Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 December 2014, 12:47 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Azerbaijan : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Azerbaijan : Overview, 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce0aa.html [accessed 26 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Environment

The Republic of Azerbaijan, formerly the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, is situated in the South Caucasus on the western coast of the Caspian Sea. It borders Iran to the south, Armenia to the west, Georgia to the north-west and the Republic of Dagestan in the Russian Federation to the north across the Caucasus mountain range. The Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, bordering Armenia, Iran and Turkey, is also part of Azerbaijan. Nagorny Karabakh, formerly an autonomous region in Soviet times, lies in south-west Azerbaijan; populated largely by Armenians, it has been the focus of conflict since 1988.


Peoples

Main languages: Azeri, Russian.

Main religions: Islam (majority Shi'ite, minority Sunni).

According to the 1999 Census, the main minorities included Lezgins 178,000 (2.2%), Russians 141,700 (1.8%), Armenians 120,700 (1.5%; this is a contentious figure since very few Armenians remain in Azerbaijan outside of the de facto seceded territory of Nagorny Karabakh), Talysh 76,800 (1.0%) and Avars 50,900 (0.6%).

According to the 1999 Census 90.6 per cent of the population of Azerbaijan are Azeri. The census recorded a dramatic fall in numbers of Russians and Armenians in the republic. Almost all Armenians outside of Nagorny Karabakh left Azerbaijan as a result of the Karabakh conflict, while many Russians also opted to leave for socio-economic reasons. The Lezgins became Azerbaijan's largest minority as a result of these changes. Azerbaijan has a large number of smaller minorities, each comprising less than 1 per cent of the total population, including Turks, Tatars, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kurds, Jews, Udins and Tsakhurs.


History

Azerbaijan historically formed a borderland between Russian and Iranian empires and spheres of influence. This is reflected in the fact that today there are greater numbers of ethnic Azeris living in Iran, where they comprise approximately one-fifth to one-quarter of the total population (exact numbers are uncertain), than in Azerbaijan. Some Azeris refer to this part of Iran as 'southern Azerbaijan', a highly contentious term in Iran. Azeris are ethnographically and linguistically a Turkic people, although they are differentiated from Turks as Shi'a rather than Sunni Muslims.

Azerbaijan's exit from the Soviet Union was shaped by the conflict with the majority Armenian population in Nagorny Karabakh. At the end of 1988, Nagorny Karabakh rapidly became a rallying point for Azeri nationalism. Having initially fared well in the war, Azerbaijan suffered a series of catastrophic defeats in 1993, leading to not only to the taking of Nagorny Karabakh but the occupation of seven regions of Azerbaijan surrounding it by Karabakh Armenian forces backed by Armenia. Armenian occupation of these territories was accompanied by the forced expulsion of ethnic Azeris. Although statistics are practically impossible to verify, it is thought that there are in the region of 750,000 internally displaced people and refugees from Armenia living in Azerbaijan today, accounting for some 9 per cent of the total population. Likewise, Azerbaijan's Armenian population was forced to leave the country after pogroms in Baku and its suburb Sumqayit; Azerbaijan lost much of its multi-ethnic character as a result of these population shifts.

Disasters on the battlefield contributed to internal turmoil throughout the early 1990s as successive governments rose and fell according to developments in the Karabakh war. It was eventually Heydar Aliyev, former first secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party who acceded to the presidency in 1993. Through a combination of political guile, lucrative contracts for Caspian oil exploitation and a fragmented opposition, President Aliyev was able to entrench his regime over a decade and ultimately secure the accession of his son Ilham to the presidency in 2003. Although bringing much-needed stability to Azerbaijan, Aliyev senior's rule has also been characterized by recognizably Soviet methods: the creation of a party-state in the form of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) securing social mobility only for party members, a personality cult, manipulation of electoral processes and recourse to violence against opposition when necessary. The YAP has retained a high level of cohesiveness since its creation, remaining closely intertwined with both familial loyalties in its higher echelons and state structures (employment in the public sector is contingent on YAP membership). The party has been consistently victorious in parliamentary elections, enjoys tight control over local executive appointments and provided the vehicle for Ilham Aliyev's smooth accession to power.

