Azerbaijan’s Groundswell of Civil Society Dedicated to the country of Azerbaijan, this issue of Give & Take illustrates the shortcomings of the term “post-Soviet” eleven years after the end of the Cold War.

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In a world well into a “post-9/11” multilateral, international realignment, how accurate is the backward-looking post-Soviet label?

True, Azerbaijan continues to be plagued by the polluting industry and severe economic doldrums common to many former Soviet states. Its people still suffer from corrupt bureaucrats, limited opportunities, and in some cases well-learned, wrong-headed ideas that stifle growth, namely that governments, not people, call the shots, that it is government’s job to solve the problems of society and that government has no obligation to respond to citizen demands for equity and justice. Yet to see nothing but such post-Soviet characteristics in Azerbaijan is to miss the very real changes that have taken place in the country since 1991.

The Winter 2003 issue Give & Take highlights just a few of the new citizen groups in Azerbaijan whose actions demonstrate the power of the individual to stand up to government and make a difference. The first section of the journal looks at issues such as how to found and register a nongovernmental organization (NGO) — a difficult, frustrating process, as detailed by ISAR-Azerbaijan director Stephanie Rust. Nevertheless, hundreds of local groups have registered and begun to operate throughout the country despite these challenges.

azmapIn the second section of the journal, with the help of ISAR-Azerbaijan staffers Elmira Abdullayeva and Nargiz Kerimova, we spotlight the impressive work of a few of these NGOs. Many are now quite experienced and they tackle an incredible range of issues — from diabetes education to professional development for beekeepers. Some NGOs focus on the children of refugees and internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan’s many refugee camps such as the Galkhan camp in Saatly, Azerbaijan. This story describes innovative approaches to the intractable problem of raising the children of war.

Research for this issue of the journal uncovered an extremely diverse NGO sector. Many local groups — their accomplishments largely unsung in the West — have done tremendous work with tiny sums of money. Those highlighted here represent only the tip of the iceberg: last year ISAR-Azerbaijan’s local NGO directory detailed the work of over 400 grassroots NGOs throughout the country, not just in Baku and other major cities. All of them are operating effectively in a region where international assistance is sparse and local philanthropy largely undeveloped. All have demonstrated creativity in fundraising and enthusiasm in responding to social injustice.

Organizing for change means forming coalitions. Cooperation to influence legislation — as Margo Squire, Azerbaijan country director for the Eurasia Foundation, notes in her article — is crucial. NGOs are also cooperating to advocate for environmental and social issues. For instance, as explored in the final section of the journal, activists have added their voices to the debate over the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. When completed in 2004, BTC will transport Caspian oil and gas to the Turkish port of Ceyhan in the Mediterranean Sea. Give & Take presents several of the perspectives in this debate, including those of an oil company executive, the government of Azerbaijan, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and multiple NGO viewpoints.

The complexities of globalization force us all to delve deeper: what happens locally when governments, international financial institutions, and transnational corporations get behind giant commercial development projects? Big projects affect small communities, and these communities must be given their say. Give & Take attempts to draw attention to such independent voices and include them in the wider dialogue. The dominance of the oil industry in Azerbaijan’s economy continues to increase. Svetlana Tsalik of the Open Society Institute asserts in her article that some portion of the revenues must be used to improve the conditions of Azerbaijan’s people; her article, which has been abstracted from a forthcoming book, offers concrete recommendations for using oil production profits to achieve social reform.

As such stories show, the “post-Soviet” label becomes daily less successful as a term for describing Azerbaijan. In 2003, Azerbaijan must be examined in the light of a whole range of new dynamics. The oil industry, with its millions of dollars in investments and powerful international partners, is far more visible than those who practice grassroots civil society development, but the efforts of the local NGOs have an endemic strength that is all their own. It is this force that in the end will free this country and its people from the cramped post-Soviet stereotype and offer them a more solid path to the future.