Update of AZE25872.E of 10 January 1997 concerning Azeri nationalism and its impact on non-Azeri groups (1997-2002) [AZE38592.E]

According to the CIA World Fact Book, 90 per cent of Azerbaijan's population of 7,771,092 (July 2001 estimate) is Azeri (CIA World Fact Book 24 Jan. 2002). Based on 1998 estimates, the states' minority groups include Dagestanis (3.2 per cent), Russians (2.5 per cent), Armenians (2 per cent) and others (2.3 percent) (ibid.). According to the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM), based at the University of Maryland, "'Lezgin' was once used by outsiders to refer to all of the ethnic groups of Dagestan in southern Russia, but today correctly refers only to the people who refer to themselves as 'Lezghi'" (CIDCM 25 Sept. 2001b). Alternatively, the Azeri newspaper Ekspress, lists the minority populations of Azerbaijan as

Lezgins - 2.2 per cent; Russians - 1.8 per cent; Armenians - 1.5 per cent; Talysh - 1 per cent; Avars - 0.6 per cent; Turks - 0.5 per cent; Tatars - 0.4 per cent; Ukrainians - 0.4 per cent; Georgians - 0.2 per cent; Kurds - 0.2 per cent; Jews - 0.1 per cent; Udins - 0.05 per cent; other nations - 0.25 per cent. (12 July 2001).


An article published in 1996 by the Baku-based FAR Center, describes Azeri-nationalism "in public opinion, and in the newspapers" as having

developed in two directions: a) as an ethnic concept; ... b) as a concept encompassing all citizens of the independent state....
Among the advocates of [nationalism] in Azerbaijan are political parties (Azerbaijan Democratic Party, National Statehood Party, National Independence Party, People's Democratic Party, the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, Unified Azerbaijan Party, Musavat, Turan Azerbaijan People's Democratic Party, People's Liberation Party, Cagdas Turan Party, Yurddas and others), different societies (Society for Struggle for Azerbaijan's Integrity), and various individuals (FAR Center 1996).

According to CIDCM, Azeri nationalism is

organized around their Turkic heritage calling for unification of all Turkic peoples of the Soviet Union with Turkey. This brand of nationalism is said to have limited appeal to rural Azeris, especially in the south, where their Shi'ite religion has drawn them closer to Iran. However, Turkic nationalism is the leading force in Baku and has undoubtedly contributed to the conflict with the Armenians given the historical enmity between Armenians and Turkey (viz. the 1915 massacre and forced exodus of Armenians under the Ottomans) (25 Sept. 2001a).

In Minorities and Tolerance in Central and Eastern Europe, authors Wolfgang Danspeckgruber and Tyler Felgenhauer argued that, although "Azerbaijan's new constitution of November 1995 guarantees ethnic and minority rights... in the face of popular, pervasive and intense anti-Armenian feelings, constitutional protections have proven inadequate..." (2001, 32). The Executive Director of the London Information Network on Conflicts and State-Building argued "...the necessary conditions for the democratic incorporation of national minorities" must be created "such that they do not feel their minority status negatively and feel equally respected"(Resource Center on National Minorities Newsletter 15 June 2000). On 26 June 2000 Azerbaijan acceded to the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Council of Europe 22 Jan. 2001).

The following sections focus on the Armenian and Lezgin (Dagestani) communities including a brief section on other groups. For information concerning Russian minorities, please see AZE38705.E of 15 March 2002.


The CIDCM estimated the Azeri-Armenian population as 181,000 (25 Sept. 2001a) while Ekspress estimated it as 120,700 (12 July 2000). In Minorities and Tolerance in Central and Eastern Europe, the authors note that "some 300,000 Armenian refugees from Baku, Sumgait and Ganja fled to Armenia" after recurrent anti-Armenian riots (2001, 31). As noted by the CIDCM, those that remain are

largely concentrated in the break-away region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but there are some smaller Armenian communities scattered throughout Azerbaijan, especially near Baku. They are a Christian minority group in Islamic Azerbaijan that has little in common culturally with the majority Azeris. Observers often note that the Armenians in Azerbaijan have an even higher group cohesion and pride than those in Armenia itself (25 Sept. 2001a).

The Armenian case study in Minorities and Tolerance in Central and Eastern Europe noted that "discrimination against the remaining Armenians in Azerbaijan is widespread..." (2001, 32).

