Posted on May. 26. 2021

“It does not take a majority to prevail,
but rather an irate, tireless minority,
een on setting brushfires of freedom
in the minds of men.”
Samuel Adams

Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian

In the Trans-Caucasian region, Azerbaijan is one of the most “blessed” states in the world with multiplicity of minorities, which normally enrich the kaleidoscope of a country’s culture as is the case with the United States. According to the most recent census, there are over 150 identifiable minorities of different ethnicity living in Azerbaijan; 22 of them are located in compact settlements in different regions of the country, making it look like a large, colorful Persian carpet.

On the flip side, however, this kind of “blessing” could be a curse in disguise, especially for a state that flagrantly suppresses human rights for the sake of forced nation-state building. Some of the minorities aspire for independence to exercise their rights as being indigenous to Azerbaijan. Politically, this situation in Azerbaijan is volatile to explode again at any time now when the opportunity presents itself.  Let us see how the checkered history of Azerbaijan has dealt with its second largest minority of the Talysh people (after the Lezgins). Naturally, any internal strife in Azerbaijan will have some implications for Armenia and the surrounding region.

While from the economic and military defense budget perspectives, Azerbaijan is excelling, but politically it is heading toward being imploded by some of its militant minorities. Azerbaijan is characterized by being extremely poly-ethnic because of its myriad of ethnic diversity. In addition to Azerbaijani Turks, the country is made of Talysh, Lezgins, Tsakhurs, Avars, Tats, Molokans, Ingiloys, Mountain Jews, Avars, Khynalygs, Buduqlus, Grysz, Udis, and countless of others. Although nationality-wise each group considers itself Azerbaijani citizen now, they cling ardently to their ancestral distinctive cultures as reflected in their domestic life, crafts, food, music, traditions, aspirations for freedom and independence to mention a few. Most of these minorities are indigenous people of the various parts of Azerbaijan as is Talyshistan.

Azerbaijan’s ethnic-unrest time bombs are coming from a number of minorities who are aspiring for self-determination. Two of the largest, most daring, and vociferous ethnic groups are the Talysh and the Lezgins. The Talysh are densely populated along the Iranian border, with their capital in Lenkaran. Their lands are divided by the international border between Iran and Azerbaijan.  Thus, the population is divided between the two countries. During the Soviet era, particularly under Joseph Stalin, the Talysh suffered repression in Azerbaijan. Their culture and language were suppressed. Seldom if ever, they received formal state recognition as a nationality, including in USSR censuses.

  Compared to the rest of the world, territories of the former Soviet Union has become a battle ground for the minorities to free themselves from the yoke of arbitrarily appointed states after the dissolution of the union in 1991. One of the battles involves the question of Talysh people’s independence from Azerbaijan. They want Talyshistan to be free of Azeri rule. Talyshistan is an unofficial designation meaning the land of Talysh people.

   Historically and presently, the Talysh homeland lies in Southeastern Europe on the geographical dividing line between Europe and Asia. Most of the   territory in Azerbaijan lies in the flat plains between the Viliash-Chair River and the Caspian Sea; on the Iranian side, it includes the Talysh Mountains along the Azeri-Iranian border. A beautiful country kept pristine by the Talysh people for centuries.

       The Talysh people are an Iranian ethnic group who are indigenous to a region between southern Azerbaijan and northern Iran. They speak the Talysh language which is one of the Northwestern Iranian languages. Ethnically, they belong to Iranian people of the Indo-European family. The traditional occupation of the Talysh people is agriculture and cattle breeding. In the past, rice growing was another primary branch of the economy.

According to the population census of Azerbaijan conducted in 2009, the number of Talysh people in the territory of the republic has amounted to 112 thousand people (less than 2 percent of the population). To this day, the Talysh dispute the official figures about the size of their community. According to the Talysh leaders, their community is as large as 500,000 people.


The map above shows only the portion of Talysh lands
that lie in Azerbaijan. The other portion is in Iran. Talyishstan has been a thorne in the side of Azerbaijan.

