Vol. 6, No. 9-10 (May 15, 2013)

Azerbaijan’s Russian Diaspora organization marks twentieth anniversary

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

In contrast to most other post-Soviet states and reflecting its long tradition of ethnic and religious tolerance, Azerbaijan has its own Russian Diaspora Organization, a group that enjoys the support of both the Azerbaijani and Russian governments.  This year, it marks its 20th anniversary, and to commemorate that event, Nargiz Asadova, the ethnic Azerbaijani host of Ekho Moskvy’s “Lingua Franca” program, devoted two of her weekly broadcasts to its history and current activities.  

In the first, she interviewed Mikhail Zabelin, the Milli Majlis deputy who organized the Russian Diaspora Community in 1993 and now heads that 70,000-strong group, along with several others; [1] and in the second, she spoke with Polad Bul-Bul Ogly, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Moscow. [2] 

According to the 1989 Soviet census, there were 392,000 ethnic Russians in Azerbaijan at that time.  Their numbers fell significantly in the first years after the restoration of Azerbaijani independence and stood at 142,000 in 1999 and at 114,000 now, making them the fourth largest ethnic group in the country after Azerbaijanis, Lazgis and Armenians.  The number of Russians seems larger to many because 95 percent of them live in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.  In contrast to some other post-Soviet states, Azerbaijan has not closed Russian language schools, but it has decided that all official documents will be in Azerbaijani.

The last years of Soviet power and the first years of independence were difficult ones for the ethnic Russians in Azerbaijan, Zabelin said.  There were the events of Black January 1990, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and a change in the ethnic hierarchy that they had grown used to in Soviet times.  As a result, he continued, many ethnic Russians felt they were out of place, and many went back to the Russian Federation.

To help those who remained and reflecting the new realities following the coming to power of Heydar Aliyev, Zabelin continued, he created the Russian community and officially registered it with the authorities.  President Aliyev was extremely supportive.  In January 1994, the head of the community said, the president called and asked, “how will you mark Christmas?”  Zabelin said he told him about the celebration the organization had planned, and Aliyev responded, “I will be at your Christmas concert.”

When President Aliyev arrived, he told the group that, “I guarantee your security.  You are citizens of Azerbaijan.  Never leave.  Remain here to live.  As it was with the Russian language so too it will remain.”  The ethnic Russians of Azerbaijan belied him, Zabelin said, and that is why there are more than 100,000 of them there, while there are only minuscule ethnic Russian communities in neighboring Georgia and Armenia.

However, it is also the case, Zabelin said, that “without the support of Russia, it would have been impossible to carry out” many of the programs of the Russian diaspora in Azerbaijan.  Those include the Russian Information Cultural Center, the branches of Russian universities, and the activities of the Russian embassy.  A Russian instructor in Azerbaijan telephoned the program and said that things had been bad for Russians before 1993, but after Heydar Aliyev “came to power, everything changed;” and she recalled that “at one of the sessions” of the diaspora organization early on, the Azerbaijani leader said that “Russian is just as important to us as English or as our own state language, Azerbaijani.”  

The teacher further explained that rumors notwithstanding, Azerbaijan never banned broadcasts in Russian.  Baku simply asked for a price for rebroadcasting that Russian companies were unprepared to pay.  And a third caller, Nargiz Shekinskaya, a journalist at RTVi in Baku, added that Russian language materials dominate the Internet in Azerbaijan even more than they do the print media. 

Ambassador Bul-Bul ogly provided another perspective the following week.  He said that in his view, “the independence of Russian publications in Azerbaijan, including newspapers, journals and website, had become greater than it was in Soviet times.”  Baku has always been “an international city,” and its residents have always wanted to learn foreign languages, including Russian.  Now, compared to Soviet times, interest there in Russian is somewhat less, because many Azerbaijanis plan to study or work in Turkey, Europe or the United States. Obviously, young people with such plans will want to learn the languages of those places rather than Russian.  But many still want to go to Russia and for them, Russian is critical.

The ambassador added that Russians in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis in Russia constitute “agents of influence” for their countries, “in the good sense of the term.”  And he suggested that Russians need to recognize that the Azerbaijani diaspora in the Russian Federation includes numerous doctors, lawyers, scholars, and engineers and not just the unskilled laborers or market workers that the Russian media talks about so often.  

As far as the future of the Russian language among Azerbaijanis is concerned, Bul-Bul ogly concluded, it is “difficult to predict,” adding that it will depend on the relationship between Russia and Azerbaijan.  If Russia makes itself more attractive, then more Azerbaijanis will learn Russian, because they will want to go there.  If not, the rising generation will learn other languages, because its members will want to go elsewhere.  That, too, will affect the status of the Russian diaspora in Azerbaijan.


[1] See http://echo.msk.ru/programs/linguafranca/1059532-echo/ (accessed 2 May 2013).

[2] See http://echo.msk.ru/programs/linguafranca/1062570-echo/ (accessed 2 May 2013).