Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 2

Baku Looks South

by David Nissman

The April 1995 merger of four Southern Azerbaijani political parties in Iran into the Front for the National Independence of South Azerbaijan (FNISA) further complicates relations between Baku and Tehran and between both and Moscow. In an appeal to the Azeri people, the movement argued that "the appearance of the independent republic of Azerbaijan has created a genuine basis for the unification of South and North Azerbaijan." While officials in Baku have dismissed the importance of the new group and denied that they were behind it, the FNISA and the groups comprising it may have a bigger political role in the future than did earlier bodies that sought the reunification of divided Azerbaijan.

This is the third wave of such movements in this century, but the earlier two were more cultural than political in their aspirations, largely because until 1991 there was not an independent Azerbaijan in the north. Indeed, most of the 20 million plus ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran–a third of the population–dismissed the Azerbaijan SSR as a Soviet puppet. Even Azerbaijanis within the Soviet Union did not begin to talk about a unified Azerbaijan until the fall of the shah, except for a brief period during and immediately after the Soviet occupation of northern Iran during World War II.

The Division of Azerbaijan and Its Reawakening

The historic homeland of Azerbaijan was divided between Russia and Persia by the Treaty of Turkmenchai in 1828, and the borders set by that treaty remain in force today. While Soviet historians routinely argued that this treaty divided the Azerbaijani people, in reality the new line was more political than cultural. The northern part of the Azerbaijani territory became subject to Russian rather than Persian tax collectors and other bureaucrats, but there was not yet any sense of a national awakening. That took place only during the second world war, when Moscow occupied northern Iran under the terms of the 1921 Soviet-Iranian treaty.

Historically, Southern, or Iranian, Azerbaijan, has been ethnically Azeri Turkic. The region’s major city, Tabriz, was a major center of Azeri culture until the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. Under Reza Shah, Tehran adopted a strong centralizing and anti-Azeri policy. This policy was so thoroughgoing because many in Iran feared that Moscow posed a serious threat to Iran and would use Azeri co-ethnics to advance its borders. One Soviet commentator, R.A. Seidov, wrote in 1985 that Tehran sought to "extirpate the Azeri language, assimilate the Azeri Turks, and isolate them from neighboring Soviet Azerbaijan."

This division was called into question the first time when Soviet forces moved into northern Iran in 1941. Moscow imported a large and highly educated contingent of Soviet Azeris to control the local population, and after four years of occupation, Moscow set up the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in northern Iran. But when the Red Army left Iran on May Day 1946, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic quickly disintegrated. By the end of the year, all of its officials and many of its citizens had fled to Baku. Moscow said it had withdrawn as a result of Western pressure, but in 1986 Azerbaijani researchers in the archives established that the Red Army had been pulled for Soviet national interests: "the national liberation of the people of Southern Azerbaijan were sacrificed to Stalin’s unjust oil policy and pretensions." This cloudy language refers to the April 4, 1946, agreement between Moscow and Tehran setting up a joint Soviet-Iranian oil concern.

But out of these developments the "One Azerbaijan" movement began in 1947. Three forces were at work: the large emigration of Southern Azeri intellectuals brought a new element to the politics of Baku, the politicization of Northern Azeris who had served in Iran, and the gradual loosening of Soviet ideological supervision of cross-border ties because of Moscow’s overconfidence in its ability to control Iran. As a result, and unexpectedly during the period of high Stalinism, there was an outburst of literary activity in Baku that was nationalist in both form and content. The books and articles that poured forth on this subject were called the "literature of longing" and remained important until 1953–the year of Stalin’s death and also of the return of the Shah to Tehran.

For the next quarter of a century, literary events concerned with "One Azerbaijan" yielded pride of place in Baku to several special institutions that had been created by the Soviet authorities to deal with issues concerning Southern Azerbaijan and Iran. Research centers, literary liaison groups and educational institutes interested in this subject continued to grow. While all were nominally under Moscow’s control, most were dominated and in fact controlled by ethnic Azerbaijanis, frequently those with longstanding ties to the south.