From 1991 to the present under the hegemony of Azerbaijan, the historical repression of identity and the inability to practice their culture and language has rendered most of the Talysh people hopeless, which made it difficult for any movement to drive for self-determination. Basically, the Talysh people fear for retaliation for being associated with the separatist Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic, with Russia, and especially with Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh whose guts they admired for breaking away from brutal Azeris.

    It has been warned by community members that the Talysh population is declining and their language is on its way to extinction within 25-35 years since it is not being transmitted to the Talysh children. The new generation more frequently uses Persian or Azerbaijani (Turkish) in their daily interactions within their communities.

  There seems to be two major national movements which subscribe to two schools of thought among the Talysh leaders and activists: one is the Russian backed separatist movement called the “Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic” (aka Talyshistan) formed in 1919 to strive for independence; and the other is The National Talysh Movement (NTM) of 2007  for Talyshistan to become autonomous.

   After the Soviet regime was established in the region, the Talysh people of Azerbaijan dreamt of the restoration of the Talysh-Mugan Republic which was declared in the summer of 1919, but it was ruthlessly destroyed by the Ottoman troops. In 1936 through 1938,  the Talysh nationalists were exiled to Siberia, and the Talysh schools were closed.  

The Talysh gained international prominence again in 1993, when Russia backed a separatist movement called the “Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic” (aka Talyshistan) in southeastern Azerbaijan along the border with Iran led by Alikram Hummatov who became its first president. When international demarcations of territory lines were drawn, Talysh became a border-straddling people, half in Iran and half in Azerbaijan. The new republic was crushed by the Azerbaijani forces just after three months of independence when Heydar Aliyev, the former communist leader of Soviet Azerbaijan, became Azerbaijan’s first president.

   Alikram Hummatove was first imprisoned in Azerbaijan as a political agitator and then exiled. The flame for independence from Azerbaijan has not been extinguished yet. The dream, the aspiration of creating a nation for his people is still alive and well. In 2013, Hummatove, the so-called rebel leader of the Talyshistan, made a number of speeches in Armenia and Artsakh, challenging Azerbaijani unity and rekindling the wish of his people for self-determination, for independence from Azerbaijan.

          The National Talysh Movement (NTM) was formally established in 2007 by the Talysh leaders who had been in exile in the Netherlands. The members of the organization include those who supported the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic such as Alikram Hummatove (the president of Talysh-Mughan). The mission of the movement is to have an autonomous region within Azerbaijan rather than struggle for compete independence right away as was intended in the past.

  The two Talysh national movements are in a status of wait and see or rather they are waiting in the wings as an opportunity presents itself either for autonomy or independence from Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, there are a number of activists who are trying to keep the flame for freedom burning such as activist Fakhranddin Aboszoda who has shown some radical approach to the realization of the Talysh dream of independence.

   In an article titled “Scandal in Azerbaijan: Did Talyshistan Belong to the Azerbaijan Republic?” the author and the Talysh activist Fakhranddin Aboszoda answers his own lead question in the negative by stating that “Every Talysh must be certain that in the not too distant future Talyshistan will become an independent state!” The article was posted on the Russian LAREX Web site, January 28, 2015.

Aboszoda was one of the vociferous leaders involved with the self-proclaimed Talysh-Mugan Autonomous Republic in 1993, which is located in the southeastern corner of Azerbaijan. In earlier articles, the Talysh activist has spread the idea that Azerbaijan was a pseudo-empire and that it must be “decolonized”. His proposition has even influenced the thinking of researchers at the Kremlin affiliated think tank called the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.

      Tensions have increased once more as the Azerbaijani government began implementing the change from Cyrillic to Latin alphabets for both Azeri Lezgin and other languages in 2001. The change drew vehement protests from Lezig activists who complained the move would further complicate cross-border contact with their brothers in Dagestan and compromise, if not kill, the Lezgin culture. 

Azerbaijan’s obvious attempts at forced assimilation of the minorities reignited the flame for independence for a short time. However, the fear of retaliation from the ruling class of Azerbaijan has made many of the minorities, such as the Talysh people, keep silent about their dissatisfaction and yearning for liberty and freedom for their people.

