AZERBAIJAN’S NATIONAL MINORITIES TODAY
Gidaiat Orudzhev, D.Sc. (Philol.), Azerbaijani State Nationalities Policy Adviser (Baku, Azerbaijan)
Sovereign Azerbaijan’s first legislative document, the Constitution Act on the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which was made public on 18 October, 1991, and the country’s Basic Law of 1995 declared the equality of all citizens, their rights, freedoms, and obligations, regardless of national and ethnic differences. For example, the Constitution Act sets forth: “All citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan are equal before the law. The Republic of Azerbaijan, as a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords, and other generally recognized international law documents, ensures the observation and unrestricted realization of all the rights and freedoms set forth in them, regardless of gender, race, nationality, religion, social origin, political convictions, and other factors.” The republic’s 1995 Constitution states: “Art 5. The Republic of Azerbaijan shall wholly and indivisibly be Homeland for all the citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan;” “Art 24. Every citizen shall enjoy inviolable, undeniable, and inalienable rights and freedoms from birth, regardless of race, nationality, religion, language, gender, origin, property status, social position, convictions, and affiliation to political parties, trade unions, or other public organizations. There shall be no limitations on or recognition of rights and freedoms due to race, nationality, religion, language, gender, origin, convictions, or political and social affiliation.”
At present, the country’s policy toward its national minorities is based on the following postulates: unconditional observance of the principle of the state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; protection of the rights and freedoms of the republic’s national minorities; support from the state in developing their language, culture, and uniqueness; unfailing protection in the spirit of the country’s Constitution, international treaties, and agreements, and the creation of a legal base; the adoption of corresponding laws by the Milli Mejlis (the National Assembly); the issuing of presidential decrees for implementing the Constitution, international treaties, and agreements; and making the preservation of its unique historical wealth a top priority in the life of the Azeri multinational society, which constitutes the diverse and rich tapestry of the country’s centuries-long heritage. At this juncture, the following aspects should be added: fully restoring the norms of shared life and activity in Azerbaijan’s multinational family, as well as the traditions of historical friendship and good neighborliness; implementing the idea of Azeri national pride and patriotism in order to reinforce the ideological, legal, and moral-psychological base; ensuring full and genuine equality of all the republic’s citizens, regardless of their nationality, race, ethnic group, religion, or any other affiliation; and preventing the recidivism of discrimination, religious intolerance, nationalism, and racism.
At present, the republic is densely populated by 20 national minorities, which along with the Azeris make up the people of Azerbaijan: Russians, Ukrainians, Tats, Kurds, Belorussians, Talyshes, Jews, Turks, Germans, Lezghians, Tatars, Avars, Georgians, Tsakhurs, Udins, and so on. Moreover, there is a community of Cossacks. Along with the Azeris they constitute the people of our state, speak in their native languages, and preserve their material and spiritual culture, religion, traditions, everyday habits, and customs. They have also created national-cultural societies, communities, associations, and unions. Among them are the Talysh Cultural Center, the Ronaii Kurdish Cultural Center, the Samur Lezghian Cultural Center, the Center for the Study of Lezghian Mythology, the Tsakhur Cultural Center, the Sheikh Shamil Avar Society, the Oraiin Udin Cultural Center, the Azeri Tat Cultural Center, the Budug Cultural Center, the Slavic Cultural Center of Azerbaijan, the Russian Community Society, the Khinalig Cultural Center, the Tatar Community of Azerbaijan, the Georgian Society of Azerbaijan, the Ukrainian Society of Azerbaijan, the European Jewish Community of Azerbaijan, the German National Cultural Society, the Azerbaijan Society of Jewish Women, the Judaica International Society, and the Vatan Society of Akhyskha Turks.
These and many other national minority structures have received financial assistance on several occasions from the state and do not have to pay rent on the facilities where their associations are located. They enjoy various forms of state support. For example, along with direct financing, we will note that radio and television programs are broadcast in Russian, Georgian, Lezghian, Talysh, Kurdish, and other languages; newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and art anthologies are published in the national languages; the nationalities are represented in the Milli Mejlis and in other government structures at the level of minister and deputy minister, and also hold the position of executive power heads in some districts and cities. A Consultative Council of National Minority Representatives has been created under the Azerbaijani State Nationalities Policy Adviser.
