Ruslan Asadov, co-founder of Azerbaijan’s ‘OL! Youth Movement,’ which works to develop democratic leaders and disseminate modern and progressive values, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Ruslan Asadov: Hi. Thank you for the passionate presentation. As she mentioned I am a cofounder of a youth movement called OL, which means ‘be’ in English. And the slogans we have are: Be Liberal, Be Open To New Ideas, Be Open For Change, Be Democratic, Be Tolerant. Let us take some time to watch the introductory video of the youth movement and we will proceed after that.
Thank you very much. This is one of the advantages that new social media is providing us. And we used this tool back in 2008 to prepare a short video, but a very expressive one, to present ourselves and present the ideas and values of the group of people from Azerbaijan to our friends in the world and also to our local young people. Yesterday, I listened to a lot of stories that were out there from Cuba, Venezuela, and other repressive regimes. I do not have a personal story ass such to share with you guys, but I have some internal stories that I would like to share with you.
It seems that freedom is becoming very expensive, as Geneva is. And if it is expensive it means you have to identify or gain resources to buy this freedom eventually. And of course, it takes a lot of struggling, fighting, young enthusiasm and young passion, young and fresh belief in your thoughts and values. I grew up in a very conservative family and my extended family members were also very conservative with some traditional rules, plus some Islamic elements. So, in my family I wouldn’t say we had pluralism or that my parents would tolerate every criticism or different behaviours of their kids in our family. I was reading about the ideas of democracy, tolerance, [and] human rights in books back in high school. Everything changed until I went to the US. I stayed with an American family. I made a lot of friends. I attended an American high school system, which is built on students, in which the students are very active in the educational process. I engaged in family activities, which I found were very democratic; husband and wife respected each other and didn’t have any gender problems, any women’s rights discriminations in the family. The kids were listened to, no matter how little their voices, and their behaviour was always taken into account. So, I saw this environment, a liberal church environment, a society in which people actually are respecting different views and thoughts. I genuinely had an opportunity to practice, to challenge the ideas and values democracy, which I saw in books, in ordinary life. I realized one thing. Reading something is very different from living what you read in real life and that brought a big and painful difference to my life—I believe freedom is pain — but once you gain the freedom, and once you internally solve your own problems, it is easier to put this into practice. It is easier to put this into practice in the States because the society in general is a very free one. In a free environment you are to behave more freely in a more communal way.
Then I came back to Azerbaijan and I said no. For me to be able to practice my freedom, my individual rights, I need to be able to bring a difference to others’ lives. Be able to play a positive role in their lives. So, a group of friends and I came together to start an organization. An organization which is less structured. An organization that is based on values and very inclusive, including different views and people from different backgrounds, mainly for students plus those educated abroad. So, we created this OL youth movement, which kind of turned into an idea.
Let me give you a brief background about the youth organizations in Azerbaijan and how they emerged. Beginning of the 2000s, a lot of youth organizations emerged in Azerbaijan. Most of them were politically affiliated. After the 2003 and 2005 presidential elections, when political parties were not very successful on the political stage, these affiliated youth organizations disappeared because their ideology and resources were very much related to politics. Only one organization survived. In 2005, a new wave of new youth organizations [and] initiatives started in Azerbaijan. A so-called Alumni Network emerged, a very chaotic but inclusive and open network which embraced young people of different backgrounds in Azerbaijan and created a space for deliberations to discuss different philosophical theories or to discuss problems in politics, public policy, in the youth sphere, in education, and we had that space there. In 2006, this movement, our movement, emerged. Since that time, other ones as well, and one in which members are good friends of mine, Ireli, that is labeled as a pro-governmental youth movement in Azerbaijan, emerged with a lot of resources and human resources, actual people involved. So, we had all these different youth movements representing different backgrounds and thoughts. And this is ultimately what we wanted after this post-2005 period in Azerbaijan. The bloggers, among these youth leaders, became very popular. Two bloggers, who became very active in advocating for human rights and advocating democratic values, got stopped and jailed in 2008. That shake in the youth sector in Azerbaijan brought a different picture to civil society and its stage in Azerbaijan. The discourse after this arrest was mainly built on the arrest of bloggers, internally and externally. Externally, of course, our youth movement and other organizations out there became more popular. Everyone in the world, all the main media corporations, wrote about the arrest and condemned the human rights violations out there. But internally, many were scared off.