The Talysh and the Lezgin movements, although rather smoldering now, but by all means not dead,  can be reactivated externally by certain clever ways to champion again for independence from Azerbaijan.  If Armenia’s position were reversed with Azerbaijan, the Azeris would have stoked Armenia’s minorities to rise up for independence. When the grievant minorities are motivated and when there is unrest within, Azerbaijan will be weakened, or at least distracted or disoriented by the awakening of their multiple frozen conflicts for freedom.

     Armenia should accelerate the encouragement, the assistance to minorities who have been subjected to discrimination, forced assimilation, and downright trodden by the ruling class of its neighbor. For example, how can Armenians help these mistreated people in Azerbaijan?  How can Armenians keep the flame of liberty and freedom burning in Talysh people’s heart and soul? Here are some ideas upon which to reflect and do not foreget that ideas have changed the world, and idea can also advance the Armenian Cause:

        I.  Armenia and Artsakh should adopt an open door policy in giving asylum to Talish dissidents, activists, and leaders where they could live and work and at the same time plan to implement strategies for their people in gaining freedom and independence from the repressive regime of President Ilham Aliyev.

II. Armenia, Artsakh, and the Diaspora should collaborate on organizing conferences (including zoom meetings) in Armenia, Artsakh, and around the world where there are sizable Armenian Diaspora on the history and culture of the Talysh people in the name of scholarship and preservation of endangered ethnic groups.

III.  To keep the fire burning under the Talysh activists and people, Armenian studies centers around the world should periodically invite speakers to lecture on the history, culture, aspirations, and the plight of their people in Azerbaijan. The native speakers become highly motivated when they see that outsiders are interested in their quest for justice.

IV. The Armenian and Artsakh governments should award special medals to Talysh leaders who have attempted at liberating their people from the untenable rule of Azerbaijan. For example, Alikram Hummatov, would be a great deserving candidate to receive an award for his efforts at protecting the identity of his endangered people in Azerbaijan and in the process he was imprisoned for some years and then exiled.

   V. On a global basis, Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity should also honor those who champion for their people in the hope of getting them freedom and independence with a recognition award (nonmonetary). This annual international humanitarian award, which is initiated to recognize and express gratitude to those courageous individuals or organizations that influence on preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes, would be appropriate to be bestowed also upon leaders, such as some of Talysh activists,  who have done enough work actually or psychologically to ameliorate the fate of their fellow ethnic brothers and sisters.

VI. Armenia, Artstakh, and the Diaspora should provide seminars to train the Talysh activists on how to find and benefit from the international organizations dedicated to helping mistreated minorities.  Directly or indirectly, the minorities, especially the prominent ones, such as the Talysh, the Lezgins, the Avars, the Kurds and others should be encouraged and motivated to stand up for their rights in a regime that forced assimilation has been carried out for many years by depriving its indigenous minorities of basic human rights.  The Talysh people are waiting in the wings for the opportunity to become a free and independent people in their ancestral homeland and the international community will give them a helping hand.

The minority quest for freedom in Azerbaijan would also serve the Armenians. Disordering the enemy by internal strife and conflict is tried and tested way of weakening it. Discord within ones enemy would undermine its ability to fight outside adversaries. Azari artilleries and attack drones are killing noncombatant Armenian villagers now and then. So, why not hit Azerbaijan’s Achilles’ heel to weaken and disorient it in its own track? 

     The Talysh people and other minorities’ strife for their rights constitutes the soft underbelly of Azerbaijan’s government –which does not hesitate to inflict cruel casualties on noncombatant Armenian old men, women and children along the line of contact as was seen during the Artsakh’s second war. By all means, we are not proposing here the Machiavellian strategy of divide and rule. Every nation which believes in the sanctity and dignity of human race must do its share to do the humanitarian act of saving an ethnic group from extinction.

Armenians helping other minorities in repressive Azerbaijan to stand up for their rights is a noble gesture of generosity, of compassion, of dignity in the arsenal of human values such as love of other human beings.  No matter from what motive or perspective the act is viewed, for freedom and independence would mean survival of Talysh people’s collective culture and heritage in their own ancestral lands as they are waiting in the wings for the realization of their sacred dream of establishing the Republic of Talyshistan.

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