By preserving their ethnic identity, national minorities are making a contribution to the Azeri culture as a whole, enriching it and gleaning from it the traditions, rituals, customs, and ceremonies that satisfy their own spiritual needs and are in harmony with their mentality. Mutual enrichment and cultural diffusion is in a state of constant flux, and this is something the entire nation benefits from. In this way, the rights and freedoms of the national minorities are realized in practice, and their cultural autonomy is developed and ensured.
Meetings are periodically held at the state level with the national-cultural societies, at which problems relating to the various spheres of life and activity of the national minorities are discussed and specific and rapid resolutions are found. What is more, scientific practical conferences are organized to look at issues relating to the past and present of the national minorities and to overcome any unconstructive tendencies. For example, in 1999, the Second International Conference on the fate of Azerbaijan’s Germans, their past and present, and prospects for the future was held under the auspices of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, and an International Conference on “State Policy Regarding Azerbaijan’s National Minorities” was organized under the auspices of the national policy service in the country’s presidential administration and the London Information Network on Conflicts and Statebuilding (LINKS). All the republic’s national minorities were represented at this conference, thus receiving yet another opportunity to talk about the true state of their affairs in Azerbaijan and express their gratitude to the government for guaranteeing their Constitutional rights and freedoms.
Such meetings at different levels are important and constructive for resolving practical and scientific-theoretical problems, and there can be no doubt about how valuable and necessary they are to both sides—the national minorities and the government-scientific structures. In this way, Azerbaijan, which is a multiethnic society, is showing the whole world its attitude toward its national minorities, and they in turn can demonstrate to the world community their true status in a democratic state, which keeps a constant and careful watch over them. So it goes without saying that our republic possesses a priceless multinational treasure, which is one of the conditions for ensuring sustainable and ongoing success on the way toward achieving genuine democracy and economic reforms, which requires conducting a civilized national policy based on the constitutional equality of all citizens.
Relying on its rich historical past, Azerbaijan continues to be true to its centuries-long traditions. Despite the economic and social difficulties of the transitional period and direct military aggression from Armenia, the country’s leadership is still conducting a policy of national equality and trust. Of course, the situation is aggravated by the consequences of Armenia’s undeclared war on Azerbaijan, the loss of 20 percent of our republic’s territory, the presence of one million refugees and displaced persons, among which are not only Azeris, but also Russians, Kurds, and the representatives of other nationalities, the immense material damage caused by the aggressor, the devastation and plundering of dozens of villages and cities, and the continuing attempts from the outside to destroy the national equilibrium in our country. But even under such difficult circumstances, Azerbaijan is continuing to conduct a national policy based on the civilized norms set forth in the declarations, acts, agreements, and charters of the world community.
Proceeding from its spirit and letter, Azerbaijan is guaranteeing its national minorities life in an indivisible, sovereign state, the realization of their rights and freedoms, including the advancement of their native tongue, culture, traditions, and customs, and state support of their national-cultural development; the observance and unconditional performance of the norms and provisions of international agreements and treaties signed by Azerbaijan; support of the principles of equal existence and enhancement of the country’s multinational family; peaceful coexistence among all the local nationalities; restoration and advancement of the historical traditions of friendship and good neighborliness highlighted by the Azeri mentality; reinforcement of legal and ideological spiritual-psychological conditions for spreading the idea of Azeri national pride and patriotism throughout society; ensuring equal rights and opportunities for all citizens; and protection from discrimination based on race, nationality, or religious affiliation.
