The launch of a Talysh-language radio station based in the Armenian-occupied territories but directed at the members of that ethnic minority elsewhere in Azerbaijan is part of the latest chapter in the long and dangerous history of efforts by Azerbaijan’s three neighbors—Armenia, Iran and the Russian Federation—to seek to use Azerbaijan’s various ethnic minorities against Baku (http://armenianow.com/karabakh/45044/armenia_karabakh_radio_talysh).
But what makes this particular development so disturbing in that regard is that it is taking place at the same time as both Iran and Russia are pursuing the same policy, a conjunction that will not only challenge Baku’s ability to control the situation but also make it less likely that there will be a resolution of the Karabakh dispute anytime soon.
The Talysh of Azerbaijan are a Persian-speaking minority living around the southern city of Lenkoran. According to the last Azerbaijani census (2009), they number 112,000 (http://www.stat.gov.az/source/demoqraphy/ap/indexen.php#001), but Talysh activists say that, in fact, there may be as many as half a million in the Republic of Azerbaijan and point out that there are more than that number in neighboring Iran as well as additional Talysh in Armenia, Turkey and the Russian Federation (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/208814/).
They were the nominal basis of a Mughan Soviet Republic the Bolsheviks set up in 1919 to undermine the Musavat party-led government in Baku, and they themselves declared their own national republic in 1993, almost certainly at the urging of Russian officials who hoped the emergence of such a republic would result in a more pro-Moscow government in Azerbaijan (Frederik Coene, The Caucasus: An Introduction, 2010, pp. 161–162). Since that time, the Talysh say they have been subject to various forms of repression by Baku, the result in fact of the attention this nation has been receiving from the three neighboring countries.
Armenia, locked in a dispute with Azerbaijan over the latter’s territories that it occupies, has been the most active. Yerevan has regularly organized international conferences and published numerous articles and books about the fate of the Talysh under Azerbaijani rule. On March 28, Yerevan ratcheted up the pressure in this regard by launching a Talysh-language radio station, the Voice of the Talysh, in the occupied territories, a move that Azerbaijanis denounced both because of where the station is based and because of its obvious intent to stir up one of Azerbaijan’s ethnic minorities (rferl.org/content/nagorno-karabakh-fresh-irritant-armenia-azerbaijan-relations/24959209.html; news.day.az/politics/393322.html).
Iran is also deeply involved. After the opening of the Armenian Talysh radio, the Iranian embassy in Baku denied Iran had any connection with its operation, a step it apparently felt it had to make given that Tehran has operated its own Talysh-language station for a long time (www.regnum.ru/news/1641421.html). Iran may have also have had other reasons.
On the one hand, Tehran has been complaining over the last two weeks about Azerbaijan’s supposed interest in the 25 million ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran (news.day.az/politics/392995.html). And on the other, the Iranian government has been on the defensive after some of its parliamentarians called for the absorption into Iran of all or part of the Azerbaijani republic. These Iranian deputies were responding both to Baku’s apparent interest in Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani community as well as to discussions in the United States and elsewhere about playing the ethnic card against Tehran as part of the international effort to force Iran to give up its nuclear program (news.day.az/politics/394923.html). It is certainly no coincidence that the portion of Azerbaijan these Iranian parliamentarians were most likely referring to in the first instance is populated by the Talysh.
The Cultural Center of the Talysh of Iran has frequently criticized Baku for its handling of Talysh activists, and its operations are clearly intended to boost a sense of separateness among the Azerbaijani Talys that Tehran could utilize against Baku (flnka.ru/analitika/1440-unichtozhenie-talyshskoy-elity.html; flnka.ru/novosti/640-zayavlenie-kulturnogo-centra-talyshey-irana.html). Iranian support for the Talysh has tracked with Iran’s attempts either to pressure Baku or show support for Azerbaijan in order to convince it not to join forces with the West against Iran.
The Russian Federation is the third actor in this drama. Although it does not itself broadcast in Talysh to Azerbaijan, Moscow has put the Talysh of Azerbaijan into play politically not only in 1919 and 1993, but more recently as well. In addition to Russian-based websites that focus on and reach out to the Talysh, Moscow is more than ready to use what either Tehran or Yerevan does in this regard for its own purposes vis-à-vis Baku. A clear example of that stance is a commentary that ran on the new Armenian radio station. In it, Rustam Isandari argues that Azerbaijan has only itself to blame for the appearance of such broadcast stations because of its mistreatment of ethnic minorities (ostkraft.ru/ru/news/495). And he welcomed reports that Armenia plans to begin broadcasting to Azerbaijan in Lezgin and Avar—two language communities Moscow has been actively supporting just north of the Azerbaijani border, whose members have focused on the problems of their co-ethnics south of it. The sheer number and complexity of the various ethnic groups, nationalities, language communities and cultures living side-by-side in the Caucasus has, unfortunately, contributed to the ever-present possibility that disputes can quickly spiral into violent conflicts if unaddressed. And the willingness of some outside powers to play on such regional inter-ethnic disputes threatens to spark unintended and wide-reaching consequences that may not be easily undone.