Police intervened on June 8 to prevent a protest by Derbent residents against the renaming of a street in honor of deceased Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, even though the municipal authorities had raised no objection to holding the demonstration. Fourteen protest participants were briefly detained
. Traffic police intercepted others
on the outskirts of the city and prevented them from proceeding to the square where the demonstration was to take place.
The organizers now plan to convene a republic-level protest
in Makhachkala. They stress that the protest is not directed against the Azerbaijani people, but against a perceived policy of discrimination and forced assimilation of Azerbaijan's ethnic minorities, including the Avars, Lezgins, Tsakhurs, and Aguls who are among Daghestan's 14 titular nationalities. So too are the Azerbaijanis, who account for an estimated 20 percent of the population of southern Daghestan, and an even larger share of the population of Derbent.
The incident has triggered an impassioned discussion among Daghestan's bloggers, and expressions of concern from public figures at the possible negative repercussions. Those comments focus on both the domestic political and the geopolitical aspects of the situation.
The Derbent municipal authorities, in particular Mayor Imam Yaraliyev, are criticized for having decided to rename Sovetskaya Street without having consulted with residents, 274 of whom reportedly signed a petition in protest
. Some bloggers imply that Yaraliyev may have accepted inducements from the Azerbaijani leadership, or been won over by promises of investment.
The decision to rename the street in honor of Heydar Aliyev was reportedly made on May 8, prior to the arrest of powerful Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, with whom Yaraliyev is allegedly allied. That putative alliance led one blogger to suggest Yaraliyev decided to quash the protest to curry favor
with acting Republic of Daghestan President Ramazan Abdulatipov. Prior to his arrest, Amirov was widely regarded as the most serious potential challenger
to Abdulatipov in the event of direct election for republic head.
Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, who is deputy editor of the independent Daghestani weekly "Novoye delo," inferred that "there are clearly people in Daghestan, in particular in Derbent, who no longer consider themselves Daghestanis" and instead are lobbying the interests
of a foreign country.
But it is also possible that the Derbent municipal authorities gave the green light for the renaming of Sovetskaya Street under pressure from the Russian leadership, which intends the gesture
as an olive branch in the wake of the prolonged and acrimonious dispute with Baku over the continued use by Russia of the Qabala over-the-horizon radar station.
Azerbaijani Influence In Daghestan
Other bloggers protest the planned glorification of a foreign political figure who, they claim, implemented a long-term policy of forced assimilation of ethnic minorities, in particular the Lezgins, in Azerbaijan. As part of that policy, during national censuses members of ethnic minorities are reportedly pressured to identify themselves as Azerbaijanis.
Those commentators also recall the removal of the plaque with the name of the unique 12th-century Lezgi mosque, and the destruction of a monument
in Azerbaijan's northern Zakatala district to Daghestan's national hero, Imam Shamil. They note that while ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan are deprived of education and TV and radio broadcasting in their native languages, Heydar Aliyev had transmitters built to ensure that the Azerbaijani population of southern Daghestan could watch Azerbaijani state TV. He also provided free of charge
Azerbaijani-language textbooks for Azeri schools in southern Daghestan.
Some Lezgin commentators argue that since current President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his late father in 2003, that cultural assimilation has been parlayed into systematic geopolitical and economic expansion
. They adduce as an example the border treaty signed between the Russian Federation and the Azerbaijani Republic in September 2010, under which Azerbaijan secured the right to the lion's share of the water from the Samur River that marks the border. One analyst commented that the Samur now provides drinking water for the entire Azerbaijani coast as far south as Baku, while Daghestan's share of the water is not enough to provide irrigation
in the predominantly agricultural southern districts where unemployment is high.
Commentators also point to the transfer to Azerbaijani jurisdiction of two villages in Azerbaijan close to the border that until the signing of the 2010 treaty were designated Russian exclaves. The predominantly Lezgin inhabitants of Khrakhuba and Uryanuba were faced with the choice of applying for Azerbaijani citizenship or selling their homes and moving to Daghestan, where the authorities claimed to be unable to provide them
with alternative accommodation.
Other bloggers, however, argue that the Azerbaijani authorities' interest in Derbent is not an entirely negative phenomenon. They note the 10 truckloads of humanitarian aid provided in October 2012 to victims of flooding in the town, and predict that the renaming of Sovetskaya Street may lead to large-scale Azerbaijani investment in the region.
Even before the signing of the September 2010 border treaty, two Daghestani journalists had argued that Ilham Aliyev was already the most influential political figure in southern Daghestan by virtue of his close personal ties
with then-President Magomedsalam Magomedov and with other prominent Daghestani politicians. Whether he enjoys the same rapport with Abdulatipov is not clear.
In the case of the current altercation over renaming Sovetskaya Street Heydar Aliyev Street, it is the widely-held perception, whether accurate or not, that Baku has territorial ambitions in Daghestan that poses a threat to the harmonious coexistence in Derbent of the Azeris and Lezgins, who together account for the majority of the city's estimated 100,000 population. The renaming is scheduled to be formalized at a ceremony on June 15 in the presence of a government delegation from Azerbaijan.