It was noted above that the national minorities are represented in the country’s various state and government structures. Joint efforts by the government structures and the national-cultural societies have resulted in immense achievements. For example, according to the republic’s Ministry of Education, there are currently 4,500 schools in the country that teach in Azeri, Russian, and Georgian, 107 of which are “purely” Russian; 374 are mixed, Azeri-Russian, and six are Georgian. The children of Lezghians, Talyshes, Udins, mountain Jews, Tats, Khinalugi, and other nationalities in densely populated regions receive primary education in their native languages. A council for publishing textbooks in the languages of the national minorities functions under the Ministry of Education; and all textbooks and other literature are published using funds allotted from the state budget. In the places where they reside, higher learning institutions have opened; in particular, a State University has been founded in Lenkoran, a branch of Baku State University in Sheki, a branch of the University of Culture and the Arts in Kuba; and national theaters are also in operation—the Russian Drama Theater in Baku, the Lezghian Theater in Kusari, and the Georgian Theater in Kakhi. What is more, folklore, instrumental, and vocal ensembles enjoy popularity among Turks, Tsakhurs, Tats, the mountain Jews, Talyshes, Lezghians, Ingilois, Russians, European Jews, Georgians, and Tatars (the latter also have a children’s art collective). It is also worth noting here that the Palace of Culture in the Russian village of Ivanovka in the Ismailly District attracts universal attention due to the scope of its activity.
We have already noted that the numerous national-cultural centers and societies of the ethnic minorities are financed by the state. Newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and other books are published in different languages, and radio and television programs are broadcast, and classes are taught in the national languages not only in secondary schools, but also at higher and specialized secondary-education institutions. Along with their efforts to enhance their culture and preserve their customs and traditions, the national-cultural societies and centers, in cooperation with the corresponding government structures, are helping to create an atmosphere of consent and peace among the nationalities living in the country.
With respect to the activity of the national minorities, it should be kept in mind that one of the ways to encourage separatism is to form political parties and movements based on national characteristics. But there are basically no such trends in Azerbaijan. The activity of the Armenians in Azerbaijan is the only exception, which is supported from the outside, primarily and largely from Armenia and from the Armenian lobby abroad. But the other national minorities in the country have no inclination to form their own political parties and movements or to separate from Azerbaijan. Admittedly, there have been such external attempts, but to the credit of the national minorities in our republic they understood on time the threat they were creating primarily to themselves by such behavior. The leaders of the national minorities of Azerbaijan are against any incautious and hasty decisions and operate within the framework of the national-cultural societies, hand in hand with the country’s government and social structures. So a unifying trend predominates—a common struggle against Armenian aggression and attempts from the outside to drive a wedge between the republic’s nationalities, and in favor of protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Representatives of all the national minorities serve in the ranks of the national army, shoulder to shoulder with the Azeris. And this unity can be shown by means of specific examples. Germans appeared in Azerbaijan at the beginning of the 19th century. They fled from a Germany that had been decimated by Napoleon. They found a new Homeland in Azerbaijan, where they built their settlements and engaged in creative labor until 1941, when they were deported to Central Asia and Kazakhstan. After their rehabilitation in 1956, some of them returned to Azerbaijan.
Settlements of Russian peasants have been a common feature in Azerbaijan since the first third of the 19th century. During the following decades, they built dozens of villages here, some of which have survived to this day. Before perestroika, there were 392,000 Russians in the republic. At present, there are 170,000, and they primarily live in Baku, Ganja, Sumgait, Mingechaur, Ali-Bairamli, Lenkoran, and other regions of Azerbaijan. The trends toward their reduction in numbers are specifically related to the military and socioeconomic processes that occurred after 1988: domestic political instability, military aggression from Armenia, and the increase in psychological discomfort. Now the situation is taking a turn for the better. Russians run their own national-cultural societies in Azerbaijan, they are represented in the Milli Mejlis, and twenty newspapers and magazines, as well as books and other publications are available in Russian. For example, one of the oldest newspapers, Bakinskiy rabochii, which was founded as early as 1906, is still published in Azerbaijan, as well as the newspaper Vyshka (since 1928), and the magazine Literaturniy Azerbaijan (since 1931). Russian periodicals are also sold and subscribed to. Azerbaijan freely rebroadcasts the Russian television channels ORT, RTR, and NTV, Azerbaijan television also broadcasts its own programs in Russian, and Russian Radio is on the air. Some pupils and students in schools and higher and specialized secondary-education institutions still study in Russian. The Samed Vurgun Russian Drama Theater has functioned in Baku since 1920, and there are Russian troupes in the opera theater, as well as in the musical comedy and children’s theaters.