So, I don’t want to talk more about the problems. I want to introduce my own perspective and ideas as to what should be done from now on. Yesterday, at the presentations, many spoke about the past and about what’s happening now, but nobody really brought into the picture what I, as a young person, was expecting. What kind of concept and solution do you guys have to introduce to young people and other in your countries? I will call the concept that I am now going to speak on ‘supermarket society’. I know it kind of sounds [like a] very economic and shopping orientated, but actually I believe the ideas need to be subject for shopping. I believe that the ideas for different backgrounds and characters need to be available for the public, for leaders, NGO leaders, people in government, and people who are in their hearts with us but not supporting us, to buy into these ideas in a supermarket. A lot of initiatives of different kinds – let’s say bloggers, should be one direction, or doctors not happy with their lives in Azerbaijan, who face economic problems, they should also network among themselves. Create a group advocating for doctor’s rights, bloggers create their own one, and photographers should create their own union. [In other words, they should] be able to offer different products to different groups of people out there in Azerbaijan right now. We realize that the social transformation, which is ultimately going to happen, should not discriminate [against people], should not chase them off, but should rather include people. In this regard, I look at some people in government and at also the youth organizations that were created by administrative resources and incentives of government, as partners. We should be able to engage in dialogue. We should be able to meet, to talk, and to discuss to see what kind of opportunities we can offer to young people in Azerbaijan.
Two groups I believe are worth investing [in]. One, the bloggers. I am also a blogger and I named my blog perestroika, a new wave of perestroika the bloggers are initiating. I would like to encourage all of you here to follow the blogs that are in Azerbaijan, especially the ones written in English. The bloggers are an emerging power right now in Azerbaijan. There are a lot of bloggers in Azerbaijan that write about social things, social issues, youth, civil society, and politics, that are worth investing in. So, if any of your NGOs have a particular field or something to offer to bloggers, I very much encourage you to invite those people to events because it is worth to provide them with some acknowledgement and some incentive. We young people like when people praise us. That’s why it’s great if some of you invite us and have a floor for discussion.
Another group in this supermarket I introduced are women. In Azerbaijan, men historically and traditionally have received everything for granted. That is why we have always had a comfortable spot saying that nobody can question our status or be removed from this position. Subconsciously, women in Azerbaijan have always had this drive that ‘No!’, we are in competition with men and must prove ourselves. We need to prove that we are more intellectual, we are better at business, that we can play an active role in society. They have this drive and now they [are] an emerging power. An example: when I was in university, the girls were more responsible and did better in class than the guys. They were more punctual, they were more participative and more open to protesting things, even though there were some things that would be politically incorrect. But the girls still, with their passions and emotions, would speak about those things. So, gender rights protecting organizations in Azerbaijan are also ones worth investing in.
Third group of people or products in this supermarket society are alumni educated abroad. We have a great number of people who are currently studying either in the United States, in the UK, in Russia, Turkey, China, and Japan. Also, we have a lot of students who graduated from those universities and came back to Azerbaijan. Of course, if they studied in those countries for a year, two years, four years, getting their MBA, it means they gained some alternative thoughts on democracy and freedom. I believe democracy is freedom, it’s something that, if you were from an autocratic traditional society, in which you had administrative obstacles for doing activities, it is pain to change yourself. And that pain adds value to that because you have gone through pain, you have gained that freedom and democracy. It means that you will protect it and not compromise it for any other structure. So this alumni educated there, and they also can be invested in.
In Azerbaijan, [with] the supermarket society concept, I came up with a term called ‘greenification’. By greenification, I put an emphasis on being green, on making the economies more green, on keeping the climate change issue on our agenda as the younger generation of these people. Because if we are changing our value structure and transforming our intellectual basis, [it] is also important to keep greenification, the ideas of being green, of keeping the environment clean, on the agenda as well. So, let’s be green.
Another notion, or request, to politicians in Azerbaijan, in Europe, in the United States: let’s untie our politics, let’s take off these ties that you guys are wearing. I get so irritated when I see a tie because a tie is symbolically squeezing [and] choking you and it’s blocking a channel for ideas to go back and forth. And also it is isolating, isolating you guys from local persons. So let’s untie our politics. And maybe you can name this process the ‘untieification of politics.’ A group of my friends are running for parliamentary elections, hopefully, and I would like to encourage them to hold their campaigns without ties, to be closer with people, to talk with people, to communicate with them, to not forget about the minorities and the people that are around Europe and in the EU. Countries such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, Central Asia. This freedom train which went from Western Europe to Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s stopped in the Soviet Union. Now there is a need to again put an engine on this freedom train and start working [it] again to send it over to caucasus and from caucasus from central asia to the middle east.
Thank you very much for your attention. Can we show the concluding video?