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Do Azerbaijan's Ethnic Minorities Face Forced Assimilation?

Over the past 10 days, representatives of ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan have issued two separate public statements affirming their fear of assimilation and soliciting international support. Azerbaijani commentators have dismissed those appeals as unfounded and orchestrated by Moscow.

The ethnic groups in question are the Avars, Tsakhurs, and Lezgins, and according to official statistics together they constitute less than 1 percent of Azerbaijan's total population of 8.65 million. They live compactly in several districts of northern Azerbaijan bordering on the Russian Federation. Avars are the largest ethnic group in neighboring Daghestan, where they account for approximately 29 percent of the population, and Lezgins the third largest (13 percent). The Tsakhurs, who number around 8,000, constitute less than 0.5 percent of Daghestan's population.

Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan range from 178,000 to 400,000 or even 850,000. Azerbaijan's Lezgins have lobbied sporadically for greater protection of their rights since the early 1980s; some Lezgins in both Daghestan and Azerbaijan have gone so far as to propose creating an independent state that would encompass their historic homeland to the north and south of the Samur River that forms the border between Russia and Azerbaijan. A conference on the Lezgins organized in Moscow last month under the aegis of the Russian Foreign Ministry was construed by some Azerbaijani commentators as possibly heralding a new Lezgin separatist threat.

On June 16, the website posted an appeal "To all people of good will" signed by eight separate organizations representing the Avars, Lezgins, and Tsakhurs. One of those organizations is the Imam Shamil Avar National Front headed by Dagneft President and Russian State Duma Deputy Gadji Makhachev, who many observers believe has close ties with, and on occasion acts on orders from, the Kremlin.

The appeal deplored the fact that the creation in 1918 of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic effectively split the ancestral homeland of the three ethnic groups, and that during the seven decades that those lands were part of the USSR, they were subjected to "nightmarish" discrimination. It claimed that they were the only ethnic minorities in the entire Soviet Union who were obliged to pay for secondary and higher education. It further argued that Azerbaijan's secession in 1991 from the USSR was illegal as it was not preceded by a referendum, in which they would have voted against (Armenia was in fact the only Soviet republic to comply with the referendum requirement), and that "twice during the 20th century Azerbaijan occupied our homeland and unlawfully seized power there."

The appeal claimed that the leadership of the newly independent Azerbaijan Republic then embarked on the systematic annihilation of the three ethnic groups, sending "tens of thousands" of young men to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh, of whom "thousands" were killed. (That figure is difficult to reconcile with official population figures.) Members of the intelligentsia from all three ethnic groups were allegedly thrown into prison, and Azerbaijanis from other regions of Azerbaijan or from Georgia resettled in their abandoned homes in what the appeal terms a systematic "Turkicization" process. Those resettlers allegedly hold most official posts in the districts where the three groups constitute the majority of the population. The most recent crackdown was in March 2008 against the predominantly Lezgin population of the Kusar and Khachmas raions of Azerbaijan. The appeal concluded by requesting help in clarifying what has happened to those arrested and support for the creation of autonomous regions for the three groups.

Two days later, on June 18, the Daghestan-based Avar National Council, which was not a signatory to the June 16 appeal, addressed an open letter to Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev (himself an Avar) to "protect" Azerbaijan's Avar minority from the threat of "genocide," reported. The agency quoted Magomed Guseinov, a leading Council member, as estimating the size of Azerbaijan's Avar minority at 200,000, and the number of Avars currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan at almost 300. Guseinov repeated the claim that in the Zakatala, Belokany, and Kakh raions Azeris, mostly resettlers from the Naxcivan Autonomous Republic, occupy most prominent political posts even though they account for just 27 percent of the population. He contrasts the plight of the Avars in Azerbaijan unfavorably with that of Daghestan's Azerbaijani minority, which at the time of the 2002 Russian Federation census numbered 111,656 people, or approximately 4 percent of the republic's population. As one of Daghestan's 14 titular nationalities, the Azeris have the right to radio broadcasts and education in their native language.

Guseinov recalled that during a visit to Baku in late April 2007, President Aliyev discussed the plight of Azerbaijan's Avars with President Ilham Aliyev, who declared on that occasion that the Avars have no grounds for complaint and accused unnamed "forces" of seeking to stir up unrest among Azerbaijan's ethnic minorities. Mukhu Aliyev is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan again on June 26.

Meanwhile, political scientist Vafa Quluzade, who served as an adviser to Ilham Aliyev's late father Heydar, was quoted by on June 19 as accusing Russia of deliberately seeking to fuel disaffection among Azerbaijan's Avar, Lezgin, and Tsakhur minorities on the eve of a visit to Baku by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Quluzade suggested the objective is to coerce Azerbaijan into accepting a recent offer from Gazprom to buy natural gas from Azerbaijan's offshore Shah Deniz field. A commentary published on June 19 in the online daily similarly argued that separatism on the part of the Lezgins, the Kurds, and the Talysh (who live in the southern districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Iran) constitutes a very real threat to Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and compared the Lezgins in Azerbaijan with the Ossetian population of the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia.