Armenia-Azerbaijan: Those Who Remained

Ethnic identity is a sensitive issue for those Armenians and Azerbaijanis who decided not join the conflict-induced, two-way mass emigration.

Armenia-Azerbaijan: Those Who Remained

Ethnic identity is a sensitive issue for those Armenians and Azerbaijanis who decided not join the conflict-induced, two-way mass emigration.

When Nina Mehdieva and her daughter Nairi parted in 1989, the family were sure they would soon be back together.

Nairi recalls how her stepfather Ali Mehdiev had tears in his eyes as she left the Azerbaijani capital Baku for Armenia. "He hugged me and my daughter and said we'd be back together again in five or six months," she said of the farewell.

Sixteen years later, Nairi was still living in the Armenian capital Yerevan hoping that she would see Nina and Ali again one day.

The family were split in two by the conflict that drove Azerbaijanis and Armenians apart. From 1988, when the whole of the south Caucasus was part of the Soviet Union, there was a growing dispute over Nagorny Karabakh, where local Armenians sought independence against the wishes of Azerbaijan, within whose borders Karabakh lies.

Over the next three or four years, almost all the Armenians who had lived in substantial numbers in and around Baku left for Armenia. Simultaneously, the Azerbaijani community of Armenia emigrated wholesale to a republic that for many was an unfamiliar new homeland.

In 1992, a year after Azerbaijan and Armenia had become independent sovereign states, Karabakh descended into all out war. Further population shifts took place, this time mainly Azerbaijanis who left Karabakh and surrounding districts as Armenian forces gained ground. A ceasefire in 1994 left Karabakh under the de facto control of an autonomous Armenian administration, a position that the Baku government continues to contest. More than a decade on, while the truce has held, there is little sign of a resolution to the territorial dispute.

But not everyone left. In both Armenia and Azerbaijan, there were people like Nina who felt they must stay behind even as the friends and family departed en masse. Nina, a Baku-born Armenian, remained for the sake of her husband Ramiz, an Azerbaijani, and so did their two daughters.

But her eldest daughter Nairi, who has the surname Petrosian and is the daughter of Nina's first husband, an Armenian, took her own child and joined the mass exodus of refugees.

Those who stayed behind tried to blend in, and naturally never had the same kind of political visibility as the emigrants and refugees.

According to Armenian political commentator Alexander Iskandarian, "The Azerbaijanis who stayed were people who had been assimilated, acculturised…. They weren't the sort of people for whom ethnic identity was important.

"The same applies to the Armenians in Azerbaijan."

Although parts of the media in both countries are at fault for maintaining hostile images of the "enemy" group, the Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in the other state escape victimisation because they remain so inconspicuous.

As time goes on, the predominantly middle-aged to elderly members of these communities are keen to see relatives again, even though the political freeze between their respective governments makes that difficult.


It is almost impossible to say exactly how many people in either country decided, like Nina, to stay rather than leave. The most recent census data from Azerbaijan show that in 1999 there were 121,000 ethnic Armenians living in the country. That is a dramatic fall on the 390,000 counted in the final Soviet census conducted in 1989.

However, the 1999 figure still includes the population of Karabakh and surrounding areas under Armenian control; in the rest of Azerbaijan the survey showed just 647 people who declared themselves Armenians.

“The statistics agencies are sometimes close to absurd," commented Arif Yunus, an Azerbaijani political analyst. "How could there have been a census in Karabakh in 1999 if the territory is not under Azerbaijani control?”

Yunus has come up with his own estimate that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 thousand Armenians living in Azerbaijan, based on information from the marriage, birth and death records office, and partly also on his own observations. He believes most are women who opted to stay with their Azerbaijani husbands.

“They are almost all elderly people," added Yunus. "Seventy per cent of them live in Baku. In the capital it's easier to lose oneself in the crowd than in the provinces, where everyone knows each other.”

There is a similar lack of clarity in Armenia, where a 2001 census list small minorities such as Kurds, Assyrians and Greeks, but not Azerbaijanis. One possible explanation is that United Nations guidelines advise that ethnic minorities numbering fewer than 1,000 need not be included in data.

According to a study on ethnic minorities published in 2005, the last census uncovered just 29 Azerbaijanis in the country.

Back in 1979, Soviet statistics showed Armenia with an Azerbaijani community of 161,000, while the 85,000 counted in the last USSR-wide census indicated that the exodus was already under way.

As in Azerbaijan, the most accurate census data may under-report the true numbers as people make choices about how they want to identify themselves, given the sensitivities over ethnicity.

That is a point well understood by Karine Guiumjian, head of the census and ethnography department of Armenia's official statistical agency. She says the number of Azerbaijanis in Armenia may be higher than the figures indicate, since the census-taker asks respondents to indicate what "nation" they belong to over and above their citizenship, but does not require them to show proof of this, for example with their parents' Soviet-era passports which indicated "natsionalnost" – literally "nationality" or more accurately ethnic identity – as well as Soviet citizenship.

Gevork Pogosian, head of the Armenian Sociological Association, notes that most of the Azerbaijanis who are left have Armenian families. Citing a 2001 study conducted by a number of non-government groups including his association, he said many have changed their names are now appear on paperwork as Kurds, Yezidis (a non-Muslim Kurdish group), or Russians.


The people interviewed for this report reported only coming up against petty discrimination in daily life, despite the sometimes-belligerent rhetoric used by politicians and media in the two countries.

This may show a reluctance to complain too loudly, but also reflects the fact that many are locked into local networks through marriage. The death of a husband can break these ties and leave woman isolated.

One Baku resident told IWPR that as an Armenian, she had found it hard to get official institutions to issue her with various kinds of documents.

“We don’t issue Armenians with papers, they told me in many places, or else they would issue them for a bribe – a bigger one than usual,” said Anjela Muradian, who now goes by the more Azerbaijani-sounding name of Jale Muradova.

Shoila Alekperova, an 85-year-old widow in Yerevan, has had similar encounters with small-mindedness, although the incident she recounted involved not a locally-born person, but a refugee from Azerbaijan.

“I went to collect my pension from the savings bank and there was a new assistant on duty, an Armenian refugee from Baku,” said Alekperova. "She noticed my first and second names, looked me in the eye, and asked, ‘You’re still here?’ I replied that Armenia was my home, I had lost a wonderful Armenian husband, and I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Alekperova says she has never concealed her ethnicity or avoided talking about it. “I'm an Azerbaijani through and through,” she said proudly.

When her husband died, she told his relatives what she planned to do, “I said I would never leave Armenia – my home is here, the grave of my dear husband is here. I will never leave.”

This sense of overriding commitment to the land where they were born was a recurring theme among those interviewed by IWPR.

“In Soviet times I never thought about whether I was Russian or not,” said Svetlana, who had a Russian mother and an Armenian father, who divorced before she was born.

Svetlana's home was seized in 1992 during a wave of anti-Armenian unrest in Baku.

“They labelled me an Armenian,” she recalled sadly. The identification stuck, and she had to keep moving from one rented apartment to another. She even entered into a marriage of convenience with a Russian.

Now retired, Svetlana has no plans to leave, despite invitations from Armenian relatives in the United States. She is still hopeful that things will get better, and even that her house might be returned to her.

“I am from Baku. I was born here, I grew up here… This is where I will stay,” she said.

Even death can highlight ethnic divides. Suren Hobosian, an Armenian ethnologist, recalls a recent case where an ethnic Azerbaijani man died and his daughters could not choose where his final resting place should be. “They didn’t want to bury their father in the [old] Azerbaijani cemetery so as not to stand out, and the villagers wouldn’t let them bury a Muslim in the [Christian] Armenian cemetery. So the girls buried their father somewhere else, but they were left feeling very hurt," said Hobosian.

Interviews conducted by IWPR suggested that at an official level, any discrimination was casual rather than systematic.

According to Sevil Huseinova of the Baku-based think-tank Social, Anthropological and Ethnological Research, “The decision to remove ethnic designation from passports is a big step forward, but unfortunately it doesn’t solve their [Armenians'] problems. In the forms you fill in to start a new job, you have to give the surnames, first names and patronymics of your parents. So if one of your parents has an Armenian name, that gives your ethnicity away.”

The result is, says Huseinova, that Armenians tend to choose the private sector rather than going through the scrutiny that a government job application requires.

Eldar Zeinalov, the director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, agrees that Armenians are most likely to encounter problems when they have to give away their identity in dealings with officialdom.

This includes, for example, applying for an ID card or a passport, or seeking restitution of property wrongfully seized during the turbulence of the late Eighties and early Nineties. "In fact it's whenever you have to show your passport: when you start work, engage in property transactions, apply for documents or pensions, or defend one’s interests in court,” added Zeinalov.

In the end, though, Zeinalov believes that "the experience of Armenians in Azerbaijan comes down to individual cases”.


In Armenia, human rights groups, including the ombudsman's office, say they do get approached for help by local Azerbaijanis.

“We work on ethnic minority issues, and the defence of minority rights. But we've never had a complaint or request from Azerbaijanis living in Armenia," said Mikael Danielian, chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Association. "I don’t know whether they really don’t have problems, or whether they avoid talking about their ethnicity.”

The head of the government's directorate for religious affairs and ethnic minorities, Hranush Kharatian, said the local Azerbaijanis "have the same problems as everyone else, the same as Armenians; there’s no difference. But they do always avoid talking to the press, to representatives of international organisations and even to Azerbaijanis who visit Armenia for seminars and conferences”.


While the experiences of both minority groups have much in common, commentators in Yerevan and Baku noted that there were some differences, the result of how the minorities lived before the conflict, and how they were perceived after it.

Iskandarian recalled that in the old days, the Azerbaijanis in Armenia mainly lived in rural areas, generally clustered together in villages rather than dispersed. By contrast, Armenians in Azerbaijan (excluding Karabakh) were largely urban.

“Consequently, [in Armenia] there simply weren’t open clashes between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. It was a different situation,” said Iskandarian. “Azerbaijan lost the war. Consequently, the attitudes [to each group] are different.”

Yunus agrees that the outcome of the conflict made a difference, and that popular resentment over the loss of Karabakh remains strong in Azerbaijan.

“The attitude that Azerbaijanis have towards Armenians stems from the fact that they do not consider the war over and do not accept the status quo. In this respect, public opinion differs from the official government line," he said.


To the extent that prejudice and hostility exist, much of the blame must be placed on the media.

“Certain media outlets are stoking revanchist attitudes in Azerbaijani society today," said Yunus.

In January-March 2005, the Yeni Nesil Association of Journalists in Azerbaijan, the Yerevan Press Club, and Georgia's Black Sea Press association conducted a joint survey of media in the South Caucasus, which concluded that "in the coverage of matters relating to regional neighbours, the most negative examples are to be found in the Azerbaijani and Armenian media. The media of both countries display aggression and clearly-expressed animosity”.

Huseinova blames her country's media for maintaining the image of Armenians as enemies over the years – a situation she now says is changing.

“Imagine seeing and hearing on TV every day that Armenians are your enemy and that you must annihilate them. That strikes fear into those Armenians who have stayed in Azerbaijan," she said. "But the situation has changed: in the last few years, the Armenians of Azerbaijan have not been afraid in the same way they were before.”


A very few minority Armenians and Azerbaijanis have made successful careers without being shy about their origin.

Venera Najafova is one of them, and is certainly the only Armenian to become a human rights lawyer in Azerbaijan.

She closely identifies with Azerbaijanis, since she is married to one. “I love the Azerbaijanis. My son and daughter are Azerbaijani, so how could I not love my children?” she said.

“Where else would I go, and why? I have a wonderful family and I love my city."

In Armenia, Felix Aliev is well-known in sporting circles, where he has coached weight-lifters to Olympic standards for the last 35 years.

Felix Aliev is Azerbaijani on his father's side, a fact which has not deterred his many pupils, the most famous of whom is Yurik Sargsian, a world champion and Olympic silver medallist. His ethnic background seems more of a problem when it comes to representing Armenia abroad.

“He's an great coach. We all have a lot of respect for him," said the director of the sports school in Echmiadzin, the town where Aliev was born and still lives.

"But often he's not included in the national team, he never travels to competitions and never represents Armenia abroad. Yet he really is a first class professional.”

One of Aliev's daughters has taken her mother’s name, the other her husband’s, so as “to avoid too many questions”, says the sports coach. His son Vladek has his surname but has lived in Ukraine since 1989, although he married a local Armenian girl from Echmiadzin.


For those still seeking to make contact with friends and relatives despite the frosty diplomatic atmosphere, there is now some hope. Nina Mehdieva and her daughter Nairi were reunited earlier this year under the Where Are You, Friends? project run by the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, HCA, an international human rights group whose local branches facilitated the contacts.

“People on both sides of the conflict line were given the chance to find their friends, relations, neighbours... write letters, and arrange meetings,” explained Arzu Abdullaeva, who heads the Azerbaijani HCA committee.

HCA arranged two meetings between women who had been corresponding with one another. The meetings took place on neutral ground, in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

"This programme has made it possible for mothers to meet daughters, and for friends to meet each other,” said Marina Kazariants, a member of the HCA committee in Armenia.

Nairi recalls her meeting with Nina emotionally, “When I saw my mother I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t stop crying. I hugged my mother and didn’t need anything else – neither food nor drink. She joked and wanted to cheer me up. But it was enough just to be with her.

"She hugged me and asked, 'Nairi, is that you? 'It was like a dream.”

Soon after, Nina was able to visit her 94-year old-mother and her granddaughter –Nairi's daughter – in Yerevan.

“In a way we have been reunited. This meeting has given me the will to live,” said Nairi.

The names of the Mehdiev family members have been changed.

Zarema Velikhanova is an independent journalist in Baku. Marianna Grigorian is a correspondent for Armenia Now.
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