On May 14 and 15 the Russian Academy of State Service under the President of the Russian Federation hosted the conference “Cultural Heritage, Culture of the Lezgin People: History and Modernity,” which was organized by the Ministry of Regional Development with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the State Duma and the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Science (RIA Dagestan, February 20; www.day.az, May 12; www.utro.ru, May 15; 1st News, May 21). On the surface, the conference agenda included several legitimate academic topics, including the ancient history of the Lezgin people, the written language of Caucasian Albania, and Lezgin toponyms and their etymology (RIA Dagestan, February 20; www.day.az, May 12). Upon closer examination of the conference proceedings, however, it appears that the event was designed to be a propaganda platform for advocating the creation of an independent Lezgin state or Lezgistan with accompanying territorial claims on the Lezgin-populated areas of northern Azerbaijan, something that Moscow has used many times in the late 1990s, when the Kremlin fomented secessionist sentiment among Azerbaijan’s ethnic minorities (see Jamestown Monitor, June 13, 1997, and November 25, 1998; EDM, May 27, 2005).
In particular, one of the documents circulated at the conference was a brochure entitled “Contemporary problems of Lezgins and Lezgin-speaking people,” which was released jointly by the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Lezgins and the State Duma Committee on Nationality Affairs. According to the authors of the brochure, the delimitation of the state border between Russia and Azerbaijan is illegal and must be revised by incorporating northern regions of Azerbaijan into Dagestan with the purpose of establishing Lezgistan. Another similarly provocative publication that was distributed at the conference was the book Lezgistan on the World Map (Makhachkala, 2007) by K.Kh. Akimov, an employee of the Scientific Research Institute of Pedagogy of the Republic of Dagestan (1st News, May 21).
The Azerbaijani government reacted promptly to the event in Moscow. At a press conference on May 15, the head of the press service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, Xazar Ibragim, stated that Azerbaijan was prepared to respond adequately if the Moscow conference participants made statements directed against the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan (www.day.az, May 15). Azeri Member of Parliament Jamil Gasanly told Interfax-Azerbaijan that the Moscow conference was an attempt to create a new source of separatism in Azerbaijan. During the plenary session of the Azerbaijan parliament (Milli Mejlis), Gasanly called on the Azerbaijani government to protest strongly about the organization of the Lezgin conference in Moscow (Interfax-Azerbaijan, May 16).
The sensitivity of the Azerbaijani side toward the issue of the Lezgin ethnic minority in Azerbaijan in general and its compact presence in the northeastern part of the country in particular becomes especially evident with the example of the villages of Khrakhoba and Uryanoba. By a 1954 decree of the USSR Council of Ministers, these villages were temporarily transferred as grazing territories under the jurisdiction of the Autonomous Republic of Dagestan, which was a part of the Russian Soviet Federative Republic. In 1984 the Council of Ministers of Azerbaijan extended this arrangement for twenty years (www.day.az, May 13; www.utro.ru, May 15). Although the document expired in 2004, the status of the villages has been left unresolved. Paradoxically, while geographically Khrakhoba and Uryanoba are located on the territory of the Khachmaz district of Azerbaijan, they are administratively supposed to belong to the Magaramkent and Akhtyn district of Dagestan, Russian Federation (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, March 13). Located about 50 km from the border with Dagestan and with a combined population of only about 225 people (210 in Khrakhoba and 15 in Uryanoba), these settlements are suspended in a legal limbo, which frustrates the residents, who hold Russian passports, vote in Russian elections and serve in the Russian armed forces (www.day.az, May 13; www.utro.ru, May 15).
Under external influence and active instigation, some of the residents of these villages began to clamor for the Azerbaijani authorities to recognize their territories as Russian enclaves, with a subsequent incorporation into the Russian Federation (www.utro.ru, May 15). In response, Baku announced that it viewed the villages as illegal settlements and offered their residents either Azeri citizenship or migrant status, which would allow them to move freely on Azeri territory (www.day.az, May 13, 15). Some Azeri analysts believe that the activation of the Lezgin issue was orchestrated by the Russian special services in order to implement Moscow’s plan to annex these territories under the pretext of protecting the rights of its citizens in Azerbaijan (www.day.az, May 13; www.utro.ru, May 15).
On July 1, in an apparent attempt to defuse the tension surrounding the issue of the Lezgin villages, Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Vasiliy Istratov struck a conciliatory note. Istratov told journalists that Moscow viewed the resolution of the problems of the Lezgin population in northeastern Azerbaijan not on the political level but from the standpoint of the human factor. He elaborated that the Khrakhoba/Uryanoba issue should be resolved by the Russian Federation, its region Dagestan, and Azerbaijan in the framework of Azeri legislation and taking into account the interests of the people (www.day.az, TREND News, July 1).
Ambassador Istratov’s comments were undoubtedly intended to reduce the residual irritation on the Azerbaijani side over the conference in Moscow on the eve of the first official visit to Baku by President Medvedev on July 3 and 4 (see EDM, July 7). In general, Moscow’s periodic exploration of the issue of ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan–be it Lezgin, Avar, Talysh or Tsakhur, for that matter–is directly tied to Russia’s continuous quest for levers of influence over Azerbaijan. By occasionally probing and in some cases fanning the separatist feelings among the disenfranchised portions of Azerbaijan’s ethnic minorities, Moscow is cautiously hoping to replicate the scenario of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, albeit on a much smaller scale, in Azerbaijan. In Moscow’s possible calculations, the Lezgin card, if successfully played, could even influence Baku to curtail its energy cooperation with the West and redirect its hydrocarbon resources to the north, thereby strengthening Russia’s monopoly on transportation of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.