Country Reports 2001 reported that,

In those portions of Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenians, all ethnic Azerbaijanis have fled and those mosques that have not been destroyed are not functioning. Animosity toward the Armenian population elsewhere in Azerbaijan forced most Armenians to depart, and all Armenian churches, many of which were damaged in ethnic riots that took place over a decade ago, remain closed. As a consequence, the estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Armenians who remain in Azerbaijan are unable to attend their traditional places of worship. ... [Those of Armenian] descent complained of discrimination in employment, schooling, housing, and other areas. Most shield their identity or try to leave Azerbaijan. Some have changed their nationality, as reported in their passports. Ethnic Armenians have complained of discrimination in employment and harassment at schools and workplaces and of the refusal of local government authorities to pay pensions. Armenian widows have had permits to live in Baku revoked. Some persons of mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani descent continued to occupy government positions. Government officials whose parents reportedly are of or had mixed-Armenian and Azerbaijani marriages have been attacked publicly by colleagues in the press (2002).

The CIDCM offered the following risk assessment for the Armenian minority in 2001:

Armenians in Azerbaijan are at a high risk of conflict as long as the Nagorno-Karabakh issue remains unsettled. There is a recent history of conflict with periodic flare-ups, a high degree of territorial concentration (for those Armenians in Karabakh), and a very high level of nationalist rhetoric on both sides. The government in Baku is not democratic, but that may not be as much of a factor here as elsewhere because popular political pressures for peace are weak. And there is significant turmoil in the Armenian politics of the region, culminating in the assassination of the Armenian Prime Minister and seven leading parliamentarians in 1999, a political crisis in Nagorno Karabakh in 1999, and an assassination attempt on the Karabakh president in 2000.
About the only encouraging factor for the future of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations is the fact that in the last several years international support for a peaceful settlement to the Karabakh issue has grown significantly. The United States, which at first joined Russia in supporting Armenia (due in large part to the lobbying of the "Armenian Diaspora"), is beginning to re-evaluate its stance. Washington increasingly sees Azerbaijan as an important strategic partner in the effort to export the oil and gas of the Caspian and as a counter-weight to Russian influence in the area. Therefore, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have tried to help the two sides reach an agreement over Karabakh that would bring stability to the region. President Clinton even attended OSCE-sponsored peace talks between the two sides in December 1999, which followed Baku's suggestion that Azerbaijani territory could host the first American military base in the former Soviet Union.
There are signs that this diplomacy may be making progress, if very slowly. The OSCE's "Minsk Group" has been very active in promoting both official and second track talks. In May 1999 the Karabakh leadership dropped its demand for independent statehood, which was in all likelihood a political and practical non-starter, saying it would accept unification with Armenia. Thus far, Baku has steadfastly shown willingness to compromise only on the degree of autonomy to be granted to its Armenian-populated region, arguing that its territorial integrity demanded nothing less.
The desire to remain open to the world and its investment dollars has been a stabilizing force in Armenian politics. Yerevan has yet to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, a move that it fears would damage its relations with the West and certainly cause Baku to cut off Armenian energy supplies from the Caspian.
Overall, the past eight years have seen a polarization of the Karabakh conflict rather than a shift to accommodation of differences. Given the levels of rhetoric and unwillingness to compromise on both sides, a lasting peace agreement seems unlikely in the near future. Renewed Armenian-Azeri fighting cannot to be ruled out. Such a turn of events would be bad for the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh but it could be catastrophic for the Armenian communities still scattered throughout the rest of Azerbaijan (25 Sept. 2001a).


According to CIDCM, "the Lezgins are a Sunni Muslim people whose lands are divided by the international border" between Russia and Azerbaijan (CIDCM 25 Sept. 2001b). CIDCM estimates the size of this minority as 196,000 or 2.5 per cent; however, they also note that "the real numbers are probably quite a bit higher... [although] unlikely to be as high as... Lezgin nationalists claim (700,000 or more)" (ibid.).

