Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 15, 2008)

Azerbaijanis outside of Azerbaijan: Émigrés, diasporas and national minorities

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Like every other country, Azerbaijan has members of its ethnic community living abroad. But except for a very few, it has a far larger number of such people compared to its own population, and they vary more widely in their relationships to the countries in which they live and to Azerbaijan itself.  The enormous number of Azerbaijanis living beyond the borders of Azerbaijan makes them increasingly important players in international affairs; their diversity makes Baku’s dealings with them complicated and their various roles often misunderstood by others.

The total number of Azerbaijanis living outside of Azerbaijan is a matter of dispute, with most estimates converging on 35 to 40 million, some four to five times the number living in the Republic itself. There are three major reasons for the inability even of experts to agree on the figure. First, many of the countries in which Azerbaijanis live have not conducted reliable censuses or asked questions about ethnic self-identification.

Second, in some countries, ethnic Azerbaijanis have in fact re-identified as members of the dominant community, because they feel closely related to the locally dominant community such as some in Turkey, have lived there so long that they have lost much of the Azerbaijani identity as is the case with some in some Western countries, or have been forcibly re-identified by the governments under which they live such as in some Central Asian countries in the past.

And third – and this may be the most important reason of all – a few Azerbaijanis living abroad are political émigrés in the usual sense of that term; significantly more, especially in recent years, constitute a diaspora of people who have moved from Azerbaijan to another country to live and work but maintain close ties with their homeland; and finally the largest group of all include Azerbaijanis who form ethnic minorities in their countries in which they live because their ancestors have lived there for centuries.  Moreover, in some places and for some individuals, the lines between these categories break down.

Because these groups are so different, their relationships to Baku and Azerbaijan are different, and the challenges the Azerbaijani government and people face in dealing with them are enormous, especially because some of the participants and many more outside actors do not understand this diversity or the ways in which expectations about such ties that are entirely justified in some circumstances are completely inappropriate in others, however much some for their own reasons may want them to be otherwise.  

Given this daunting demographic and political complexity, no single article can hope to comprehend this subject.  What follows is first, an overview of the number of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in different countries around the world, second, an assessment of their specific situation today, and third, a brief enumeration of the challenges this diversity poses for Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis at home and abroad.  

An Enormous Category

More than half of the 35 to 40 million Azerbaijanis living outside Azerbaijan live in Iran where most of them are part of a community that has existed for almost a millennium.  In Turkey, estimates of the number of Azerbaijanis range from 500,000 to a million, most of whom the descendents of one or another wave of emigration from Azerbaijan over the last century.  In Azerbaijan’s immediate neighborhood, there are some 400,000 Azerbaijanis in Georgia, 100,000 in Daghestan, and, after the exodus of almost all of the Azerbaijanis who had been living in Armenia as a result of the Karabakh war, fewer than a hundred in that neighboring country.  All three of these communities are the descendents of Azerbaijanis who have been living there for centuries.

In the Russian Federation, there are now at least 2.5 million and perhaps as many as three million Azerbaijanis, almost all of whom, except for the group in Daghestan, have arrived at the end of the Soviet period or after when they left their homeland to find work in Russian cities.  In Western Europe, there are growing diasporas of the classical kind: 60 to 80,000 in Germany, 30-40,000 in France, and another 50-70,000 elsewhere in Europe. And in North America, there are now more than 275,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis in Canada and more than 300,000 in the United States, again of the classical diaspora type. There are small Azerbaijani communities in Asia and elsewhere, but they are only beginning to emerge.

Five Different Situations

Iran. No group of Azerbaijanis living abroad is larger and more important but at the same time more misunderstood.  On the one hand, they still constitute a distinct ethnic community with its own past, problems and aspirations.  But on the other, many of its members are integrated into Iranian society so completely that ethnic Azerbaijanis are found at the very top of the Iranian political and social system.  Consequently, both observers and participants often shift between two polar positions – Azerbaijanis are oppressed and thus candidates for secession or Azerbaijanis are so integrated that any problems some have are irrelevant – when reality comprehends both of these and everything in between.

Prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979, the shah and those around him viewed the Azerbaijanis as outsiders and a potential threat to the Iranian nationalism Tehran then espoused. Not surprisingly, many ethnic Azerbaijanis resented this and were radicalized, and it was precisely in Tabriz, the most important city of Iranian Azerbaijan, that the revolution against the shah began.  Under Khomeini, the basis of political loyalty shifted from ethno-nationalism to Islam, something that made the integration of the Azerbaijanis in principle easier.