There are specific examples of internationalism and the positive attitude of Azerbaijan and the Azeris toward other nationalities and national minorities. Azeris are not egocentric people, they are not a self-absorbed nation, they do not suffer from ethnic individualism, and their Homeland is not a mono-ethnic country. With respect to the European Jews, we will remind you that Azerbaijan has given world science and culture such contemporary luminaries as Lev Landau, an outstanding physicist of the 20th century and Nobel Prize-Winner; Mstislav Rostropovich, a genius of contemporary musical art; Bella Davidovich, winner of the Chopin International Pianist Contest in Warsaw; Leonid Zorin, one of the best writers and playwrights of the U.S.S.R. and Russia; and Faina Ranevskaia, a leading light of Soviet and Russian cinema and theater. Among the mountain Jews, Gavriil Ilizarov, an academician, and the founder and director of one of the most advanced schools of orthopedics and traumatology, enjoyed world renown. Famous Russians include Mikhail Zharov, an outstanding theatrical and cinematic actor, who began his artistic career at the Russian Drama Theater in Baku; Nikolai Nikitin, the chairman of the collective farm in the village of Ivanovka and Hero of Socialist Labor, and others.
Although the Armenians believe that they were subjected to “discrimination” in Azerbaijan, there are a number of natives of Azerbaijan among the outstanding representatives of the Armenian people. Incidentally, we will note that Armenians who are Azerbaijan citizens still live in Sumgait, which has a bad reputation due to the "painstaking" efforts of the Armenian lobby, and there is a boarding school for Armenian orphans in Baku.
There is no room for ethnic and religious strife, intolerance, and discrimination in the republic. This is evidenced by the fact that a variety of different religions are represented in our country, and synagogues and Christian churches function alongside mosques. This tolerance is due to the Azeri mentality, which historically has respect for the cultural and spiritual values of other nationalities and faiths, a striving for peace and good neighborliness, and no room for chauvinism, fanatical nationalism, megalomania, xenophobia, and egoism. Before they became Muslims (at the turn of the 7th-8th centuries), our ancestors practiced other religions, Zoroastrianism and then Christianity. And since then our people have felt love and concern for the religious-cultural monuments of the pre-Muslim period that symbolize the path taken by the Azeris in their spiritual evolution. The country has the only unique church of the fire-worshipping Zoroastrians (Ateshgiakh) in the world, which was built in the 18th century by the Indian followers of Zoroaster, and early Christian churches of the 5th-6th centuries built during the existence of the Albanian state (on the territory of present-day Azerbaijan). At present, there are more than 400 religious communities functioning in the republic, 350 of them are Muslim, which also include the communes of national minorities who represent the Iranian and Caucasian peoples, and approximately 60 Christian and Judaic communities. During the years of independence, five Russian, five Georgian, and one Udin Orthodox church, five synagogues (in particular one synagogue each for European and Georgian Jews), five Armenian Gregorian communities, 14 Molokan Evangelist communities, six Baptist communities, and four Adventist communities have begun freely operating in Azerbaijan, and the activity of the German Lutheran church and the Roman Catholic church has been restored. The church of St. Joanna the Myrrh-bearer and the Muslim mosque Bibi Eibat have been restored using funds allotted by the Azerbaijan President’s Foundation. All of the indicated religious communities have their own learning centers: the Baku Islamic University, four specialized secondary schools (madrasahs), Sunday Schools at Orthodox churches, and Bible and Judaism study courses.
The Azeris’ tolerance is not only shown by the fact that Jewish synagogues and Christian churches function alongside mosques, but also by the free sale of religious literature of different confessions. What is more, for 160 years now, the Bible has been sold and distributed in the Azerbaijani language.
So it can be said with all confidence that there is not one serious problem in the republic regarding the local national minorities. They are all being resolved to the mutual satisfaction of everyone concerned.
For more than ten years now, Azerbaijan has been conducting full-scale domestic and foreign policy as an equal member of the world community, which also applies in the full sense to settling the national question. It is enough to refer to a very revealing example here. There is only one village in the world where Khinalugi live, and it is located in Azerbaijan. Its residents, who are one of the local national minorities, still converse with each other in their mother tongue and have preserved their unique material and spiritual culture. And the examples can go on and on, the Budugs, Kryzes, and Udins serving as a case in point.
