Vol. 6, No. 12 (June 15, 2013)

Eighty percent of Azerbaijanis now live beyond Republic’s borders

Rauf Huseynzade
Baku State University

More than 80 percent of the 50 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in the world live beyond the borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan, most because of political divisions imposed on the territory more than a century ago where Azerbaijanis had lived for centuries, but an increasing number because of emigration.
This division reflects the fact that the traditional areal of the Azerbaijanis extends from Derbent in the North and Hamadan in the South and from the Caspian Sea in the East to Anatolia in the West for a total area of 410,000 square kilometers.  Of this area, the Republic of Azerbaijan covers only 86,600 square kilometers, slightly more than one fifth of the total.  Iran includes 230,000 square kilometers of historical Azerbaijani territory, Armenia nearly 30,000, Georgia about 10,000 and the Russian Federation some 3,600 square kilometers.
In this first category of Azerbaijanis now abroad are the 35 million Azerbaijanis who live in Iran, the 380,000 Azerbaijanis who live in Georgia, and a fraction of the 1.3 million who live in the Russian Federation.  Prior to 1988 and the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, more than 200,000 lived in what is now the Republic of Armenia, a territory that for centuries was part of the Azerbaijani areal.  Almost all of those have been forced to flee since that time.

In the second category of those living beyond the borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan are a more sizeable fraction of the 1.3 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in the Russian Federation, one million in the US, 170,000 in France, 150,000 in Turkey, 90,000 in Kazakhstan, 60,000 in Ukraine, 50,000 in Kyrgyzstan, 15,000 in Belarus, 10,000 in the Scandinavian countries, 7,000 in Moldova, and 5,000 in the Baltic states.  Some of these Azerbaijanis have been in these countries for many years, but most have moved there over the last two decades.

At the same time, there are more than 20 different ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan itself, including the Avars, the Armenians, the Belorussians, the Budugs, the Georgians, the Mountain Jews, the Ashkenazi Jews, the Georgian Jews, the Ingiloy, the Kryzes, the Kurds, the Lezgins, the Germans, the Aysors, the Russians, the Talysh, the Tatars, the Tats, the Akhska Turks, the Udis,, the Ukrainians, the Khinalugis, and the Tsarkhurs.

While the forebears of the Azerbaijanis on that territory were there as long ago as the third millennium BCE and while certain Syrian legends refer to the existence of Adobaygan as early as the 8th century BCE, the first reliable reference to them as an ethno-territorial group appeared in the sixth century CE. 
Until the late 18th and early 19th century, Azerbaijanis and their Motherland developed within the framework of local states as a single whole with a common history, language, culture and religion.  But in the first third of the 19th century, the Azerbaijani people and their land were divided by the force of arms between the Russian and Iranian monarchies.  Two Azerbaijanis appeared, North and South, which like the people itself are on different sides of a state border and have developed according to different political, social-economic and cultural-ideological models.

In the second half of the 18th and the first third of the 19th centuries there were some 20 Azerbaijani khanates, the most significant of which were Baku, Ganja, Garabakh, Guba, Urmia, and Sheki.  In modern times, Azerbaijan was completely included within a local state twice, the Ildenizid (1136-1225 CE) and the Safavid (1501-1736).  But earlier, there were two longer-lasting Azerbaijani states, each of which existed for more than a millennium, the Albanian which lasted from the third century BCE to the seventh CE and the Shirvan which extended from the sixth to the 14th century CE.
Northern Azerbaijan was initially within the Russian Empire (1828-1917), then existed as the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920), then as the Azerbaijan SSR within the USSR (1922-1991), and since 1991 as the independent Azerbaijan Republic.  Southern Azerbaijan, in contrast, has had a somewhat simpler political history.  It remained under the Iranian monarchy until 1978 (with the brief exception of the Soviet-sponsored Azerbaijan Peoples Republic at the end of World War II) and has been part of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1978.
Further adding to the complexity of the ethnogenesis of the Azerbaijanis today is the existence of sub-ethnic groups within that nation.  These include in the Azerbaijan Republic, the Shirvan, the Guba-Khachmaz, the Western, the Ganja-Dashkasan, and the Nakhchuvan, and in Southern, or Iranian, Azerbaijan—the Western Azerbaijan, the Eastern Azerbaijan, the Ardabil, the Hamadan, the Zanjan, and the Kazvin.
But despite this daunting complexity, three things about Azerbaijanis stand out: First, all of them identify as Azerbaijanis.  Second, they recognize the diversity, linguistic, cultural and political, among themselves.  And third, more than most neighboring peoples, they display an extraordinary level of tolerance toward minorities different than themselves who live among them.