After the fall of the Shah, a literary explosion took place in the South, often with the help of Baku. Virtually all the new journals and radio stations called for the establishment of a cultural and national autonomy for southern Azerbaijanis within the Iranian state. Soviet Azerbaijani institutions stepped up their operations there, taking the line that Azeri language institutions there should be developed to the maximum extent possible. That was also a popular position in Baku with much resonance among Azerbaijanis in the Soviet Union. And unexpectedly for Moscow, these two new national awakenings came together and formed a sense that both groups belonged to the same people and had only been divided by Moscow and Tehran.

The Islamic Republic and the Independence of the North

Ayatollah Khomeini by 1983 had reimposed the Shah’s restrictions on the use of the Azeri language in Iran. Southern Azeri nationalists went underground and looked north for salvation. Baku responded, pressing for an easing of restrictions on border crossings. Talks between Moscow and Tehran in 1989 to liberalize trade between the two countries were hailed in Baku. And in August 1989, the Baku party daily called for changes in Moscow’s approach that would allow direct ties between Azerbaijan and Iran. Moscow did not respond, but the article articulated a goal that has continued to animate Azeri intellectuals in both north and south.

At the end of 1988, massive demonstrations in Baku protested the expulsion of Azeris from Armenia, but as the meetings dragged on into their second month, speakers began to talk about other issues, including the expansion of ties with the South. The Azerbaijani People’s Front which emerged at this time also pushed this issue. Its regional chapters in Nakhchyvan, the non-contiguous part of the republic, were especially active in this regard. When the Moscow-Tehran talks failed to make a breathrough, the Azerbaijanis took matters into their own hands, holding meetings on the banks of the Araz river which divides the two countries. Ultimately, Azerbaijanis from both sides tore down the border fences on December 31, 1989.

Two years later almost to the day, the Soviet Union dissolved and Azerbaijan became independent. As a result, the "Southern question" was transformed, now being subordinated to issues of building an independent state in the north and the prosecution of an expanding war with Armenia. Iran represented a source of capital and a source of political support as Azerbaijan attempted to join the Middle East. As a result, Baku had to avoid doing anything that could undermine its new ties with Tehran. An irredentist campaign clearly was not a good idea, and the government discarded the movement for unification with the South.

By the end of 1994, however, several factors–the convergence of Iranian-Russian geopolitical interests especially on the status of the Caspian Sea, Iran’s support for pro-Islamic groups in Azerbaijan and for Armenia, and Tehran’s continuing unwillingness to allow Azeri-language institutions to emerge in northern Iran–led to the revival of the Southern question in Azerbaijan. In November, a conference in Baku convened by the People’s Freedom Party featured a keynote address by Piruz Dilenchi, a representative of the Southern Azerbaijan National Liberation Party. Dilenchi argued that almost 1,000 Azeri youths were being trained by Tehran to foment an Islamic revolution in Baku. He and his colleagues also talked about the repressions Tehran was visiting upon Azeris in Iran itself. In December 1994, the Baku Information Center of the Southern Azerbaijan National Liberation movement released an appeal by Azeri students in Iranian universities asking that Azeri Turkic become the language of instruction in Southern Azerbaijan.

Consequently, Baku is caught between geopolitics and culture as it seeks to deal with the Southern question. The new alliance may take off but without much help from the current Azerbaijani government. Deposed Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey, however, probably spoke for many when he told Moscow’s Literaturnaya gazeta March 1 that he would devote "the rest of my life" to reunification. But given all the contradictions in this situation, Elchibey and other Azerbaijanis are likely to have to live very long lives if they hope to see "One Azerbaijan" become a reality.

Dr. Nissman is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the author of "The Soviet Union and Iranian Azerbaijan" (Westview, 1987).