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Democracy, Secularization, and Parliamentarism in the Muslim East: The History of 100th Anniversary of Reforms


The existence of Azerbaijan as an independent state in the world community, the democratic traditions, the protection of human rights, and freedom and paving the way for the freedom of expression and media in a large scale have been laid during the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The first parliamentary republic in the Muslim East had succeeded in shaping modern-day state institutions by preserving ancient statehood traditions of our nation.

The modern independent Republic of Azerbaijan is the successor to the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR). The Independence Declaration, which proclaimed the independence of Azerbaijan, was adopted 100 years ago, on May 28, 1918. The newly established ADR fulfilled with honor the challenging historical task that she took. Patriot Azerbaijani intellectuals who had received an excellent education governed the state. The first parliament, government, and the state apparatus of Azerbaijan were established, the borders of the country were determined, the flag, the anthem, and the emblem were created, the native language was declared as the state language, serious measures were taken in the field of state building. The country's territorial integrity and national security were secured, military units with high-combat capability were formed as soon as possible, and state bodies were established under the national requirements and democratic principles. Moreover, special attention was paid to the development of education and culture, the first university of Azerbaijan was founded, education was nationalized, exceptional significant work was done regarding public opinion history to prepare the ground for the cultural progress of the nation in subsequent years. 

First Democracy and Parliamentary system in the East

The members of the Muslim Faction and the Transcaucasian Muslim Council (Transcaucasian Muslim Parliament) held a separate meeting and decided to declare the independence of Azerbaijan on May 27,1918. As a result, the Transcaucasian Muslim Council has declared itself the Azerbaijani National Council , or the Parliament of Azerbaijan. Therefore, the first parliament in the history of Azerbaijan emerged, and the foundation of the first parliamentary republic was laid. At that meeting, the Presidium and the Chairman of the National Council of Azerbaijan were elected. M. Rasulzade became the chairman of the National Council. The historical meeting of the National Council of Azerbaijan chaired by Hasan bey Aghayev was held on May 28. At the meeting, the National Council decided to establish the independent the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) in the South-Eastern Caucasus. The ADR adopted the first normative legal act/independence act - Declaration of Independence on May 28, 1918 . The National Council decided to establish the first interim government at the meeting. The National Council and the first government moved from Tbilisi to Ganja on June 16, 1918, and continued its activity from November 16 to December 7 in Baku until the opening of the first parliament. 
After the completion of the organizational work, the opening of the parliament was scheduled for December 3, 1918. However, the first session of the parliament was held on December 7. Alimardan bey Topchubashov was elected as a chairman and Dr. Hasanbay Agayev the first deputy chairman of the Parliament. Aghayev chaired the parliament as Topchubashov was in Istanbul at that time .

For the first time in the entire Turkic-Muslim world, and generally in the whole East, a Declaration of Independence was a sign of the establishment of a democratic republic governance method, a parliamentary republic in Azerbaijan. The ADR granted equality, liberty and peaceful life without discrimination for nationality, religion, sect, class or gender of all citizens living in its territory proclaiming the Declaration of Independence.

Thus, our statehood traditions revived in the northern lands of Azerbaijan again, this time in the form of a parliamentary republic, in a very complicated historical situation that emerged during the First World War and the overthrow of the Romanov autocracy. 
The ADR has left a deep and rich mark on the history of Azerbaijan, especially in the history of parliament culture, by realizing its independent state-building experience, adopting legislative acts and decisions during its activity.
Our history of parliamentarism is divided into two periods during the ADR: the first period - from May 27 to November 19, 1918. Four Muslim parties – “Musavat” and a group of democratic neutralizers within it, “Muslim Socialist Bloc”, “Muslim in Russia” (“Ittihad”), “Hummat” (Menshevik) parties consisting of 44 MPs  - represented the parliament acting under the name of the National Council of Azerbaijan during this six-month period. 

Our first Parliament proclaimed the independence of Azerbaijan took over the country's leadership, and adopted the Declaration of Independence on May 28, 1918. As the most brilliant legal document in the history of democracy and parliamentary traditions of Azerbaijan, the Declaration of Independence retains its historical and practical significance. A total of 10 meetings were held including the Constituent Assembly of the Azerbaijani Parliament during the National Council. The first meeting was held on May 27, 1918, in Tbilisi, and the last meeting was on  November 19, 1918, in Baku. The National Council of Azerbaijan was established on May 27, temporarily suspended its activities on June 17, and gave the legislative and executive powers to the interim government with the condition to summon Constituent Assembly not later than six months. After the Government of the ADR moved to Baku on September 17, 1918, the National Council of Azerbaijan restored its activity on November 16. the National Council of Azerbaijan adopted a law on calling the Constituent Assembly on November 19, expanded Parliament of Azerbaijan on December 3 of the same year and suspended its activities. Thus, the Azerbaijani Parliament operated in Tbilisi, Ganja, and Baku during this period.

