On May 20-22, in Armenia’s resort town of Tsaghkadzor, an event billed as the “First International Conference on Talysh Studies” was hosted by Yerevan State University’s Iranian Studies Department and the Yerevan-based Center for Iranian Studies. Almost certainly, some political circles in Armenia were behind this initiative. The conference appeared designed at least in part to resurrect the issue of autonomy for the Talysh ethnic group in Azerbaijan.
Such intentions draw inspiration from the would-be “Talysh-Mugan Republic,” declared on June 21, 1993, in southeastern Azerbaijan by a group of ethnic Talysh officers under the leadership of Colonel Alikram Gumbatov. Their rebellion was correlated with a massive Armenian offensive on the Karabakh front and seizure of territories deep inside western Azerbaijan by Armenian forces. The Talysh rebels proclaimed the independence of a seven-district area in southeastern Azerbaijan, but did not elicit significant support among their own ethnic group. On August 24 that year, Azerbaijani-loyal troops put an end to the Talysh “republic” and arrested its leaders. Gumbatov, sentenced to imprisonment for treason, became a cause celebre as a “political prisoner” during the ensuing decade.
A self-styled Talysh National Movement surfaced unexpectedly for the purposes of the conference just held in Armenia. TNM leader Fahraddin Abbos-Zoda and several members arrived from Azerbaijan to participate in the conference. Members of a Talysh diaspora group from Moscow also participated, alongside academic experts from Armenia and Iran. The latter country has its own Talysh minority, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border.
Abbos-Zoda and others told the conference that the Talysh are “oppressed” in Azerbaijan and called for autonomy of the Talysh-inhabited area. The TNM asked the conference to appeal to the United Nations, the OSCE, and other international organizations “to help put an end to violations of the basic rights of Talysh in Azerbaijan.” This seems to have been the initial goal of the conference organizers. However, the participants from Iran, where the Talysh are not recognized as an ethnic group, blocked that proposal.
The conference in Armenia did resolve to found an International Talysh Association, elected the association’s steering committee, and announced plans to hold follow-up conferences and publish reference material on the Talysh with a view to helping preserve their ethnic identity, language, and cultural heritage.
A Moscow-based, obscure “Party for Equality of the Peoples of Azerbaijan,” formerly known as the Talysh People’s Party, has distanced itself from the conference in Armenia. The party described the Moscow Talysh who attended that conference as “nationalist adventurers.” The party professes loyalty to a “multi-national Azerbaijan,” seeks broader opportunities for Talysh self-expression, and has entered dialogue with the state authorities.
The Talysh are a largely agricultural, Shia Muslim population, speaking dialects closely related to Farsi. They reside for the most part near Azerbaijan’ border with Iran, around the towns of Lerik, Lenkoran, and Astara on the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan’s official statistics put the number of Talysh at approximately 80,000. Some Talysh estimate the size of their group at up to half a million in Azerbaijan (and a comparable number across the border in Iran). The attempt by unidentified circles in Armenia to reopen the dormant Talysh issue coincides with reports of significant progress in the negotiations with Azerbaijan over Karabakh, and may be designed to complicate the overall situation.
(Arminfo, ARKA, A1 Plus TV [Yerevan], May 20-24; Express [Baku], May 21)