They say they have no interest in politics. Just in promoting social change. Youth groups that promote Azerbaijan's pre-Soviet Azerbaijani Democratic Republic have become a fresh force in Azerbaijan's public life, but one that the government isn't embracing.
The Azerbaijani Democratic Republic was founded on May 28, 1918, and ranked as the Muslim world's first democratic and secular government. It lasted, however, only 23 months, falling to the Red Army in 1920.
Youth groups promoting the ADR say that they want to use the republic's principles of tolerance and democratic justice to fight apathy among Azerbaijani youth and to tackle such longstanding social ills as rampant corruption and a sub-par education system. Many of their activists are Western-educated; the bulk are 20 and 30-somethings who came of age after the Soviet Union's demise.
The current Azerbaijani government, which declares itself the ADR's successor, has not opposed these groups' interest, but the reserved official commemoration of May 28 drew criticism from ADR promoters. There were no fireworks and no public concert held to mark the day, as was done on May 10 -- a day that honoured what would have been the late president Heydar Aliyev's 86th birthday.
Instead, President Ilham Aliyev, Heydar's son, laid a wreath at a memorial to Azerbaijan's 1918 independence declaration and attended a concert organized for various VIPs.
"We very much value our heritage, the ADR, and the level of celebration by the government disappoints us," commented Adnan Hajizade, a board member for the youth movement OL! (To Be), one of several youth societies that promotes the ADR's foundation.
President Aliyev's government had earlier promised to set up a monument to Mammad Amin Rasulzade, one of the founders of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, in downtown Baku. A commemorative plaque was placed in the park that would house the monument. But after repairs in the park last year, the plaque was removed and a fountain erected instead.
Historian Aydin Balayev believes that "the government feels a kind of jealousy of the ADR." Admiration for the short-lived ADR, at times, appears at odds with the government's promotion of Heydar Aliyev as the founder of modern Azerbaijan. "The ADR's ideological heritage is not popularized; history textbooks do not widely cover the ADR period," Balayev noted.
The government rejects the jealousy claim. In comments to the news portal top7.az, governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party Executive Director Mubariz Gurbanli noted that an encyclopaedia and other books have been published about the republic, and a memorial erected in downtown Baku.
To mark May 28, several youth groups and six opposition parties traveled to Rasulzade's native village of Novahani, a Baku suburb, to place flowers with ribbons in the national colors (red, blue, green) on a monument to the former leader.
In Baku, trios of about 100 young people in white and red T-shirts with the letters A, D or R strolled throughout the capital, congratulating residents on the day. Young ethnic Azeris living in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London and Istanbul staged similar "walk-a-thons." Police detained 12 Baku participants for questioning, but quickly released them.
Popular understanding of the movement is spotty. Police did not understand what the As, Ds and Rs emblazoned on activists' T-shirts meant, according to OL!'s Hajizade. Other Baku residents expressed pleasure that the activists showed that they "respect national and historical values."
But although its members insist that their actions carry no political message, the pro-ADR youth groups often appear to be walking a delicate line between civil-society promotion and opposition activism. The mission statement of one of the pro-ADR youth groups, the AN Network, pledges "to deconstruct authoritarian thinking and attitudes and to construct new social realities."
Erkin Gadirli, co-founder of the REAL political discussion club, argues that the governing party's dominance of Azerbaijani political life has prompted the younger generation to look to history for fresh ideas. Official promotion of the 1993-2003 rule of the late President Heydar Aliyev has added to the trend, he said. With time, young Azerbaijanis have come to realize that "not everything they hear is partially or fully the truth," Gadirli said.
"People began to look back and tried to find successful pages from their country's history, to find their own meaning in history," Gadirli said. "The first [republic] is really a successful example, since it gave a start to the country's national renaissance."
If that sounds like the springboard for a political movement, pro-ADR activists reject the idea. "We have no political ambitions to run for parliament or any other office," asserted Emin Milli, a co-founder of the AN Network, which claims a membership of 2,005 Western-educated Azerbaijanis.
"We are not a political organization. We have not supported any political force in the country," elaborated OL's Hajizade. "Our main goal is the young generation's active involvement in public life in order to create a democratic society."
Commented REAL's Gadirli: "I think these young people are [still] looking for their political self-identity and their place in society."
Mina Miradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.