Vol. 1, No. 9 (June 1, 2008)

Azerbaijan’s other ethnic minorities: Between politics and geopolitics

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

In addition to the Armenians in the occupied territories, Azerbaijan has numerous other ethnic minorities, some of whom play important political and even geopolitical roles even though taken together they amount to less than 10 percent of the population.  Most details about these communities, however, including even their exact numbers, remain matters of dispute. [1] And with rare exceptions, almost all the coverage they do receive has been tendentious, ranging from accusations, not in every case unfounded, of being tool of one or another foreign power to claims, not in every case true, that every member of these communities is entirely happy with everything about the situation inside Azerbaijan.  Perhaps the most balanced independent assessment of the status of these groups came from the Council of Europe in July 2004.  It noted that “Azerbaijan has made particularly commendable efforts in opening up the personal scope of the application of the Framework Convention to a wide range of minorities.  In Azerbaijan, the importance of the protection and promotion of cultures of national minorities is recognized, and the long history of cultural diversity of the country is largely valued.”
But at the same time, the Council continued, “the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its consequences have considerably hampered efforts to implement the Framework Convention,” and “despite certain positive legislative initiatives, there are a number of shortcomings in the legislation pertaining to the implementation of the Framework Convention.  The 2002 Law on the State Language [for example] contains regrettable reductions in the legal guarantees relating to the protection of national minorities.” [2]
Five of Azerbaijan's national minorities are especially important geopolitically either because they have sometimes enjoyed sponsorship from abroad and have acted in ways that undercut Azerbaijan's sovereignty – including the Talysh, the Lezgins, and the Kurds – or because their presence affects the way in which Azerbaijan defines itself regionally – the Russians – or because they help solidify ties to an important country abroad – the Tats.  (Other smaller groups sometimes have mattered in one or another of these same three ways.)  Below is an introduction to these groups and to some of the more important websites that regularly provide information about them. 
The Talysh.  Forming at least one percent of Azerbaijan's population and numbering at least 80,000, the Talysh, who live in the southern portion of the country and speak a language related to Persian, are far and away the country's largest nationality.  They are also the group that has presented the greatest challenge to the integrity of the state, and with the possible exception of the Kurds and the Lezgins, they are the ones who many in Baku believe are acting not to advance their own interests but rather to promote the interests of a foreign power, in this case Iran, the Russian Federation, or Armenia, acting on its own or on Moscow's behalf.
One of the reasons that the Talysh have attracted so much attention was an event that took place 15 years ago.  In the summer of 1993, activists proclaimed a Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic at a time when Azerbaijan itself was going through enormous political turmoil.  Once Heydar Aliyev established his position in Baku, however, the Azerbaijani army was able to crush this movement, arrest its leaders, and effectively end this challenge to the state.