While noting the positive factors in Azerbaijan’s national policy, we nevertheless realize that much still remains to be done to further improve the status of the national minorities in the country and to fully bring their lives into harmony with the standards of the international democratic community and the conditions of the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. There are still problems, and they are related to objective realities: the burdens of war and the consequences of the Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, the economic crisis, and the difficult international situation surrounding our republic are all having a negative effect on social, economic, spiritual, and demographic conditions.
The migration of Azeris themselves, as well as the representatives of national minorities is also arousing concern. However this process is caused by the above-mentioned objective factors and is not for national reasons. Nevertheless, as we talk about the rights and freedoms of national minorities, we are not placing enough emphasis on their obligations, as a result of which negative aspects are arising, including dependent moods and a temporizing stance, and at times even separatism and making a fetish of the right to self-determination, including secession. An example is what happened in Nagorny Karabakh, where Azeris, who constituted the national minority, were subjected to genocide and complete deportation from their native soil, that is, separatism in its most blatant and ugliest form was manifested with respect to Azerbaijan’s national majority.
The objective factors that are having a negative effect on the status not only of the national minorities, but also of the Azeris themselves, also include problems with housing and unemployment, everyday difficulties, and the vast number of refugees and displaced persons. Although we are doing everything in our power to eliminate these problems, we have the right to count on help from the world community, which we are a full-fledged member of after gaining our independence and joining the fundamental documents of the U.N., CSCE, and other international organizations. We are hoping not only for economic and humanitarian aid, but also for legal assistance.
While looking at the status of the nationalities in Azerbaijan in light of the protection of human rights and freedoms, we are hoping that the OSCE Minsk Group for Nagorny Karabakh will finally reach effective settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict, which has been going on for 15 years now and is caused not by national factors, but by Armenia’s long existing claims to Azerbaijan’s territory, history, and culture. It is time to make an objective and unprejudiced assessment of the current situation, in which not only Azeris are suffering, but also the national minorities. Only by eliminating the existing minuses that have arisen, not from any fault of Azerbaijan, can we preserve and further enhance the republic’s multinational existence and unconditionally ensure the rights and freedoms of both the Azeris themselves, and of the country’s national minorities. And this in turn will make it possible to preserve and further improve the synthesis of cultures, languages, religions, and ethnic groups, as well as the harmonious existence and evolution of the peoples of Azerbaijan in a single monolithic family.
Azerbaijan signed the 1994 Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and other international documents on the protection of human rights. While visiting the republic in November 1999, a group of official representatives from the Council of Europe, who came to acquaint themselves with the status of the local national minorities in light of our state’s decision to sign this convention, stated the following: in Azerbaijan, national minorities, who recognize the country’s Constitution and enjoy the rights and freedoms guaranteed by it, and also perform their constitutional obligations, do not differ in status from the titular nation, the Azeris; national minorities have the opportunity for cultural advancement based on the country’s Constitution and Presidential decree of September 1992 “On the Protection of Rights and Freedoms, and State Protection of the Advancement of the Languages and Cultures of the National Minorities, Minority Nationalities, and Ethnic Groups Residing in the Republic of Azerbaijan,” as well as the set of corresponding laws adopted by the Milli Mejlis and the decrees issued by the country’s president that apply to national minorities, including their financial support from the President’s Foundation.
What is more, national policy was highly evaluated at a round table of the Council of Europe on the topic “Azerbaijan’s National Minorities: Reality and Prospects,” which was held on 18 September, 2002.
The government’s concern about the national minorities has acquired a legal status. In the Constitution, as well as in the laws on the freedom of faith, political associations, education, publishing, and culture, and in other documents, all the country’s citizens are unequivocally guaranteed equality. And policy in this sphere is conducted in compliance with the program for building a democratic, secular, unitary, and law-based state and civil society, along with granting the national minorities several special rights and privileges. In other words, ensuring the welfare of the national minorities is not dependent on the bidding of a specific leader, but is regulated by a viable mechanism that has been already drawn up and is currently in effect.