Efforts to secure a lasting peace settlement in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict have continued since the ceasefire, mediated by the Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk Group, headed by a tripartite structure of co-chairs from France, the United States and Russia, has put forward numerous proposals, none of which has secured the agreement of all parties to the conflict. Azerbaijan continues to insist on territorial integrity within its Soviet-era borders and refuses to negotiate directly with the de facto authorities in Nagorny Karabakh, while Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh refuse to relinquish control of the occupied territories around Karabakh until mechanisms for determining Karabakh's future status are put in place. Following Ilham Aliyev's accession to the presidency there has been a rise in militant rhetoric, coupled with a rise in military expenditure, contributing to expectations of a military 'solution' to the conflict.

With the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in July 2006 Azerbaijan now faces the prospect of rapid economic growth. According to Caspian Revenue Watch, at US $25 per barrel, between 2003 and 2010 the Azerbaijani government's share of oil profits from the Azerbaijani-Chirag and deep-water Gunashli oil fields will amount to US $16 billion. Although institutions have been created to ensure the equitable distribution of oil and gas revenues, Azerbaijan is regularly rated as one of the most corrupt countries in the world by organizations such as Transparency International. The extent to which ordinary Azerbaijani citizens will feel the impact of the oil boom is thus open to debate.


Governance

Azerbaijan is characterized by a poor governance environment. Its political system may be described as super-presidential, with virtually all significant decision-making powers concentrated in the office of the president. The 125-member parliament (Milli Meclis) is a largely formal body, packed with representatives belonging to the presidential party or nominally 'independent' deputies. The Milli Meclis's role consists largely of approving legislation put before it by the executive. In August 2002 its powers were further reduced by a series of amendments approved in a controversial referendum with a 97 per cent approval rating. All recent elections in Azerbaijan have been criticized by international observers from the OSCE and Western-based observation missions – although observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States have approved them. Following the presidential election of October 2003, in which widespread fraud was alleged, police and security forces forcefully suppressed public unrest in the capital Baku and elsewhere, resulting in a disputed number of deaths. On this occasion the OSCE observer mission was notably mild in its criticism of the elections, resulting in widespread disillusionment in Azerbaijan with a Western geopolitical orientation.

Human rights

President Ilham Aliyev's first years in power saw a consolidation of his regime and significant human rights violations. The parliamentary elections of November 2005 were preceded and followed by a wide-ranging series of arrests against potential opponents to the government. These included ministers within the government, youth movement leaders and opposition party activists. Numerous human rights abuses, including allegations of torture, the denial of medical care and choice of legal counsel, and abuses in trial proceedings were recorded by domestic and international human rights organizations in connection with these arrests. Opposition media outlets and journalists also came under severe pressure during this period, with a number of unresolved assaults and killings, in addition to numerous law suits for criminal defamation being brought against journalists critical of official wrongdoing. The predicament of Azerbaijan's approximately 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) improved somewhat with the ongoing removal of the emergency relief tent camps created in the immediate aftermath of the conflict and the construction of new settlements to house IDPs. However, many of these new settlements are located in remote and economically depressed regions of the country, continuing cycles of state dependency among those re-housed there.

Legal redress

There are few opportunities for legal redress within the Azerbaijani legal system. The Azerbaijani judiciary remains firmly under the control of the executive, and there is a shortage of qualified lawyers with the necessary membership of the Azerbaijani Bar (Collegium) to present cases in the higher reaches of the Azerbaijani legal system. Politically charged cases are in any case awarded low priority, and lawyers are reportedly pressured into avoiding such cases. In 2002 the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner (Ombudsman) of the Republic of Azerbaijan was created, but since its inception Azerbaijani human rights activists have criticized the Ombudsman's office for failing to take up cases of a political nature. The Ombudsman had reportedly not addressed any claims relating to ethnic issues by the end of 2006.