In 1997, RFE/RL Newsline reported that the Russian Duma held hearings in which "Shamil Murtuzaliev, chairman of the Union of Muslims of South Dagestan" claimed that Azerbaijan "launched a harsh campaign of repression against the 1.2 million (sic) Lezgins..." (4 June 1997). Freedom House's Nations in Transit 2000: Azerbaijan report similarly mentions that according to the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, ethnic Lezgins... have also been the targets of harassment and discrimination." Country Reports 2001 notes that "separatist activities undertaken by... Caucasian Lezghins in the north in the early 1990s have engineered some suspicions in other citizens and fostered the occasional discrimination" (2002).

With respect to Azeri government relations with this minority, CIDCM reports that in the early 1990s "Baku had dealt with the Lezgins delicately, fearing a secessionist war" (25 Sept. 2001b). Dr. Aliaga Mamedov, Head of the Department for Applied Ethnology at the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences reflected this view in an article in Central Asia and the Caucasus. He argued that the "state of Azerbaijani-Lezghian relations has a major impact on the social and ethnic situation in Azerbaijan" (Central Asia and the Caucasus 2000).

CIDCM risk assessment for the Lezgins argued the following:

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. In 2001 it appears less likely than ever that the Lezgins will resort to rebellion or sustained collective action to address their grievances. They have not engaged in any serious violence or protests in the last five years, and have shown a willingness to negotiate and compromise away their most intractable demands. Their nationalist movements do not receive wide support among the Lezgin people who are not well-organized on the grass-roots level.
Three other factors suggest that serious Azeri-Lezgin conflict is not terribly 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 has 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 the 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 has 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 Samur 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 (25 Sept. 2001b).

Other Groups

Relations between Azerbaijanis and ethnic groups including Tsakhus, Tat, Talyshe and those of the Shakhdag group (Khynalyg, Budukha and Kryz) are, according to Dr. Mamedov, like that of the Udi (Udin) where "[d]espite the differences in language and religion, the centuries of co-existence... have helped formulate a great many common features in lifestyle and culture" (Central Asia and the Caucasus 2000). Like the Lezgins however, according to Country Reports 2001, "Farsi-speaking Talysh [separatism] in the south" in the 1990s fostered suspicion and discrimination (2002). In 2000, Freedom House lists Meskherian Turks and Kurds as being "targets of harassment and discrimination" and RFE/RL lists "Avars and Kurds" (4 June 1997). Dr. Mamedov observed "a certain tide of Avar nationalism" related to economic competition, the influence of Dagestani Avars and as a "reaction to the growth of Azerbaijani Turkic nationalism" (Central Asia and the Caucasus 2000).

Several anti-Semitic actions have taken place in Azerbaijan including the desecration of two Baku synagogues in 1998 (UCSJ 25 Aug. 1999) and two Baku cemeteries in 2001 (ibid. 6 Nov. 2001). In the latter case, Armenian AZG reported "...that the Jeyshullah Islamic extremist organization... may be responsible" (ibid.). Arrested in the case of the synagogues were "members of a pro-Iranian group who [did] not approve of President Aliev's ties with Israel" (ibid. 25 Aug. 1999). In an article by the Turan News Agency, Jews were among groups that Azerbaijani National Security Minister, Namiq Abbasov warned on 16 October 2001 that "there was a real threat of radical groups attacking missionary organizations and advised the latter to stop or restrict their activity" (ibid. 16 Oct. 2001). Others who were also warned that "the Nehmiah Mission, Jehovah's Witness, Greater Grace, the Evangelical Baptist Church, the New Apostolic Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church" were also threatened (ibid.).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM). 17 January 2002. "Tracking Ethnopolitical Conflict Worldwide." http://www.bsos.umd.edu/cidcm/mar/index.htm [Accessed 28 Feb. 2002]

Founded in 1981, the CIDCM describe their activities as "a forum for the expression of a broad range of views about the transition from war to peace. ... It now houses two major international databases: the Global Event-Data System (GEDS) and the Minorities at Risk Project" (CIDCM 1999). Among recent publications by CIDCM staff are T.R. Gurr, et al. "Peace and Conflict 2001: A Global Survey of Armed Conflicts, Self-Determination Movements, and Democracy"; Ted Robert Gurr and Barbara Harff, "Ethnic Conflict In World Politics" (1994).
The Minorities at Risk project "is an independent, university-based research project that monitors and analyzes the status and conflicts of politically active communal groups in countries with a population of at least 500,000. The project is designed to provide information in standardized form that will contribute to the understanding and peaceful accommodation of conflicts involving communal groups" (CIDCM 17 Jan. 2002)