The second period, or the period of the Baku, in the history of the ADR, lasted only 17 months, from December 7, 1918, to April 27, 1920. The first meeting was on December 7, 1918, the last meeting was held on April 27, 1920. In all these meetings, the Parliament of the ADR, by following the principles set out in the Declaration of Independence, and considering the specific historical conditions, adopted fundamental laws and decisions aiming: to ensure the country's territorial integrity and to maintain its independence; to create the most modern legal-democratic state where human rights and freedoms are fully respected. All these laws and decisions, ultimately, focused on the formation of three branches – the legislative, executive and judicial authorities – of government.

The Azerbaijani Parliament, operating in a very complicated internal and international historical context where the struggle of the great powers to divide the world in the First World War entered the crucial stage, dedicated the most significant portion of its activity to the maintenance of state independence and army building. 

Even though it operated under very complicated conditions, the Government and the Parliament of the Republic kept its focus on the development of science, education and public education, and health care. Schools, gymnasiums, girls' schools, kindergartens, and libraries were opened in the whole country, short-term teacher courses, hospitals, and medical assistant points were established in rural areas, and a fight against infectious diseases was put into action. From this point of view, the law adopted by Parliament on the establishment of the Baku State University on September 1, 1919. The opening of the National University was a significant historical service of Republican figures to the nation.

The traditions of parliamentarism in Azerbaijan were being increasingly strengthened and developed, and the most modern parliamentary culture was being formed during the republic. At the time of the existence of the ADR, 155 parliamentary sessions were held, of which 10 were during the National Council of Azerbaijan (May 27 - November 19, 1918), and 145 during the period of the Parliament of Azerbaijan (December 7, 1918 - April 27, 1920) .

The law on the establishment of Parliament envisaged that the Parliament would consist of 120 members. Even though there were 21 seats for Armenian and ten seats for Russian representatives according to the total number of the Azerbaijani population, they did not participate in the opening of the first meeting of the Azerbaijani Parliament. The Russian National Council participated in the work of the Parliament from January 31, 1919, Armenians from the February of the same year. By the end of 1919, a total of 96 MPs represented 11 different party factions and groups in the Parliament. The activity of the Parliament was regulated by the “Instruction of Azerbaijani Parliament”, which played a role of its Charter directly. From the first day based on the “Instruction of Azerbaijani Parliament” parliamentary sessions were held only in Azerbaijani. However, representatives of other nations could speak Russian.

More than 270 bills were drafted for the parliament, 230 of which were accepted. Members of 11 factions and groups participated in the preparation, discussion and approval of the laws of parliament. There were 11 commissions in the Parliament of the ADR .

Historical background of “Women's Rights Movement” in the East and the Islamic world by granting the right to elect and to be elected to women for the first time 

One of the intellectuals of the period, Ahmed Aghaoghlu, fought for the thought of the state based on the nation. He assimilated the state view that protects the rights and freedoms of the individual. Aghaoghlu states that two critical issues must be solved in order to ensure the salvation and progress of Islamic communities: the woman question and the issue of the alphabet. Aghaoghlu’s views developed in Azerbaijan where he grew up and in Europe where he studied .

The right ensuring democratic traditions to participate in elections was given to women along with men during the activity of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) in 1919 still seemed far away for the European states at that time . After Azerbaijan restored its independence in 1991, the role of women in the development of civil society and the building of an independent state began to increase. Today, based on the orders and decrees signed by the head of the country, a legislative framework for the protection of Azerbaijani women's rights has been established and operates in full. 

The right to vote is a fundamental human right, through which the people exercise their sovereign rights. Recognition of the equal rights of all citizens and the right of women to vote before many European countries existed in Azerbaijan during the ADR.
The educated women in the Republican era were mainly engaged in cultural-enlightenment, in social and public spheres. These women, who placed the mission of enlightenment at the root of both pedagogy and public activism, were never behind the men of the time. The reason was the right policy pursued by the Government of the Republic in the direction of women's issues and women's rights. For the first time in the East, women were given the right to vote. New girls' schools were opened, and women were trained for society as ready human resources. It is precisely these steps that increased the role of women in society .
The creators of our national press bravely promoted the issue of women, as expressed by Hassan Bey Zardabi in the “Ekinchi” newspaper which had great importance in the development of knowledge, at the political and cultural levels, of the nation in their newspapers and magazines in the era of ignorance. 

