Vol. 4, No. 24 (December 15, 2011)

Yerevan again ready to play "Talysh card"

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Recent statements by Armenian politicians about the possibility of using violence to “liberate” Armenian-populated districts in southern Georgia have attracted international attention, but Yerevan’s willingness to again try to play “the Talysh card” against Azerbaijan may be even more significant not only because it could presage revived interest in Talysh autonomy or more ominously new terrorist acts in Azerbaijan, but also because, according to one prominent Baku journalist, this Armenian willingness may be part of a broader Russian effort to influence the choice of gas pipeline routes out of the Caspian basin.

In the November 16 issue of Ekho, Nurani reports that Yerevan hosted what it called “the Second International Conference on Talysh Studies.” The meeting was organized by the Yerevan center Modus Vivendi, the Caucasian center of Iranian Studies, also in Yerevan, and ARMACAD, the Armenian Association of Academic Cooperation and Support.  The sponsor was the Hyksos Foundation. [1] 

While such an enterprise might seem of only academic interest, Nurani continues, the real purpose of this new Armenian interest in the Talysh minority in Azerbaijan is made clear by the statement of Ara Papyan, the president of the Modus Vivendi Center.  He suggested that the Talysh “particularly in Azerbaijan are subject to oppression and discrimination.  And while we speak out for the rights of the Armenian people, then naturally it is our moral duty to support such peoples in their efforts to preserve national identity and the development of their culture.  If various peoples preserve their identity in Azerbaijan, then they will in this way help maintain the regional balance, something which is very profitable for us.”

In short, the Ekho journalist writes, Yerevan is once again backing the Talysh not so much in order to support this minority group, but rather to support Armenians.  And that goal in turn helps to explain why the Yerevan session, although billed as “international,” was largely limited to Armenians and to those Talysh like Fahraddin Abbaszade, who believe that Armenian meetings can help them “restore Talysh statehood and resolve the problems of all the indigenous peoples of the South Caucasus.”

Nurani said that it was unclear whether Alikram Humbatov, who in 1993 proclaimed the Talysh-Mugan Republic and who now lives in exile in the Netherlands, had come, but the leaders of the Talysh community in Azerbaijan, a group whose numbers are disputed—just under 80,000 people declared themselves Talysh in the 1999 Azerbaijani census, but many Talysh activists and scholars suggest the real number is larger—did not attend.  Hilal Mammadov, the head of the Talysh Cultural Center in Azerbaijan, said he would not attend, because “there is no sense in going to a conference in the capital of a country, which occupies 20 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan.”

Armenia, a state where the Talysh have never lived in significant numbers, is interested in “the Talysh question” now, Nurani says, “exclusively out of hatred to Azerbaijan,” “against which they try to use all means, both permissible and not.” As a result of this, there has now been “a conference on Talysh studies.” That would be understandable perhaps, but as Nurani suggests, the real question is another: will the activity of Yerevan in ‘the Talysh question’ be limited exclusively to conferences or will it involve something far more dangerous?

Unfortunately, as Nurani points out, there is a precedent for thinking that the worst is possible.  On March 19, 1994, and on July 3, 1994, terrorists set off explosions in the Baku metro, which caused 27 lives and left 91 people injured.  It turned out, the journalist continues, that “both explosions were committed by militants of Sadval, the Lazgi separatist group, who had been recruited by the special services of Armenia and passed through training on its territory.  The executor of the first explosion was Oqtay Gurbanov, who died in the course of the terrorist act; that of the second was Azar Aslanov, who then was tried and convicted in a Baku court.

According to Nurani, “if things have changed in Armenia since the mid-1990s, then they have done so only to the worse,” because “those who [at that time] planned and prepared terrorist acts against Azerbaijan ‘in the field,’ now occupy extremely high posts.  And, as is well known, there are no former terrorists.” There is yet another reason for concern, the journalist says: terrorist acts are often conducted by those who know, as Armenian leaders do now, that they lack the strength to win in any other way.  Consequently, “there is not and cannot be any certainty” that Yerevan “will not try again to use terrorist methods against Azerbaijan” through the recruitment and use of marginal figures among the Talysh, a practice that could give Armenia much-needed deniability.

But yet another question arises, Nurani says.  Given the extent of Russian influence and even control over Armenia, one is required to ask “how independent is Armenia regarding such decisions?”  The Russian Federation has intensified its “diplomatic activity along the Nabucco route” even though European demand for gas is so great that there is room for all.  Thus, there is “no doubt” that “Moscow needs not only and not so much successful business as the opportunity to use the supply of oil and gas as a means of political pressure.  And in such a situation, efforts to ‘press’ Azerbaijan, whose independent energy policy is radically changing the distribution of forces, cannot be excluded either.”

Thus it may be, the Baku journalist concludes, that “not just Yerevan will try to play ‘the Talysh card,’” but one thing is certain: “the interests of the Talysh will be the last thing their ‘defenders’ will consider.”


[1] See http://echo-az.com/index.php?aid=16942 (accessed 13 December 2011).