But a Talysh National Movement, operating through the print and especially the Internet media, continues to exist albeit with the much reduced goal of restoring territorial autonomy for that nation.  Azerbaijani officials occasionally arrest journalists and others involved in promoting the idea of Talysh distinctiveness in order to make clear the limits of the permissible.  And it continues to be supported by Russian and Armenian-backed websites like http://khabal.info and by some parts of the Iranian media.  Indeed, whenever the Azerbaijani media increases its attention to ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, Iranian media invariably raise the issue of the status of the Talysh north of the border.
The Lezgins.  The other largest ethnic minority in Azerbaijan, the Lezgins, who may number as many as three-quarters of a million (despite an official estimate of less than a 25 percent of that) present a far more complicated challenge because their community has many co-ethnics in Russia's Daghestan, two of their villages in the northern part of Azerbaijan were designated as enclaves in the past, and their national movement, based in Daghestan, has a long history and many supporters there as well as in Armenia. [3] 
At least as early as 1965, the Lezgins called on Moscow to create a single Lezgin territory that would have combined land in the RSFSR and the Azerbaijan SSR.  Moscow rejected the call and arrested the authors of the appeal.  Then, in July 1990, Lezgins on both sides of the border created the Sadval (Unity) Movement to push for the same thing or even for independence, goals that neither the USSR nor the two successor states, the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan, were prepared to countenance.
Nonetheless, the Lezgins continue to advance demands, sometimes in Daghestan and sometimes in Azerbaijan, depending on political circumstances, and they too rely on Russian and Armenian-backed websites to promote their ideas.  Most recently, for example, http://khabal.info has taken the lead in reporting about Sadval efforts to ensure that their rights as an ethnic community are protected, efforts that Daghestan has responded to by creating a commission and Azerbaijan by using pro-Baku Lezgin group to denounce, convinced that standing behind the Sadval Movement is in the first instance Armenia. 
The Kurds.  Not surprisingly, the ethnic minority that generates the most concern in Baku is also the one about whom the least is known for certain and about whom there is the least agreement on such basic issues as numbers and location.  That consists of the Kurds.  In the 1920s, there were two Kurdish districts in Azerbaijan, one around Kalbajar and another around Lachin.  In the first decade of Soviet power, there were several Kurdish autonomous districts, but these were suppressed by Stalin.
Little was heard of them until the outbreak of the war over Karabakh.  Then, two things happened.  On the one hand, many of the 150,000 Kurds who had been living in Azerbaijan fled; and on the other, several Armenian officials and activists proposed to Moscow that the conflict be resolved by re-establishing Kurdish districts, an idea that one expert who was involved in Moscow at the time reports was actively considered before being rejected. [4] 
More recently, Azerbaijani media have reported that Armenia has invited Kurds from Iraq to resettle in the occupied territories, either to establish Yerevan's control there or to provoke Azerbaijan into taking military action in ways that might prove counterproductive.  But no one in the Azerbaijani media appears to doubt that there are such Kurds and that they are tools of the Armenian government rather than a community working for its own interests. [5] 
The Russians.  Numbering no more than 150,000 and rapidly declining, the ethnic Russian community of Azerbaijan plays an entirely different role.  On the one hand, it has not served as the lever against Baku that many nationalists in Moscow had assumed it would.  But on the other, it constitutes a powerful support group for the continued role of the Russian language in Azerbaijani life.  Were there no ethnic Russians in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani identity almost certainly would have swung more in the direction of Turkey than it has; but because they are present, Azerbaijanis continue to view themselves at least in part as members of the post-Soviet world, both more secular and more Russian-centered than would otherwise be the case.
Thus, even though they do not represent a direct challenge to Azerbaijani sovereignty and are only rarely discussed in such terms, the Russians of Azerbaijan have played and are likely to continue to play a larger role in defining how Azerbaijanis see themselves, making this ethnic minority probably the most important one of all, albeit in ways that most Azerbaijanis accept rather than see as any kind of a threat.  And it is entirely possible that the influence of this community could even grow in the future, if the number of Russians should begin to increase again as a result of Azerbaijan's rapidly growing economy and Moscow's interest in having a voice in Baku.
The Tats.  While there are Christian and Muslim Tats, the Tats who play the most important geopolitical role in Azerbaijan are the Jewish ones.  Although they number fewer than 10,000 in Azerbaijan at the present time, they are a key bridge between Azerbaijan and Israel to which many of them have emigrated.  Indeed, both Israeli officials and members of the community routinely argue that the Tats give additional content to the warming security and economic relationship between the two countries, something few other ethnic communities are capable of – the Udi in northwestern Azerbaijan and Georgia may be another – and one that is highly valued. [6]
As even this brief survey shows, the ethnic minorities of Azerbaijan currently play many roles, positive as well as negative, something that is often obscured by the lack of information and the tendentious coverage they and others offer about them.


[1] One 2007 estimate, drawing on UN figures, gives the following figures for some of the major minorities in Azerbaijan: 152,000 Armenians, 52,000 Avars, 17,000 Jewish Tatars, 199,000 Lezgins, 164,000 Russians, 84,000 Talysh, and 7,300 Udi.  Available at: http://www.joshuaproject.net/countries.php?rog3=AJ (last accessed May 27, 2008).  None of these figures is accepted by all.

[2] Council of Europe, “Resolution on the Implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities”, July 13, 2004, available at: wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=761919&BackColorInternet=9999CC&BackColorIntranet=&BackColorLogged=FDC864 (last accessed May 27, 2008).

[3] For a discussion, see “Армения поддерживает Садвал”, March 16, 2008, available at: http://www.ethnoglobus.com/index.php?page=full&id=165 (last accessed May 27, 2008); Fuller, Liz, “Does Azerbaijan Face A New Irredentist Threat?”, RFE/RL, May 15, 2008, available at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2008/05/mil-080515-rferl01.htm (last accessed May 27, 2008); and “О лезгинских ‘анклавах’ в Хачмасском районе”, available at: http://khabal.info/?l=rus&act=inf_view&id=47971512675%55144%5541652 (last accessed May 27, 2008). 

[4] “Курдестан в составе Армении”, May 26, 2008, available at: http://www.ethnoglobus.com/?page=full&id=267 (last accessed May 27, 2008). 

[5] Рустамов, Р., “ПКК, сепаратизм и Азербайджан”, Зеркало, May 24, 2008, available at: www.zerkalo.az/rubric.php?id=33026&dd=24&mo=5&yr=2008 (last accessed May 27, 2008).

[6] “Горские евреи: залог Азербайджано-Израильской дружбы”, May 28, 2008, available at: http://www.ethnoglobus.com/?page=full&id=271 (last accessed May 29, 2008).