of this homeland, regardless of ethnic origin.

The process of resolving ethnic contradictions will be difficut and very emotional. But there is no other way; there is not an undemocratic solution to this problem. It is also impossible to silence this problem, because today all over the world people have entered all arenas, demanding their rights and dignity. And you will not return them back to silence or indifference.

P.S. By the way, my parents and I are Turks.

Hikmet Hadjy-zadeh


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