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Assessment for Lezgins in Azerbaijan

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2000
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Lezgins in Azerbaijan, 31 December 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/469f3a57c.html [accessed 28 July 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.
Azerbaijan Facts
Area:    86,600 sq. km.
Capital:    Baku
Total Population:    7,856,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Although many feared that Lezgin demands for the creation of an independent "Lezgistan" would result in another secessionist war in Azerbaijan, these fears have thus far proved to be unwarranted. It currently appears less likely than ever that the Lezgins will resort to any sustained collective action to address their grievances, although isolated incidents do occur. In the past eight years, they have not engaged in any serious protests and only two incidents of violence; they have also shown a willingness to negotiate and compromise on their most intractable demands. The Lezgin nationalist movements do not receive wide support among the Lezgin people who are not well-organized at the grass-roots level.

Three other factors suggest that serious Azeri-Lezgin conflict is not likely. First, the Lezgins are well-integrated into Azeri society, and mixed marriages are common. Second, both groups share an Islamic identity, even if the Lezgins are Sunni and the Azeri predominantly Shi'i. It is interesting to note that none of the many ethnic clashes of the Caucasus have pitted Muslim against Muslim. And finally, the Lezgins are not territorially concentrated like the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, which would make secession logistically difficult.

The mobilization of the Lezgins in Azerbaijan was at its highest in the mid-1990s, as a result of Baku's policy of forcibly drafting Lezgin men into the army for deployment in the war in Karabakh. A considerable degree of collective identity was forged during mass demonstrations against the draft, many of which turned violent. With the end of armed conflict in 1994, the protest and mobilization subsided. The collective identity of Lezgins has not proven to be as strong in the absence of a concrete issue around which to organize collective political action.

The wars in Chechnya and Nagorno Karabakh have had a contradictory effect on the Lezgins. On the one hand, the wars exacerbated the main Lezgin grievances: the division of the Lezgin people and homeland along the Samur river (between Russia and Azerbaijan), and the Azeri draft. However, the ferocity of the fighting seems to have discouraged militant Lezgins by convincing them (and many other Caucasian groups) that Moscow and Baku are determined to maintain a firm hold on their territories. The Lezgins seem to have concluded that the successful route to change is a peaceful one. Of course the Lezgin grievances could be largely satisfied if the Russian government relaxes the tight border controls on the Samur. Such a far-sighted policy shift could perhaps be taken when and if the conflict in Chechnya dies down.

The Lezgins in Azerbaijan seem to understand that their interests are best served by integration into Azeri society, not militant defiance. In the last few years even the most ardent Lezgin nationalists have softened their demands. This recognition that their interest lies in peaceful social change bodes well for the prospects for stability in the region.

Analytic Summary

The Lezgins are a Sunni Muslim people whose lands are divided by the international border between two countries – Russia and Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, the traditional Lezgin lands are concentrated in the northeast, but there are Lezgins in other areas of the country as well (GROUPCON = 1) and consequently they do not have as strong a group identity as their brethren to the north (COHESX = 3). The term "Lezgin" was once used by outsiders to refer to all of the ethnic groups of Dagestan in southern Russia, but today it correctly refers only to the people who refer to themselves as "Lezghi." The history of this group probably began with the merger of various indigenous groups of the Caucasus early in the last millennium (TRADITN =1). The Lezgin language is part of the Caucasus family of languages and includes three distinct dialects.

Before the Russian Revolution, the Azeris embarked on a campaign of assimilation aimed at all groups that lived in what they saw as their lands. Today most Lezgins still speak Azeri as a second language (LANG = 2), and are fairly well-integrated into the society of Azerbaijan (POLDIFXX = 1, ECDIFXX = 0). Culturally, they differ from the Azeris in that nearly all are Sunni Muslims (the primary exception being those living in Dokuzpara who are Shi'i) (BELIEF = 1). Politically, the Lezgins never formed a large confederation, preferring through most of their history to maintain their tribal loyalties. A large number of Lezgins, however, share a profound distaste and distrust of Russians.

Throughout most of the Soviet era, the Lezgins were subjected to various cultural manipulations. Moscow went through periods of promoting Arabic and Turkic as the "official" cultures and languages, as well as a period of promoting the diversity of the region. However, shortly after World War II Soviet authorities began to impose Russian as the only language of choice in schools and government offices. These manipulations only irritated the anti-Russian feelings of most Lezgin and they resisted russification by the Soviets just as they had under the czars.

Today there are approximately half a million Lezgins, of which probably under half live in Dagestan. Although official records report that Azerbaijani Lezgins number 196,000, their real numbers are probably quite a bit higher. Azeri officials admit that many ethnic groups are underrepresented by their censuses, a condition that Lezgin nationalists claim is due to the cultural and economic discrimination that minorities face in Azerbaijan. Although their numbers are unlikely to be as high as these Lezgin nationalists claim (700,000 or more), the Lezgin population in Azerbaijan may be double of what is officially reported.

