Vol. 3, No. 8 (April 15, 2010)

'Azerbaijani by nationality but patriots of Estonia’: The Azerbaijani community of Estonia

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy*

When President Ilham Aliyev visited Estonia earlier this month, he was in a country with not one Azerbaijani ambassador but rather as many as 6,000.  While Baku does not yet have an embassy in Tallinn, although one is scheduled to open later this year, the number is a reflection of the activity of the Azerbaijani community in that Baltic capital, a community whose members proudly say that they are “Azerbaijani by nationality, but patriots of Estonia.”

Although Estonians have been in Azerbaijan longer than Azerbaijanis have been in Estonia—some Estonians worked for the Nobel family firm in the 19th century and a few owned their own oil wells—the two countries and their peoples have a long history of contacts.  In the 19th century, some students from Azerbaijan attended the University of Tartu, and in 1919-1920, Tallinn and Baku explored establishing diplomatic relations, but before they could do so, Soviet forces occupied Azerbaijan and suppressed that country’s independence.

By the end of the Soviet period, there were numerous Azerbaijanis in Estonia, and in 1988, they created the Odzhag Cultural Society, a group which was founded to support the continued existence of the Azerbaijani community in Estonia and to promote cultural ties between the two countries.  It was renamed in 1996 as the Azerbaijani Community of Estonia and continues to be active.
In advance of President Aliyev’s visit, Vestnik Kavkaza ran a three-part article about the Azerbaijani community of Estonia which among other things featured an extensive interview with Niyaz Gadzhiyev, who had been part of the Odzhag Society and now heads the Azerbaijani Cultural Center in Tallinn. [1] 

In 1988, Gadzhiyev pointed out, there were “no more than 2,000” Azerbaijanis in Estonia, but they were “very active “and became the first who supported the independence of the Estonian Republic.”  In the course of doing that, he said, the society raised the flag of the Republic of Azerbaijan there, even though “before this many did not know that Azerbaijan had its own flag.”

During the drive toward the recovery of Estonian independence, Azerbaijanis there “participated in the forum of national minorities where, Gadzhiyev said, the people from the Caucasus served as “a connecting thread” that helped maintain relations between Estonians and Russians.  “We never wanted that Estonians would think that all Russians are occupiers and that Russians in turn would say that all Estonians are fascists.”

Gadzhiyev said he is “proud” that the Azerbaijanis in Estonia have succeeded in overcoming some of the stereotypes that people had in Soviet times and have become full-fledged members of Estonian society even while maintaining their national culture and links to their homeland.  One Azerbaijani, for example, Eldar Efendiyev served as mayor of Narva and population affairs minister and now is a member of parliament.  Moreover, there are now several Azerbaijani restaurants in the Estonian capital, and the very first Azerbaijani wine shop anywhere outside of Azerbaijan opened in Tallinn a few years ago.  In addition, Azerbaijanis have organized their own puppet theater and kindergarten there.

“At the present time,” Gadzhiyev told Vestnik Kavkaza, “there is no Azerbaijani embassy in Estonia.”  As a result, the Azerbaijani community in Estonia “plays the role of a bridge between our two countries.”  It has organized visits, including one by Diaspora Minister Nazim Ibrahimov, staged national day celebrations, and promoted translations of Azerbaijani literature, including Kitabi Dede Gorgud, and even a book entitled Estonians in Azerbaijan in the 19th and 20th Century by Jafar Mammadov.

And while there have been occasional problems in the relationship—earlier this year, a group of Sumgayit residents staged a protest demanding the release from Estonian jail of two Azerbaijani businessmen convicted of drug smuggling—the Azerbaijani community of Estonia has played a key role in promoting ties between these two nations on the shores respectively of the Baltic and the Caspian seas.

* This article is the first in an occasional series on Azerbaijani communities in countries around the world.


[1] http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/articles/kultura/history/17336.html, http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/articles/kultura/history/17748.html, and 
http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/articles/kultura/history/17336.html (accessed 2 April 2010).