_____. 25 September 2001a. Michael L. Haxton, Lyubov Mincheva and Christopher Fettweis. "Armenians in Azerbaijan." http://www.bsos.umd.edu/cidcm/mar/azearmen.htm [Accessed 27 Feb. 2002]

_____. 25 September 2001b. Michael L. Haxton, Lyubov Mincheva and Christopher Fettweis. "The Lezgins of Azerbaijan." http://www.bsos.umd.edu/cidcm/mar/azelezg.htm [Accessed 27 Feb. 2002]

_____. 1999. "Mission." http://www.bsos.umd.edu/cidcm/about/mission.html [28 Feb. 2002]

Central Asia and the Caucasus. 2000. No. 1. Aliaga Mamedov. "Aspects of the Contemporary Ethnic Situation in Azerbaijan." http://www.ca-c.org/journal/eng01_2000/05.mammedov.shtml [Accessed 4 March 2002]

CIA World Factbook. 24 January 2002. "Azerbaijan" http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/aj.html [Accessed 26 Feb. 2002]

Council of Europe. 22 January 2001. "Rights of National Minorities." http://starts.coe.fr/doc/doc01/EDOC8939.htm [Accessed 28 Feb. 2002]

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2001. 2002. Department of State (DOS). http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/eur/8225.htm [Accessed 8 Mar. 2002]

Ekspress (Baku, in Azeri). 12 July 2001. "At Present 90.6 Per cent of Azerbaijan's Population are Azeris." (BBC Monitoring 12 July 2001) (MINELREL-L Archives) http://racoon.riga.lv/minelres/archives//07182001-18:18:17-12619.htm [Accessed 28 Feb. 2002]

FAR Center (Baku). 1996. Hikmet Hadjy-Zadeh. "Azerbaijan: In Search of a National Idea." (Hosted by Virtual Azerbaijan) http://scf.usc.edu/~baguirov/azeri/hhz7.htm [Accessed 26 February 2002].

FAR Center, the Center for Economic and Political Research, is based in at Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan with a Peace and Conflict Resolution Program (Royal Institute of International Affairs 17 Apr. 2001).

Freedom House. 2000. "Nations in Transit 2000: Azerbaijan." http://freedomhouse.org/research/nitransit/2000/azerbaijan/azerbaijan_rol.htm [Accessed 01 Mar. 2002]

Minorities and Tolerance in Central and Eastern Europe. 2001. Wolfgang Danspeckgruber and Tyler Felgenhauer. "Minorities in the Former Soviet Union: Some Fundamental Legal and Political Issues." http://wwics.si.edu/ees/special/2001/minori.htm [Accessed 28 Feb. 2002]

Resource Center on National Minorities Newsletter (Baku). 15 June 2000. "Minorities in Azerbaijan #1" (MINELREL-L Archives) http://racoon.riga.lv/minelres/archives//06132000-19:36:57-26929.htm [Accessed 28 Feb. 2002]

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline. 4 June 1997. "Lezgins Claim Azerbaijan is Persecuting Ethnic Minorities." http://www.rferl.org/newsline/1997/06/040697.asp [Accessed 1 Mar. 2001]

Royal Institute of International Affairs. 17 April 2001. "Russia and Eurasia Programme." http://www.riia.org/Research/rep/Projects.html [Accessed 17 Apr. 2001].

Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ). 6 November 2001. "Update in Baku Cemetery Desecration." http://www.fsumonitor.com/stories/110601Azerba.shmtl [Accessed 28 Feb. 2001]

_____. 16 October 2001. "Azerbaijani Officials Calls Christian Missionaries Spies, Cites Extremist Threat to Jews." (Turan News Agency). http://www.fsumonitor.com/stories/10701Azerba.shmtl [Accessed 28 Feb. 2002]

_____. 25 August 1999. "Antisemitism in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia: An In-Depth UCSJ Special Report." (NEXIS)

Additional Sources Consulted

Amnesty International

Azerbaijan International


Council of Europe


Far Eastern Economic Review


Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan

Human Rights Watch

Johnson's Russia List

Minority Electronic Resources

NIS Observed

Open Society Institute

Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe


RFE/RL Azerbaijan Report

Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry