In Azerbaijan, ethnic Iranian communities, known as “Talysh,” in the southern Lenkaran district are at the center of a brewing regional controversy over territorial narratives in the country. Talysh nationalists, who refer to the Lenkaran district as Talyshistan, are challenging Azerbaijan’s claim to the region, and some neighboring countries may be encouraging their aspirations.
In the Caucasus, these sorts of local disputes are regularly manipulated by other regional powers. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise to many when Russian news agency IAREX published an article by the Talysh nationalist leader Fakhraddin Aboszoda advocating for Talysh self-determination and claiming Baku has no sovereign right to Talysh lands. While there is little indication as to how popular Aboszoda’s views are among members of the Talysh community, researchers at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), a Kremlin-connected think tank, also threw their support behind and expanded upon his views.
This, however, is far from direct Russian support for Talysh independence.
By contrast, in Armenia, there has been a more concerted effort to encourage Talysh opposition to the Azeri government. These efforts have included supporting a Talysh language radio-station broadcasting from Nagorno-Karabakh, promoting Talysh language and cultural courses at Yerevan State University in Armenia, and allowing seminars and public events to be held in Armenia featuring prominent Talysh separatist leaders, such as Alikram Hummatov.
So why are Armenia and Russia stoking Talysh independence? For Armenia, the campaign is part of an ongoing “frozen conflict” with Azerbaijan over Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is Azeri territory. Support for Talysh separatism represents a concerted effort to further undermine the foundations of the Azeri state. For Russia, on the other hand, the answer lies in a desire to keep Azerbaijan away from greater economic and political integration with the West.
The Talysh “Question”
The Talysh of Azerbaijan are concentrated along the Iranian border, with their capital in Lenkaran. During the Soviet era, particularly under Joseph Stalin, the Talysh suffered repression. Their culture and language were suppressed, and they did not receive formal state recognition as a nationality, including in USSR censuses. To this day, the Talysh dispute official figures about the size of their community. According to results from the 2009 national census in Azerbaijan, the Talysh population is about 112,000 (less than 2 percent of the population), but Talysh leaders say their community is as large as 500,000 people.
The Talysh rose to international prominence in 1993. At the time, and amidst the chaos of a post-Soviet political transition, Russia backed a separatist movement called the “Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic,” led by Alikram Hummatov. The pseudo-state was dissolved after just three months when Heydar Aliyev, the former communist leader of Soviet Azerbaijan, consolidated his power and became Azerbaijan’s first president. Upon his death on October 31, 2003, his son, Ilham Aliyev, came to power.
Because of Aboszoda’s involvement with the would-be separatist group and pseudo-state, he remains a controversial figure in Azerbaijan to this day. After the collapse of the Mughan Autonomous Republic, Aboszoda went into exile in Russia. Hummatov was imprisoned in Azerbaijan, but he was released in 2004 and exiled to the Netherlands. From his perch outside the country, Hummatov has continued to campaign for Talysh autonomy, despite the movement’s decline in Azerbaijan, and has given numerous speeches on the issue in Armenia.
Armenian Intervention in Talysh Nationalist Efforts
Some in Armenia are overtly stoking the Talysh movement as part of long-standing efforts to undermine the very existence of a separate Azeri identity. Before the 20th century, Azeris in what are now the states of Armenia and Azerbaijan were referred to simply as “Turks.” In order to undermine the distinctness of Azeri heritage, some in Armenia refer to these people and their cultural legacies as Turkish or Persian. By denying Azerbaijan’s distinct culture, propagandists in Armenia suggest that an Azeri state is a fiction of recent invention. Hostility stems from rising nationalism brought on by both independence from the USSR and the nation-building efforts that coincided with it, as well as the legacy of the Nagorno-Karabakh War.
Armenia has thrown its support behind Talysh nationalism, largely by backing the efforts of various Talysh leaders who are advocating for a separate Talysh identity. By supporting the Talysh in this way, Armenia further promotes the idea that any distinct “Azeri” identity is artificial.
