Is Moscow Putting the Talysh in Play Against Azerbaijan?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 21


More than in most parts of the world, the former Soviet space is a place where battles about the present and the future are waged over the past. Most famously, Russians and Ukrainians disagree profoundly whether Kievan Rus marked the beginning of Russian statehood, as Moscow would have it, or was at the beginnings of a separate and distinct Ukrainian nation. But across the region, there are many such battles going on, and one of the most potentially fateful involves the question: “Did Talyshistan belong to the Azerbaijani Republic” in the past? And thus, should it belong to the Republic of Azerbaijan now?

What might have seemed like a petty issue, one that originated on the pages of Facebook and reflected some intramural Azerbaijani academic politics, has been raised to a new level by an article posted on the website of IAREX. The Russian news agency IAREX was founded by Modest Kolerov and is known for its Russian nationalist and even imperialist leanings. That article, by Talysh leader Fakhraddin Aboszoda, is entitled: “Scandal in Azerbaijan: Did Talyshistan Belong to the Azerbaijan Republic?” He answers that question in the negative and says that “every Talysh must be certain that in the not too distant future Talyshistan will become an independent state!” (IAREX, January 28).

Aboszoda—or Abbasov as his name is sometimes given—was involved with the self-proclaimed Talysh-Mugan Autonomous Republic in 1992 (located in the southeastern corner of Azerbaijan). He has worked closely with the Republic of Armenia and the Russian Federation on behalf of the Talysh, who speak an Iranian dialect, follow Shiism, and number approximately 100,000 in Azerbaijan and about 400,000 in neighboring Iran. In earlier articles, the Talysh leader has pushed the idea that Azerbaijan is “a pseudo-empire” that must be decolonized. His assertion has been taken up by others, including researchers at the Kremlin-connected think tank, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) (IAREX, December 24, 2012; for more on RISI, see EDM, January 27).

Aboszoda’s current article was ostensibly prompted by a dispute about the existence, or non-existence, of a Talysh khanate in Persia in the early 19th century when, as a result of a treaty between St. Petersburg and Teheran, control over what had been northwestern Persia was transferred to the Russian Empire. Azerbaijani textbooks routinely list all the khanates that the Persians gave up—all except one, the Talysh. This has prompted first an objection by Jamil Hasanli, a historian who is also a leader of the opposition National Council, and then a rejoinder by Yakub Mahmudov, the head of the Baku Institute of History and a member of the country’s parliament.

Hasanli objected to the absence of any reference to the Talysh khanate in the textbooks his grandson was using. In most countries, Aboszoda says, such a complaint would pass unnoticed. But not in Azerbaijan—where any such objection becomes a challenge to the state. As a result, the authorities brought Mahmudov into the game. The regime-friendly historian dutifully said there was no reason to complain because, in fact, the Talysh khanate was one of many transferred by the Persian-Russian treaty. Furthermore, at the time, this khanate was led by Turks, not Talysh, and therefore it is entirely proper to subsume it under Azerbaijan and to teach Azerbaijani young people that version of history.

Soon, other pro-regime historians entered the fray, insisting that Talysh is “a geographic territory” and no more. And any reference to a Talysh “khanate,” they argued, must be written in quotation marks, to dispel the notion of its independent existence or that its rulers were ethnically Talysh rather than Turks—or more precisely “Azerbaijani Turks”—regardless of what the vastly more complicated historical record suggests (IAREX, January 28).

Aboszoda reviews that record and comes up with a list of reasons why people should know that a Talysh khanate existed and that its leaders were Talysh. His arguments would be of interest only to historians if it were not for his conclusion: Talyshistan was never part of Azerbaijan, as even Baku historians acknowledge by refusing to include it in the list of khanates transferred from Persia to Russia in the 19th century. And as a result, he declares, “Talyshistan did not have and does not have any relationship to the artificially created in 1918, and again in 1991, state under the strange [sic] title ‘the Azerbaijan Republic,’ because under the word ‘Azerbaijan’ has always been understood the northwestern territories of Iran” (IAREX, January 28).

Why is a Russian nationalist site pushing this idea now? At least three possible reasons exist, and each of them should be a matter of concern to anyone worried about stability in the South Caucasus. First, Russia may be nervous that Iran is itself stepping up activities among the Talysh, and Moscow wants to counter that trend. Second, the Russian government may feel that backing an anti-Baku movement now will improve its standing in Armenia given the continuing tensions over the murder in Gyumri (see EDM, January 16, 30). And third, the Kremlin may want to send a signal to Baku that Moscow has resources within Azerbaijan that it is quite prepared to put in play, if Azerbaijan does not go along with Russia’s wishes.