Holding a glorious place in the history of our national press the first combative body of our independent state, “Azerbaijan” newspaper started to light up the lives, freedoms and prosperity paths of our women as a beacon. “Azerbaijan” newspaper became a significant platform for the activism of Shafiga Khanum Efendizade. Shafiga Khanum was selected as a member of the editorial board of this newspaper. She wrote many valuable articles and stories about women's lives, struggles, rights, education, and enlightenment.

According to the statute adopted by the Azerbaijani parliament, women had the right to vote. Per statute, consisting of four chapters and 116 paragraphs, all citizens of the Republic who reached the age of 20 could attend the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Intelligent Azerbaijani women using the rights granted and the conditions and opportunities created by the state for the development of enlightenment and culture were expanding the women's movement, and fighting against the forces that hindered the national liberation movement and the independence of the republic. Educated women were active in the creation of national schools during this period.

Legal acts adopted by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic 1918-1920

The law on the “Political Amnesty” was discussed at the meetings of the Parliament of the  ADR in December and was adopted at the meeting dated January 8, 1919. According to paragraph 5 of this law, penalties imposed by civilian and military authorities under the non-judicial proceedings, as well as the sentences given due to political insecurity until December 7, 1918, had been canceled and assignments related to the execution of those decisions had been given by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Defense .

Parliament had also adopted a series of laws to strengthen the material and social protection of certain strata of the population. Thus, in 1919 the public welcomed the laws “On improving the status” of railway workers”and  “On the provision of lump-sum aid to the employees of the Azerbaijani government organizations on Novruz”.

Despite its short lifespan, the ADR paid particular attention to the enlightenment of the population. The decision of the Parliament of the ADR on the approval of the Charter of the Baku State University on 29 April 1919 played an exceptional role in the development of Azerbaijani science and education. In this regard, the law “On the establishment of the Baku State University,” adopted by the parliament on September 1, 1919, should be especially emphasized. The opening of the university was a significant historical service of the republic for the nation. In addition, it is not accidental that 7 million rubles from the State Treasury were allocated to the Ministry of Public Education in the 1919-1920 academic year to send 100 students to Europe.  

The “Law on Azerbaijani Citizenship”, adopted by parliament on  August 11, 1919, was one of the laws of the ADR which had particular importance for legislative activity. According to Article 1 of the Law, despite national and religious differences, all the citizens of the former Russian Empire, themselves or their parents, born on the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan were considered Azerbaijani citizens. Article 1 of Part 2 of the Law states that persons - a) born to Azerbaijani citizens; b) foreign women married to Azerbaijanis; c) foreigners who adopted Azerbaijani citizens under the age of seventeen - not listed in the first article of the first part were entitled to citizenship of Azerbaijan .

During its existence, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) also took successful steps in the field of military construction. The call up age for military enlistment was determined as 19 years.

The leaders of the republic did not forget to care for refugees and IDPs displaced from the native lands. Thus, the parliament adopted a special law “On Fulfilling the Refugee Needs.”

By helping the Georgian people who suffered from the earthquake, Parliament adopted a law on allocating 3 million manats from the budget of the Department of Affairs of the government on March 11, 1920 .

To ensure the state's economic independence, the ADR also developed a series of laws in the field of customs, taking into account its importance. The laws adopted by the Parliament on January 18, 1920, “On the establishment of the border guard in customs relations in the Republic of Azerbaijan,” and “On the establishment of Aghstafa customs post” are one of the significant legislative acts in the provision of customs service.

During the period of its efficient work, the ADR also paid particular attention to the establishment of the justice, court, police and prosecution authorities of the independent republic. Khalil bey Khasmammadov was appointed as first Minister of Justice. The activity of the Baku District Court and the prosecutor's office under it were restored by the decision of the Council of Ministers On October 1, 1918 . It is no coincidence based on this date that it was decided to celebrate October 1 each year as a professional holiday for employees of the Prosecutor's Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan by the decree of national leader Heydar Aliyev dated July 17, 1998. 

By the Decision of the Council of Ministers of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic dated November 14, 1918, “The Statute of the Court Chamber of Azerbaijan” was approved. Here, Prosecutor and several deputy prosecutor positions were opened under Azerbaijan Chamber of Court. 

The Alliance of Independent States recognized the independence of Azerbaijan at the Paris Peace Conference on January 11, 1920. The political representation of the republic had already been functioning in France, Iran, Dagestan, Georgia, and other countries

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Elnara Garibova
Acquired legal education at Baku State University and the doctoral degree at the Faculty of European Union and International Economic Relations of Ankara University, majoring in EU law. Areas of research: EU law and relations, constitutional law and citizenship, human rights, migration processed, Europeanization, European identity, etc.