By far the largest grievance that the Lezgins have against the governments in Moscow and Baku is what they see as the artificial division of their lands that occurred when the Soviet Union collapsed (AUTGR203, AUTGR503 = 2). The nominal border between Soviet Socialist Republics along the Samur River became an international border in 1991. Movement for the Lezgins was still more-or-less free until 1994, when the Russian government tightened border controls after the outbreak of hostilities in Chechnya in order to try to stop Islamic guerillas and military supplies from the Middle East from reaching the break-away republic.

This division did more to the Lezgins than simply cause an inconvenience. For centuries free passage over the Samur was necessary for the survival of the Lezgin sheep herders, who would bring their flocks to graze in Dagestan for the summer and spend the winter in Azerbaijan; the flocks were decimated by the inability to migrate. Many of the traditional Lezgin burial grounds are also predominantly in Azerbaijan, further aggravating frustrations over the division of their land. In addition, the forests and fields north of the Samur now receive far less water than they did before the end of the water-sharing regime that existed before the split, which has led to widespread environmental degradation.

The Sadval (Unity) movement was formed in 1990 to press for unification of the Lezgin territories in Dagestan and Azerbaijan, and they later (in 1991) began to call for a nation-state "formation" for the Lezgins (implying that less than full independence would be acceptable). In 1991, another Lezgin movement, "Samur", was formed in Baku to press against the unification of Lezgins into a single sovereign unit, preferring to cultivate ties across the borders as they presently exist. Both movements seek the removal of the tight border controls between Dagestan and Azerbaijan, but Sadval has been more willing to resort to acts of violence. Sadval has been blamed for a variety of terrorist actions in both Dagestan and Azerbaijan in the 1990s (REBEL98X = 0), and was again accused in 2001 of bombings within Azerbaijan (REB01 = 1), leading to the arrest of several Sadval members (REP0101-02 = 1).

The more moderate approach of Samur, emphasizing cross-border cooperation and not unification, may in fact have more support among Lezgins in Azerbaijan. The younger generation of Lezgins have left northern Azerbaijan for Baku in large numbers and seem to prefer the status quo (ORGCO94 = 2). Lezgins remaining in northern Azerbaijan seem to be more concerned with cultural protections rather than political autonomy, although vocalizing these demands have declined considerably of late (CULGR300 = 2, CULGR01-03 = 0). Southern Dagestan is clearly the heart of the unification movement among Lezgins..

In the early 1990s the government in Baku had dealt with the Lezgins delicately, fearing a secessionist war. However, the more pressing issue was the refusal of many young Lezgins to serve in the Azerbaijani army, which created problems for a government in dire need of soldiers. Most Lezgin violence and demonstrations have revolved around this issue, not unification with Dagestan. In addition, many in Baku have accused Russia and Armenia of backing the Lezgin nationalist movements.

For the past five years, Lezgin nationalism seems to be experiencing a "calm period." The militant activities of the Sadval movement never had much popular support, and now violence seems to be even less of an option. Sadval has recently abandoned its demand for independence, shifting its focus to goals which seem to be more attainable: maintenance of an open border between Dagestan and Azerbaijan, securing cultural rights for Lezgins in Azerbaijan, and improving the ecological situation north of the Samur. All groups representing Lezgins now seem more willing to negotiate their grievances.

Tensions have increased of late, however, as the long-planned transition from Cyrillic to Latin alphabets for both Azeri and Lezgin languages was implemented in 2001. This caused protest from Lezgins, who complained this would further complicate cross-border contact with Lezgins in Russia (PROT01-02 = 1; POLGR500-03 = 1).

References

Boston Globe. March 7, 1993.

Bremmer, Ian and Ray Taras, eds. Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States (NY: Cambridge University Press) 1993.

Fuller, Elizabeth. "Caucasus: The Lezgin Campaign for Autonomy." RFE / RL Research Report Vol. 1 (41): 60 - 65 (October 16, 1992).

Lexis-Nexis articles 2001-2003.

Olson, James S. ed. An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press) 1994.

Open Media Research Institute. Daily Reports.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Daily Reports 1993-2003.

"Report on Ethnic Conflict in the Russian Federation and Transcaucasia." From the Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (July 1993).

United Nations Information Service accessible through the United Nations Home Page on the WWW.

U. S. State Department. Human Rights Report: Azerbaijan. 1994, 1995, 2001-2003.

Young, Stephen, Ronald J. Bee and Bruce Seymore II. One Nation Becomes Many: The ACCESS Guide to the Former Soviet Union (Washington, DC: ACCESS) 1992.

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