On January 17, 130 families were resettled from the two Lezgin villages of Khrakh-Uba and Uryan-Uba, located on the border between Azerbaijan and Dagestan. The resettlement of ethnic Lezgins had been planned since November 2017, when the Russian authorities issued 138 accommodation certificates, providing 38 square meters of state-provided housing for each resettled resident (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 17). At present, both villages are located within the Khachmaz district in Azerbaijan; but prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were part of the Magaramkent district of Dagestan. For nearly twenty years since 1991, residents of the two villages existed in a legal loophole: their Russian citizenship prevented them from residing on Azerbaijani territory without resident permits (RIA Dagestan, June 25, 2018). In 2010, however, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his then-counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, signed a treaty on the demarcation of border between Azerbaijan and Dagestan, which resulted in the official transfer of the two Lezgin villages to Azerbaijan.
Yet, an independent investigation conducted by RIA Derbent has failed to locate any legal documents confirming the transfer of Khrakh-Uba and Uryan-Uba to Azerbaijan, nor has it found any normative acts defining the legal status of the two villages. According to this regional news outlet’s editor, Milrad Fatullayev, many resettled Lezgin families have had no other choice but to leave their property and houses behind in Azerbaijan since few have managed to sell their homes (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 10, 2017). As Fatullayev noted, after the border demarcation treaty was signed, villagers were given a choice between applying for Azerbaijani citizenship or leaving their houses and moving to Dagestan. Most have chosen to leave for Dagestan, and their houses were sold at below-market prices. Although the Russian government initially planned to build new domiciles for the resettled Lezgin families, in 2017 the decision was changed to simply providing space in state housing, meaning the villagers lost out financially (Regnum, June 21, 2018). Additionally, earlier villagers complained to the Russian authorities that territory allocated for their resettlement was uninhabitable because it was located in a ravine without access to running water and electricity (Vestnik Kavkaza, February 9, 2012).
In Azerbaijan, the government purchased a number of houses at prices lower than their market value from those Lezgin villagers who refused to accept Azerbaijani citizenship (RIA Derbent, May 13, 2017). And in 2013, the Azerbaijani parliament renamed Khrakh-Uba with the Azerbaijani name Palladli (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 23, 2013). The village residents have further complained about the challenges stemming from holding Russian citizenship while crossing the Azerbaijani-Dagestani border to visit their relatives.
With over 800,000 Lezgins living in Dagestan and around 190,000 in neighboring Azerbaijani districts, Lezgins are the largest ethnic group split by the Russian-Azerbaijani border. Moreover, Lezgins are the largest ethnic minority within the relatively homogenous Republic of Azerbaijan, constituting around 2 percent of the overall population. They are also the fourth-largest ethnic group in Dagestan, after the Avars, Dargins and Kumyks. The issue of Lezgin villagers’ resettlement highlights the lack of clearly defined all-inclusive ethnicity policies in both the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan, as well as deep ethnic cleavages within the North Caucasus Republic of Dagestan. Having transferred the border Lezgin villages to Azerbaijan, Moscow has shown little consideration or planning for those Lezgin villagers who chose to maintain their Russian citizenship. Lezgin civil society and Derbent-based mass media sources have been active and vocal on the border division issue since 2012 (RIA Derbent, November 19, 2017). However, all such expressed concerns were rejected by the Kremlin, which has repeatedly stated that the issue of the border villages and their residents has to be discussed between Russia and Azerbaijan, and not Dagestan and Azerbaijan.
Since 2010, successive Avar- and Dargin-dominated Dagestani governments were similarly unresponsive to the plight of the divided Lezgin nation. This can at least partly be explained by the constant competition for power and resources among Dagestan’s multiple ethnic groups (see EDM, July 16, 2008). Indeed, the unification of the Lezgins inside Dagestani borders would have made them the second-largest ethnic group after the Avars, significantly changing the ethnic makeup of the autonomous republic and, thereby, the local balance of power.
Baku’s policy toward ethnic Lezgins residing on Azerbaijani territory has been consistently focused on assimilation and their “Azerification” through passportization as well as the promotion of the Azerbaijani language and education (RFE/RL, June 26, 2008). Moreover, the Azerbaijani authorities have frequently employed border checks and immigration challenges to complicate contacts between Dagestani and Azerbaijani Lezgins. On the one hand, the current resettlement of 130 Lezgin families from the two border villages is an example of Baku’s failure to convince the villagers to abandon their Russian citizenship and to remain in Azerbaijan on Baku’s terms. On the other hand, the removal of a large number of ethnic Lezgins enables Baku to resettle these now-abandoned villages with ethnic Azerbaijanis and further fragment the Lezgin-populated territories spread across the country. Makhachkala’s unwillingness to interfere thus far has been beneficial for Baku, allowing the latter to continue its established policy of encouraging ethnic Lezgins to adopt an Azerbaijani ethnic identity and language.