Monday, July 16, 2007

Window on Eurasia: The Talysh Caught Between Baku and Tehran, Moscow and Washington

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 16 – The Talysh, a 250,000-strong ethnic community living astride the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, currently finds itself caught up in broader tensions among Baku, Tehran, Moscow and Washington, pulled in one direction by its political loyalties and yet another by its religious identification.
Except for brief periods -- such as the expansion of Talysh language institutions in the 1920s and the self-proclaimed and ultimately failed Talysh-Mugdam republic in 1993 -- this overwhelmingly Shiite community has attracted little attention except from historians. But there are three reasons why that may be about to change.
First, their location – in the southeastern portion of Azerbaijan and the northwest part of Iran – puts them near the center of increasing tensions between Iran and the United States, especially because many Talysh say they look to an Iranian ayatollah for guidance (
Second, the Talysh historically not only look to Moscow for protection – their leaders cite two early 19th century treaties as requiring that the Russian state look after their interests – but have sometimes been used by the Russians for leverage against Azerbaijan (, March 8, 2007).
And third, they find themselves caught between Baku’s drive to create a single Azerbaijani nation, an approach that the Talysh reject, and the desire of most Azerbaijanis to recover Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, a view virtually all Talysh share (
These cross-cutting tensions are reflected in three recent appeals the Talysh have made to Vladimir Putin (, March 8, 2007), to the international community (, and to the diplomatic community (
The open letter to Putin, released over the name of the International Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Talysh People, called on the Russian president to fulfill his obligations under the 1813 Gulistan Treaty to protect the Talysh from Turkification.
Specifically, it criticized the Azerbaijani government’s plans to rename Talysh villages and regions, to ignore Talysh issues in the media, and to understate the number of Talysh people in Azerbaijan. By so doing, the appeal said, Baku hopes to “forcibly assimilate” the Talysh into the Azerbaijani nation.
And in order both to cover its tracks and to generate international support for (or at least deflect opposition to) what it is doing, the appeal said, Baku has accused the Talysh of being “pro-Iranian” and thus ready “to support the Iranian side in the case of war” involving Azerbaijan and Iran.
The appeal to the international community, which was issued on behalf of the Talysh National Movement on May 16, picked up many of these same themes. It was especially critical of Azerbaijan’s plans to rename one city in the Talysh area Guneshli in place of Ozobizhon (
That is not only an attack on the Talysh, the appeal said, but absurd on its face because the Talysh word “Ozobizhon” is the basis for the Turkic word Azerbaijan, an indication of the fact that the Talysh were in this region long before the Azerbaijanis who took that name as a people only in the 20th century.
The third appeal, issued at the end of last month called on diplomats to intervene to protect two Talysh activists, Novruzali Mamedov, who was involved with the abortive 1993 republic, and Elman Guliyev, who served as Mamedov’s deputy at the “Tolyshi sedo” newspaper (
These three appeals have attracted little attention internationally or domestically. Most Talysh remain loyal to Azerbaijan despite the toponomy changes and are reluctant to cause trouble as long as Baku is locked in a battle with Armenia over the fate of Karabakh.
But as one of them told an IWPR journalist last week, “if it weren’t for the Karabakh conflict,” we might make our demands [clear]. At present, however, that would only play into the hands of our enemies, who would say the rights of minorities in Azerbaijan are being violated.”
And as a Talysh religious leader, Hojjat-ul Islam Sheikh Asif noted to the same journalist, “our ayatollah is in Iran, just as the Catholics’ spiritual leader has his seat in Rome. If there’s some disagreement between Baku and Iran on religious matters, we will obey our spiritual mentors in Iran.”

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