Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July 2014, 14:54 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Azerbaijan : Lezgins

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Azerbaijan : Lezgins, 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49749d5a2d.html [accessed 24 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.

Profile

Lezgins are a Caucasian mountain people related to smaller groups including Aguls, Rutuls and Tabasarans. Lezgins are also known as Lezgi or Kyurin. Their language belongs to the north-east Caucasian language group. According to the 1999 Census there were 178,000 Lezgins in Azerbaijan,1 accounting for 2.2 per cent of the population. However, some local experts claim that their number is significantly higher, in the region of 250,000-260,000.

Lezgins live on both sides of the Samur River in Southern Dagestan in Russia and in the northern district of Kusari in Azerbaijan, where they form a local majority, and in adjoining areas such as Hachmaz and Kuba.

In general, Lezgins enjoyed better rights in Dagestan under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation than in Azerbaijan itself, where they were subjected to assimilation policies. This could in part explain variance in official statistics and unofficial estimates in the numbers of Lezgins in Azerbaijan.


Historical context

The area known as 'Lezgistan' was divided between the tsarist districts of Derbent and Baku in 1860, a division which continued into the twenty-first century. In 1992 a Russian organization named Sadval was established to promote Lezgin rights. Sadval campaigned for the redrawing of the Russian-Azerbaijani border to allow for the creation of a single Lezgin state encompassing areas in Russia and Azerbaijan where Lezgins were compactly settled. In Azerbaijan a more moderate organization called Samur was formed, advocating more cultural autonomy for Lezgins in Azerbaijan.

Lezgins traditionally suffered from unemployment and a shortage of land. Resentments were fuelled in 1992 by the resettlement of 105,000 Azeri refugees from the Karabakh conflict on Lezgin lands and by the forced conscription of Lezgins to fight in the conflict. This contributed to an increase in tensions between the Lezgin community and the Azeri government over issues of land, employment, language and the absence of internal autonomy. A major consequence of the outbreak of the war in Chechnya in 1994 was the closure of the border between Russia and Azerbaijan: as a result the Lezgins were for the first time in their history separated by an international border restricting their movement.

The high tide of Lezgin mobilization in Azerbaijan appeared to have passed towards the end of the 1990s. Sadval was banned by the Azerbaijani authorities after official allegations that it was involved in a bombing of the Baku underground. The end of the Karabakh war, and Lezgin resistance to forced conscription, deprived the movement of a key issue on which to mobilize. In 1998 Sadval split into 'moderate' and 'radical' wings, following which it appeared to lose much of its popularity on both sides of the Russian-Azerbaijani border.

However, Azerbaijani-Lezgin relations continued to be complicated by claims that Islamic fundamentalism enjoyed disproportionate popularity among Lezgins. In July 2000 Azerbaijani security forces arrested members of Lezgin and Avar ethnicity of a group named the Warriors of Islam, which allegedly was planning an insurgency against the Azerbaijani state.


Current issues

Lezgins expressed concern over under-representation in the Azerbaijani Parliament (Milli Meclis) after a shift away from proportional representation in the parliamentary elections of November 2005. Lezgins had been represented by two members of parliament in the previous parliament, but are now represented by only one.

Lezgin is taught as a foreign language in areas where many Lezgins are settled, but teaching resources are scarce. Lezgin textbooks come from Russia and are not adapted to local conditions. Although Lezgin newspapers are available, Lezgins have also expressed concern over the disappearance of their rich oral tradition. The only Lezgin television broadcasting available in Azerbaijan is that received over the border from Russia.

In March 2006 Azerbaijani media reported that Sadval had formed an 'underground' terrorist unit carrying out operations in Dagestan. Security forces across the border in Dagestan in Russia, responded sceptically to these reports.

Notes

1 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Minority Rights: Cultural Diversity and Devleopment in Central Asia, Bishkek, October 2004, http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/docs/WP3.doc

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