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Analysis: Does Azerbaijan Face A New Irredentist Threat?

Two separate recent developments have served to focus attention on the potential for conflict posed by the division between Russia and Azerbaijan of the historic homeland of the Lezgins. The first is the need to legalize the status of the two villages of Khrakhoba (Qıraqoba) and Uryanoba in northern Azerbaijan that under an agreement signed in 1954 and extended for a further 20 years in 1984 were designated Russian exclaves within Azerbaijan, and whose Lezgin population is now reportedly demanding that the districts again be formally declared a Russian enclave. The second is a conference that opened in Moscow on May 14 at which printed materials were distributed outlining and apparently endorsing Lezgin territorial claims on Azerbaijani territory.

The Lezgins are a northeastern Caucasian ethnos who claim to be the descendants of the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania that fell to Arab conquerors in the 8th century A.D. Their historic homeland was divided in 1860 between two gubernias of Tsarist Russia, Daghestan, which in 1918 remained part of Russia, and Shemakha, which formed part of the shortlived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic that was subsumed into Soviet Russia in 1920. The border between the two entities, which since the collapse of the USSR in late 1991 has become an international frontier, is the Samur River. At the time of the 2002 Russian Federation census, there were 336,698 Lezgins living in Daghestan, primarily in the south of the republic. Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan vary widely. According to official data, they number only 178,000, while unofficial estimates range from 400,000 to 850,000.

The first demands by Lezgins in the USSR for a separate territorial-administrative unit date back to 1965, and were swiftly suppressed. In July 1990, inspired by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, Lezgins in Daghestan formed an informal organization named Sadval (Unity) to campaign for the "unification" of Lezgin-populated territories, a demand that resonated with at least some of their co-ethnics in the Azerbaijan SSR. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, some Sadval members, primarily in Daghestan, advocated lobbying for an independent state. Possibly for that reason, the Russian Justice Ministry suspended the organization's registration in July 1993. Following infighting among its members in 1995, Sadval officially renounced its campaign for an independent Lezgin state at its sixth congress in April 1996.

Two years later, however, Sadval split into a radical wing and a more moderate wing. The former resurrected the dream of an independent Lezgin state, while the latter advocated the creation of an autonomous territory for the Lezgins within Daghestan that would have the status of a separate federation subject and of a free economic zone, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on January 27, 1999. Infighting between the two factions continued for several years, during which the movement apparently forfeited much of what popular support it once enjoyed.

In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on August 25, 2004, one of Sadval's co-chairmen, Nasyr Primov, admitted that Sadval was experiencing "a period of stagnation." Primov nonetheless insisted that Sadval's goals remain unchanged, namely, "to unite the Lezgin nation, make the frontiers transparent, and give people the opportunity to meet and move freely." Asked whether Sadval still harbored territorial claims on Azerbaijan, Primov denied that it pursues any aims in Azerbaijan, but in a seeming contradiction he added that "our only desire, our dream if you like, is to unite the entire Lezgin people in one state."

As of early 2006, indications surfaced that the moderate wing of Sadval intended to resurrect that goal, by redrawing the borders of Azerbaijan to incorporate the Lezgin-populated regions of southern Daghestan and creating a Lezgin autonomous region, according to an article published on January 26, 2006, in the Azerbaijani online daily The paper quoted an unidentified source within Sadval as arguing that "the Daghestan Lezgins cannot remain within a republic that is being turned into a breeding ground for international terrorism and which is choking in the grip of an interethnic confrontation in which several foreign countries have a hand." In other words, by 2006 Sadval's ultimate objective had apparently shifted from an independent state, to an autonomous Lezgin region within Daghestan that would subsume part of northern Azerbaijan, to an autonomous Lezgin region within Azerbaijan, which would have necessitated the surrender of Russian territory.

There still exists, however, a government-backed body within Azerbaijan that claims to represent the Lezgins' collective interests. Named Samur, that organization abjures any territorial claims on the Russian Federation; in a May 15 interview with, its chairman, Shair Gasanov, insisted that the rights of Lezgins in Azerbaijan are not infringed in any respect.

The sponsors of the Moscow conference, which is formally devoted to the history and culture of the Lezgin peoples from the era of Caucasian Albania to the present day, include the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Regional Development Ministry, and the Russian State Duma, implying official backing at the very highest state level. And among the materials distributed at the conference, according to the online publication on May 15, is a brochure published jointly by the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of the Lezgins and the State Duma's Committee for Nationality Affairs, the author of which calls for official condemnation of the division and "ethnocide" of the Lezgin people in the 1920s. He further slams the current border between the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan as "illegitimate" and demands it be redrawn to incorporate the northern districts of Azerbaijan into Daghestan.

Speaking on May 15 at a press conference in Baku, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim said the Azerbaijani Embassy in Moscow is following developments at the conference, and that Azerbaijan will "respond appropriately" to any "separatist" moves or threats to its territorial integrity, reported.