Ethnic minority protection

Ethnic minority protection first became the subject of Azerbaijani legislation in 1992, when a presidential decree on the Protection of the Rights and Freedoms and on State support for the Promotion of the Languages and Cultures of National Minorities, Numerically small Peoples and Ethnic Groups living in the Republic of Azerbaijan was issued. Implementation of this decree was stalled by the conflict in Karabakh, which further contributed to a unitary vision of Azerbaijani statehood inhospitable to the granting of wide-ranging rights to minorities perceived as sources of further separatism. Continuing this trend, the Aliyev regime has consistently promoted a civic vision of Azerbaijani nationhood, which has obliquely promoted the interests of the titular Azerbaijani nation and remained vague in its provisions for ethnic minorities.

In pursuit of the goal of promoting the state language, a Law on the State Language was adopted in 2002, which contains certain regrettable reductions in the legal guarantees for the protection of national minorities. These put at risk certain practices in the field of electronic media. Although the constitution provides for the right to maintain minority culture and language, authorities have restricted minorities' effort to teach, or print materials in, their native languages. Farsi-speaking Talysh in the south of the country, Caucasian Lezgins in the north, displaced Meskhetian Turks from Central Asia, and displaced Kurds from the Armenian-occupied Lachin region have all experienced discrimination, restrictions on the ability to teach in their first languages, and harassment by local authorities. Anti-discrimination does not appear a government priority. Armenians and persons of mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani descent have been denied work, medical care and education, and were unable to register their residences due to their ethnicity. Discrimination and harassment at work seems the norm, and in some cases local authorities have refused to pay pensions to members of the Armenian minority. Similarly, in the area occupied by ethnic Armenian forces, authorities have effectively banned the very few remaining ethnic Azerbaijanis from all spheres of civil, political and economic life.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

To date Azerbaijan has not adopted a law on national minority rights, and, according to a report prepared by the Silk Road Studies Programme of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in September 2006, Azerbaijani policy-makers attach little importance to doing so. At the level of government discourse there is refusal to acknowledge ethnic discrimination as a factor affecting minorities in Azerbaijan. This is in large part related to the claim that the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh would not face discrimination if reintegrated with Azerbaijan. Hate-speech against Armenians continues to be a staple of officially sanctioned media, while peace-building initiatives involving civil society actors are regularly vilified, and sometimes result in physical assaults on the property and persons of those involved. In 2005 the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted concern over reports of discrimination against Armenians in Azerbaijan and the concealing of their ethnic identity by Armenians remaining in the country. Discrimination appears to be selective by group, however. The Azerbaijani government has, for instance, taken steps against anti-Semitism and there are very few reports of anti-Semitic activities against Azerbaijan's Jewish population.

The education system is dominated by Azeri-medium teaching, although some 7 per cent of the population receives secondary and higher education in Russian. In areas compactly settled by minorities, primary schools offer tuition of minority languages as a subject. However, resources in the form of updated textbooks of minority languages are extremely scarce. The number of Russian-medium schools in Azerbaijan has increased in recent years. Russian continues to be used informally in local government institutions in some areas. However, in contravention of the Framework Convention on National Minorities (FCNM), national minorities do not have guarantees of the right to communicate with local government in their own language. Members of national minorities do, however, have the right to the use of their own language and free translation in their interaction with the criminal justice system.

In 2005 a new broadcasting law was adopted allowing for public broadcasting in minority languages, moderating earlier promotion of Azeri as the only language in public broadcasting. There are currently radio stations broadcasting in the Avar, Lezgin and Tat languages in the Belokan and Khachmaz regions. Broadcast and print media in Russian are widely obtainable, including two of the country's most respected newspapers, Ekho and Zerkalo. Newspapers in Kurdish, Lezgin and Talysh are reportedly also available, but suffer from a lack of funds and poor distribution networks. There is very little television broadcasting in minority languages.

Azerbaijani legislation offers no specific guarantees for national minority representation in political structures, although informally efforts are made to ensure a reasonable representation of national minorities in government.

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