Vol. 5, no. 4 (February 15, 2012)

Azerbaijan Republic should be renamed Northern Azerbaijan, Milli Majlis deputies say

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Invoking public opinion, several Azerbaijani deputies, including members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party say that the Republic of Azerbaijan should be renamed Northern Azerbaijan in order to reflect the fact that large segments of Azerbaijani territory were transferred to and incorporated into other states as a result of treaties concluded without regard to the opinions of Azerbaijanis and that millions of ethnic Azerbaijani live on these territories to this day.

On February 1, Siyavush Novruzov, a Milli Majlis deputy from the ruling party, said that “there are the examples of North and South Korea and North and South Cyprus,” and consequently, that it would be appropriate if Azerbaijan as a divided state were to be called Northern Azerbaijan.” [1]

Other deputies expanded on his point.  Gudrat Hasanguliyev, a member of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, noted that Southern Azerbaijan now in Iran forms “two-thirds” of Azerbaijan. “Therefore,” he said, “there is every basis for renaming our republic Northern Azerbaijan.” He added that because the early nineteenth century Gulistan and Turkmenchay treaties that drew the line through Azerbaijan were “adopted against the will of the Azerbaijani people,” they must be annulled as part of this process.

And Fazail Agamaly, a deputy who heads the Motherland Party, noted that, “despite the fact that the history of Azerbaijan had periods when it was integral, this was not reflected in the historical documents.” He urged that there should be a referendum about this, one that would revise Paragraph 11 of the country’s constitution and specify that “Azerbaijan consists of Northern, Southern and Western Azerbaijan.”

Such comments are striking, all the more so because few countries are more committed to the principle of territorial integrity than is Azerbaijan, a position Baku has taken as part of its efforts to end the Armenian occupation of one-fifth of its territory.  Obviously, any suggestion that current political borders do not correspond to historical or ethnographic ones could generate problems with Azerbaijan’s neighbors, especially because some of them not only would feel threatened, but would also feel entitled to make such claims of their own, claims that would only exacerbate tensions across the region.

But despite such considerations, which are likely to drive the policy of the Azerbaijani government, there are at least three reasons why such rhetoric is appearing at the present time and at least implicitly with official support:  First, attention to Azerbaijanis abroad promotes national pride and unity among all groups within the Republic.  Second, Yerevan’s current effort to recast that city’s past as purely Armenian offends against Azerbaijani sensibilities.  And third—and by far the most important—escalating tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have focused attention in the Republic on the more than one-third of the Iranian population that consists of ethnic Azerbaijanis.

Azerbaijanis have always been attentive to their co-ethnics abroad, but as their country has assumed a larger role on the international scene, they have increased their attention to the more than 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis living in other countries, the overwhelming majority of whom live in neighboring Iran.  The government via its State Committee on Work with the Diaspora has contributed to this expansion in attention as have domestic and international media and especially Internet sites devoted to Azerbaijani communities in Iran, Russia, Georgia, Europe and the United States.  And increasingly, Azerbaijanis within the Republic see defending the interests of these communities as an important national task.

Intriguingly, one of the places Azerbaijanis focus on more than anywhere else is a place where there used to be a large number of ethnic Azerbaijanis, but which now has almost none—Armenia.  Many of the Azerbaijanis who lived there fled at the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the defining touchstone of Azerbaijani identity today.  But Armenia in recent weeks has taken steps that have led increasingly more Azerbaijanis to be angry.  Specifically, the Yerevan government has announced plans to reconstruct a section of the Armenia capital to suggest that it has always been Armenian.  That offends not only Azerbaijanis, but historical truth because until the twentieth century, Erivan was a Turkic Muslim khanate.

Reacting to the latest Armenian plans, Fuad Akhundov, the head of a sector of the social-political department of the Presidential Administration, argued that “the creation in Yerevan of an artificial historical center is a continuation of the policy of genocide against Azerbaijani civilization.” [2] Most Azerbaijanis and most historians would agree with this, as they would in rejecting Armenian claims about “a greater Armenia.” Talking about the enormous region in which Azerbaijanis live beyond the Soviet-imposed borders of the Republic and even speaking about “Western” Azerbaijan is a natural rhetorical reaction, even if it is one that does not go beyond that.

But far and away the most important factor in sparking such talk in Baku is the worsening of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.  On the one hand, these tensions reflect the current standoff between Iran and the international community over Tehran’s nuclear program.  But on the other, they reflect certain specific features of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations, among which the following are perhaps the most important.

First, the current Iranian regime, even though its top leaders such as Ayatollah Khamenei are themselves of Azerbaijani Turkic origin, has cracked down hard on the nearly 30 million Iranian Azerbaijanis, routinely arresting activists and crushing efforts by that Turkic community to promote their distinct linguistic and cultural community.  

Second, the Iranian government has promoted Islamic radicalism in Azerbaijan itself and has expressed its anger about Baku’s close relations with the West and especially with Israel.  This anger last month took the form of an effort to destroy the Israeli embassy in the Azerbaijani capital.  And as Sabir Rustamkhanly, a Milli Majlis deputy, noted two weeks ago, Tehran appears to be interested in destabilizing Azerbaijan because it has completely failed to spark an Islamist revolution there. [3] 

And third, as Milli Majlis deputy Ganira Pashayeva noted earlier this month, “Iran has always supported Armenia.  If at one time Iran had closed its border with Armenia, then it is possible that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would have been resolved long ago.  But Iran supports Armenia and today has with it broad economic ties.” [4] 

Given these factors, it should not surprise anyone that some in Azerbaijan are now talking about renaming their country in order to emphasize the existence of this larger Azerbaijani community, but given the balanced foreign policy of President Ilham Aliyev, it should also not surprise anyone that such understandable anger is not going to be translated into government action.


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/312846.html (accessed 14 February 2012).

[2] See http://news.day.az/politics/315295.html (accessed 14 February 2012).

[3] See http://news.day.az/politics/315570.html (accessed 14 February 2012).

[4] See http://news.day.az/politics/315552.html (accessed 14 February 2012).