The decline of the Talysh language is a primary concern for many of these nationalist leaders. In 2013, Hummatov, made a guest appearance at Yerevan State University for an event about the preservation of the Talysh language. During his speech, Hummatov said, “In Azerbaijan, the Talysh are deprived of basic rights. We are not respected; we are being extirpated, with a policy of assimilation being implemented against us.”
Some of Hummatov’s concerns are warranted. For example, lowland communities that were once homogenous and are now becoming multi-ethnic. Azerbaijani – a language very similar to Turkish – is being increasingly used. Among Talysh children, proficiency in their mother tongue is reportedly declining, except in remote, mountain villages.
In 2013, a Talysh-language radio station, “The Voice of Talyshstan,” was launched in Nagorno-Karabakh. The move was criticized by Baku as an attempt by the Armenian government to stir up ethnic conflict between the Talysh and Azeris. The station began broadcasting on March 20 of that year with support from the Armenian Caucasus Center of Iranian Studies at the Modus Vivendi Center, which is based in Yerevan. The station was founded by Garnik Asatrian, an Armenian intellectual who also established the Talysh Studies program at Yerevan State University. At the time, Asatrian denied accusations of ulterior motives behind Armenia’s interest in Talysh minorities, and insisted the center was merely broadening its focus on Iranian studies.
Russian Involvement with the Talysh National Movement
While Armenia is clearly working to foment Talysh nationalist feeling, Russian involvement is less obvious. Although some Talysh leaders may have recently been given a degree of legitimacy by Russian media and think tanks, it is difficult to say whether the Russian government is actively intervening in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.
The situation in Ukraine and Russia’s recent treaty with South Ossetia (read: annexation) have many analysts rightly unnerved about Russia’s possible involvement with ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan. Many of these suspicions are unfounded, however, and appear either to be fabricated or unduly influenced by propaganda or actions Russia has taken elsewhere, like in Ukraine.
What can be said with certainty, however, is that Azerbaijan is the key economic and military actor in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan’s massive oil reserves have given the Aliyev regime a degree of independence from international meddling that other regional countries have been unable to obtain. Since the completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in 2006, Azerbaijan’s GDP has consistently grown at an unprecedented rate, reaching U.S. $73 billion in 2013 (for comparison: Georgia’s GDP stands at U.S. $16 billion; and Armenia at U.S. $10 billion). The increase in oil revenues has sent Azeri military expenditures sky high to U.S. $4.8 billion, which has mostly been spent purchasing Russian arms.
Given the economic and military situation in the South Caucasus, it seems strange Russia would overtly support the Talysh national movement. With the Russian economy in a tailspin, it is unlikely the Federation would endorse a move that would jeopardize lucrative arms deals with Azerbaijan by overtly provoking Talysh separatism.
Unlike in South Ossetia, there is no group in Azerbaijan, including the Talysh, that would favor reunification with Russia, and no sizable Russian minority the Federation could supposedly intervene on behalf of, as with eastern Ukraine. Indeed, Russia has long struggled with separatists in Dagestan and Chechnya, which lie just north of Azerbaijan. As a result, the Russian government has historically favored stability in the Caucasus.
Nevertheless, Armenian provocation of Azeri minorities generally benefit Russian interests, so long as they remain limited and do not seriously threaten the regime in Baku.
The Azeri regime’s heavy-handed response to internal dissent has consistently kept the government at odds with the United States and European Union, which otherwise consider the Caspian nation important to their national security interests because of its oil and natural gas reserves. Azeri crackdowns against outspoken Talysh leaders have regularly been documented in the U.S. State Department’s Report on Human Rights Practices in Azerbaijan.
These abuses have played directly into Russian interests. Aliyev’s willingness to continue imprisoning journalists and anyone with grievances against the government is helping keep Azerbaijan from fully pursuing a Western orientation. Russia is fine with policies that do not pose a real threat to the stability of Aliyev’s regime, yet cause it to react in ways that draw the ire of European and U.S. governments and keep Azerbaijan away from greater economic and political integration with the West.
Unfortunately for the Talysh, they are at the mercy of international provocation and internal oppression. With Armenia remaining the sole patron of Talysh identity and culture, the minority group will continue to be caught up in geopolitical deadlock between Yerevan and Baku, and receive little support for their genuine aspirations.