But if that was true for many of them – and one example of this integration is the fact that today the head of the Guardians Council is himself an Azerbaijani – it was not for others.  Many Iranian officials continued to treat the community in much the same way that they had under the shah, and some in the community felt a new sense of pride with the emergence of an independent Azerbaijan in 1991. That was and is all the more so because of the activities of some Azerbaijanis in Baku who would like to see “southern Azerbaijan” as Iran’s Azerbaijani area is called to be more autonomous, independent or even linked to the Republic. 
Turkey. The situation of Azerbaijanis in Turkey today is unique.  Unlike the political émigrés who arrived after the Soviet occupation of Baku, the ethnic Azerbaijanis in Turkey fit into Turkish life so well – they speak a closely related and fully mutually intelligible language and share a common commitment to Turkishness – that they sometimes find it difficult if not impossible to maintain their community as a separate and distinct entity.  At the same time, however, and given the influx of new arrivals from Azerbaijan and the Caucasus in the 1990s, most of them retain close ties to and interest in Azerbaijan, an attachment and a focus that makes them in some ways more a political community than an ethnic one. 

The Caucasus. Like the Azerbaijanis in Iran, the Azerbaijanis of the Caucasus are part of the same Turkic community that settled in this region a millennium ago.  The situation they find themselves in, today, however, varies widely.  In Armenia, from which all but a handful have been expelled, Azerbaijanis are forced to hide their identity, often changing their names and never flaunting their ethnicity in public.  In Georgia, the community has had a very complicated relationship with Tbilisi.  In the early 1990s, when the Gamsakhurdia government pursued a policy of “Georgia for the Georgians,” Azerbaijanis felt isolated and some left.  Later, under Shevardnadze, they were treated as full-fledged citizens of Georgia and had fewer problems.

Most recently, their rapidly growing size combined with the economic and political problems of Georgia has put them in a more difficult position once again, especially with regard to access to Azerbaijani-language higher education and jobs.  As a result, even though the community continues to increase – it is the largest ethnic minority in Georgia – many of its members are choosing to leave either temporarily for schooling and work or even permanently.

The slightly more than 100,000 Azerbaijanis in Daghestan, a republic within the Russian Federation, have their own schools, cultural institutions, and media.  Most of them live in Derbent, just north of the border of the Republic of Azerbaijan, although some have moved to other cities.  Despite being the seventh largest ethnic community in that republic, the Azerbaijanis there appear generally satisfied with their situation at present. 

The Russian Federation. Most of the members of this community are recent arrivals to Russia’s major cities. Indeed, according to some estimates, the Azerbaijanis number more than a million in Moscow alone and thus constitute the largest ethnic minority there. They have that status in many other Russian cities as well.

Because many Russians were offended by the arrival of what tradesmen and workers came to call “persons of Caucasus nationality” – a category in which the Azerbaijanis are the largest component – in the 1990s, some Azerbaijanis have been mistreated, beaten or even killed.  And most recently, some Azerbaijanis in Moscow have been involved in clashes with ethnic Armenians there, a development that Russian media outlets suggested meant that there is now “a Moscow Karabakh.”

Despite that, the Azerbaijani community is extremely active, has created a variety of independent social and political groups, secured the creation of some Azerbaijani-language, and, more than any other group, worked to make the system of non-territorial national-cultural autonomies Moscow has allowed work to their advantage. Indeed, at a recent meeting of the Azerbaijani federation of such autonomies, the leaders of other groups said they are copying what the Azerbaijanis have been doing. 

The West. The Azerbaijani communities in Western Europe, the United States and Canada are relatively new, rapidly growing, and consist of students and business people.  In most cases, they view themselves and are viewed by others as having a foot in both worlds, their homeland and their place of residence.  And given the openness of the societies in which they live, they are the most active in seeking to promote the interests of their own country which in almost every case they view as their own. In some of these countries, they are subject to relatively strong pressures to assimilate but in none are they victims of active government discrimination.

Three Distinct Challenges

In working with Azerbaijanis living outside of Azerbaijan, Baku faces three distinct challenges.  First, it must deal with the daunting diversity of this community, a diversity that many do not understand or for their own reasons are not prepared to recognize.  What works or even is appropriate in one place will not work or be appropriate in another.  And any effort to pursue a single policy toward all of the groups that make up this community will backfire, alienating the very people with whom Azerbaijan wants to maintain and develop relations.

Second, because Azerbaijan is entering the “diaspora” game relatively late compared to some other countries, it faces the obvious temptation to use the state alone as the means for organizing such communities abroad.  Not only does that ignore the important reality that these groups are distinctive and independent, but it opens the door to charges by other diasporas and states that Azerbaijanis abroad are nothing more than agents of Baku, charges that however untrue limit the value of what Azerbaijanis abroad can do for Azerbaijan. 

And third, by its involvement with Azerbaijanis abroad, Baku risks finding itself “captured” by the diaspora.  That is, the issues that agitate Azerbaijanis outside of Azerbaijan are not always the same as those which concern Azerbaijanis at home.  As a result, the actions and statements of the former can sometimes undercut the goals of Azerbaijani citizens and the policies of the Azerbaijani government, leading to misunderstandings and anger on both sides.

So far, Baku has successfully navigated through this minefield, but as ethnic communities abroad in general and Azerbaijanis living outside of Azerbaijan in particular become more important, both the people and government of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijanis abroad will have to work hard so that all involved will benefit and none will suffer.