Vol. 3, No. 10 (May 15, 2010)

Between Moscow and Baku: The Azerbaijani Diaspora in Russia

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Two events last week highlighted the increasing importance of the more than 1.5 million Azerbaijanis who now live and work in the Russian Federation, the largest Azerbaijani diaspora community in the world and one that represents both an important link and a frequent source of tension between the two.

On the one hand, Azerbaijan opened a new consulate general in Yekaterinburg, a reflection of the growing size of the Azerbaijani workforce in Siberia and the Russian Far East.  And on the other, Azerbaijanis clashed with Russian veterans in the Baltic city of Kronstadt, an indication of the often tense relationship between Gastarbeiters from the South Caucasus and Central Asia and the indigenous ethnic Russian population.

During Soviet times, Moscow encouraged non-Russians like the Azerbaijanis to move to the RSFSR not only to promote Russian-language knowledge but to advance acculturation and assimilation goals, just as the central government supported the movement of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers to non-Russian republics such as Azerbaijan.  But the numbers of Azerbaijanis who chose to remain in the Russian Republic remained relatively small until the very end of the Soviet period.

Then, as a result of the loosening of controls such as the propiska-registration system and the economic and political dislocations arising from the collapse of the Soviet economy and conflicts such as the Nagorno-Karabakh war, massive numbers of Azerbaijanis, just like residents of other former Soviet republics, left their homeland in search of work or higher incomes in the Russian Federation, often sending remittances home that have played a key role in supporting their families.    

Most of the Azerbaijanis are concentrated in the major cities.  There may be as many as 750,000 in Moscow alone, for example.  That pattern means that their presence is more notable not only because such concentrations mean that they have changed the ethnic (Russian-non-Russian) and  religious (Sunni-Shia) balance often generating a response from surrounding groups and the Russian government but also because it has allowed them and Baku to oversee the creation of a remarkable network of institutional arrangements designed to protect and promote both Azerbaijani identity and good relations between Azerbaijanis and ethnic Russians.

To support ties with the Azerbaijanis of other countries, Baku five years ago created a State Committee for Work with Azerbaijanis Living Abroad.  (The government of Azerbaijan adopted that somewhat expansive locution to deal with the complex origins of these communities, some of whom like in the Russian Federation are true diasporas while others like the enormous one in Iran are not diasporas but rather autochthonian communities.)  That body has sought to develop relations with the Azerbaijani communities themselves as well as to work with host governments to ensure that Azerbaijanis living there register with the authorities and are treated well.

The organizations of the Azerbaijani diaspora in the Russian Federation are of three types.  First, there are those which represent a response to Russian legislation.  These include such things as the organization in various cities and regions of Azerbaijani cultural autonomy institutions, which work with the authorities to advance the language and cultural interests of the local groups.  Second, there are those which the Azerbaijani community has developed on its own, including newspapers, websites, cultural centers and the like.  And third, there are Azerbaijani government institutions, like the embassy and the new consulate general which work with citizens of Azerbaijan living in the Russian Federation and which provide a framework for contacts between Baku and Moscow by the State Committee.

The two biggest challenges all these bodies have had is to secure registration for Azerbaijanis living and working in the Russian Federation and to protect the rights of these individuals from arbitrary action by Russian employers or Russian government officials.  Because such a relatively small percentage of the Azerbaijanis in the Russian Federation are registered—it may be fewer than 50 percent—this is a serious problem.  Many unregistered workers are subject to truly oppressive situations and are at constant risk of losing their jobs, their apartments or even their continued ability to live in Russia.  At various points, Russian nationalist groups and the Russian government have stepped up their pressure on Azerbaijanis, pressure that affects not only the diaspora but the family members of the diaspora still in Azerbaijan.  If all Azerbaijanis were registered, this problem would be much reduced, but to date, Russian officials have been unwilling or unable to register all those who have come.

But these problems, which often attract most of the media attention—the clashes in Kronstadt received far more coverage than the opening of the consulate general in Yekaterinburg, to give but one example—do not constitute the entire picture.  Azerbaijanis living in Moscow and other Russian cities are not only a source of tension but also an increasingly significant link between Azerbaijan and Russia.  Cultural activities, publications of books, intermarriage and similar phenomena all suggest that these communities are an increasingly important if far too seldom discussed tie between the two nations.

That is something that the authorities in Baku recognize, and that recognition informs the work of the State Committee.  If the Russian powers that be move more quickly to ensure that all Azerbaijanis living in the Russian Federation either gain registration immediately or are given the chance to begin the process of receiving that status, the relationship between the Azerbaijani diaspora and the Russian nation almost certainly will grow stronger.  But if nationalist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant voices are heeded and Moscow’s immigration policies become even more restrictive, then the Azerbaijani diaspora is likely to become one of the chief sources of discord between the two peoples and their two governments, however much each side may want to cooperate with the other.