Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 5

A new ethnic challenge to borders in the Caucasus

by David Nissman

Since the Soviet Union ended, many national groups in the formerSoviet republics have challenged the existing state borders. Thishas been particularly true in the North Caucasus.

In the North Caucasus, several nationalities split apart by Stalinare seeking to reunite even if that means that they must changethe Soviet-mandated administrative borders within the RussianFederation. Since the collapse of the USSR, the Adygey peoples–includingthe Cherkess, the Kabardinians, Shapsugs, Mozdoks, Abkhazians,and Abazas–have met several times to call for the creation ofa united territory. And the Karachay, a Turkic people living inthe existing Karachay-Cherkess republic, have also expressed adesire to have a common administrative territory with the Balkars.But a more significant and possibly more fateful challenge comesfrom those North Caucasian peoples who live astride what are nowinternational borders between the Russian Federation, on the onehand, and Georgia and Azerbaijan, on the other.

One of these that has already caused serious problems in theregion concerns the Lezgins, who live in Daghestan, a republicwithin the Russian Federation, and in northern Azerbaijan, theregion through which all communications, transportation routes,and pipelines run between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation.As early as Gorbachev’s times, the Lezgins began to demand thatthey be given a single territory separate from one or the otheror both of these countries, but their autonomy movement–calledSadval–only took off after the end of the USSR.

According to the 1989 Soviet census, there are approximately205,000 Lezgins in Daghestan and some 171,000 in Azerbaijan; unofficialSadval statistics claim that there are actually more than 800,000Lezgins in Azerbaijan. This disparity reflects the fact that underthe Soviets, many Lezgins in Azerbaijan registered as Azerbaijanisas a result of assimilatory pressures from Baku. (Another partialexplanation is that the Lezgins themselves were divided in variousSoviet censuses as Tabasarans, Aguls, Rutuls, and Tsakhurs.) Thebest estimate is that there are something over a million Lezginsastride the Russian-Azerbaijani border.

Politically, the Lezgins have organized two national organizations:the Sadval, which seeks to create an independent Lezginistan orat least a unified Lezginistan within Daghestan; and the Samur,a Baku-sponsored group that has taken a more moderate line, insistingonly on greater cultural protections of Lezgins regardless ofwhere they live. But the two groups come together on the questionof the redress of past wrongs inflicted by Soviet, Russian, andAzerbaijani governments.

Moscow has been attentive to the activities of both groups. In1992, a special government working group within the then-StateCommittee for Nationalities issued a report on conditions in theCaucasus. Even before Chechnya, the report concluded that thereis a "high probability" that an armed conflict wouldtake place on the Russian-Azerbaijani border because of Lezginactivism. Such a situation, the report concluded, "couldseriously destabilize not only Daghestan but the entire NorthCaucasus."

To prevent that from happening, the group proposed a step bystep response to Lezgin demands. First, Moscow would begin talkswith Baku to allow Lezgins in Azerbaijan to claim Russian citizenship,and Lezgins in Russia to claim Azerbaijani citizenship. Afterthat, each country would create a Lezgin autonomous region. Andfinally, the two adjoining regions could establish ethnic tiesmuch like those that link the Flemmish population of Belgium withthe Dutch.

From Moscow’s point of view, this program would have the additionalvirtue of forcing Baku to grant dual citizenship to ethnic Russiansliving in Azerbaijan, a step that could serve as a precedent forother former Soviet Turkic republics. But in the event, Moscow’splans came to nothing. The talks did not take place, the Lezginswere opposed to this approach, and no Central Asian state–otherthan Turkmenistan–has been willing to grant dual citizenshipto ethnic Russians living within its borders. One result of thisfailure is that Moscow has decided that force is the best wayto proceed in resolving ethnic issues in the North Caucasus, asits policy in Chechnya shows.

Baku was actually sensitized to the issue even before Moscowbecause of Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.In February 1990, Baku responded harshly to an Armenian suggestionthat Azerbaijan was mistreating the Talysh and other ethnic minoritiesinside Azerbaijan’s borders. In response, the Azerbaijani CommunistParty convened a special session to focus on improving conditionsfor ethnic groups including the Lezgins. This permissive approachat the level of words was reinforced after the end of the USSRwhen the Azerbaijani authorities issued a special decree on languageand cultural rights for ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, noneof its provisions have yet been implemented.

In 1993, Azerbaijani officials became even more concerned asnot only the Lezgins but the Talysh, Avar, Udin and Kurdish minoritiesbegan to raise demands. The activities of these groups rangedfrom newspaper articles demanding cultural rights, to Lezgin secessionism.The attitudes of the regime of President Abulfaz Elcibey, whoappeared to suggest that "Turks have no friends other thanother Turks," only added fuel to the fire. And alienationamong the Lezgins reached new heights.

To try to counter this, a group of Daghestani elders met withPresident Heydar Aliyev in Azerbaijan in October 1993. They proposedthat the border between Daghestan and Azerbaijan be transformedinto a "zone of stability, security, and cooperation."Aliyev conceded that this border had only a "conditionalcharacter" and that for centuries, Azeris, Avars, Sakhurs(a Lezgin subdivision), Kumyks, and Dargins had mingled acrossit. That led to a new flurry of activity in 1994. In May, an Islamicsociety was created in Derbend and was quickly exploited by theLezgins. In June, the Lezgins led commemorations of the 197thanniversary of the birth of the Imam Shamil, the North Caucasianleader who resisted Russian occupation of the region in the nineteenthcentury, and the 230th anniversary of the birth of another NorthCaucasian resistance leader.

At about the same time, a meeting was held between Azeri andLezgin inhabitants of Derbent to discuss the clashes that hadtaken place during the visit of the Russian CounterintelligenceService chief, Sergei Stepashin. Many in Baku suspected that Sadvalwas behind the events which left a number of dead in their wake.Stepashin was there to meet with the head of the Dagestani parliamentto discuss the Lezgins and apparently concluded that Russia coulddeal with the Lezgins without making any concessions to them.During his visit, he signed a protocol setting up border and customsposts on the Azerbaijani–Russian border, thus killing Baku’sidea of a "stability zone."

Having failed in Daghestan, the Sadval movement shifted its attentionto the south. One major issue there was Baku’s decision to draftLezgins to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. On June 14-15, 1994, Lezginprotesters clashed with police in the Azerbaijani region of Gusar.Two people were killed–both apparently Lezgins and Russian citizens.Following their deaths, protesters attacked the police stationand demanded changes that Baku branded as "absurd."Among the Lezgin demands were a recall of all Lezgin drafteesand the awarding of the title "national hero" to thosewho had died.

These events continue to reverberate in 1995. Ali Musayev, chairmanof the Samur Lezgin National Center in Baku, told President Aliyevthat the police had opened fire on unarmed people. Aliyev agreedto form a state commission to investigate relations with the Lezgins.But it has not made any public statements to date. As a result,the Lezgins, who feel they are victims of ethnic discriminationboth in Russia and in Azerbaijan, have been radicalized to thepoint that neither Moscow nor Baku is likely to be able to controlthe situation except by the use of force. Moscow’s attack on Chechnyahas quieted the Lezgins for the time being, but the new radicalismof their leaders suggests that this crossborder challenge willreignite, even if Moscow succeeds in imposing its will in Grozny.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.