Azerbaijan: Lezgins Pessimistic About Election

The prospect of winning only one seat in parliament adds to the sense of disempowerment among the second-largest ethnic group.

Azerbaijan: Lezgins Pessimistic About Election

The prospect of winning only one seat in parliament adds to the sense of disempowerment among the second-largest ethnic group.

Thursday, 6 October, 2005

A move away from proportional representation in Azerbaijan means that the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Lezgins, may be represented by just one member of parliament after next month’s general election.


In the mainly Lezgin town of Kusari in northern Azerbaijan, the main square is buzzing with activity. Local festivals are celebrated here at the weekends, while on weekdays, young people throng the internet clubs and older men sit around deep in discussion in the “chaikhanas” or traditional tea-houses.


On the election posters that adorn the walls of buildings, candidates promise the earth in hope of winning a seat in the upcoming parliamentary vote.


But this year, only one of them will be elected from Kusari.


"In the last election we had two seats, but now we have just one. How can he possibly represent all our people?" asked resident Shamil Ahmedov, 53, who is worried about what the reduced representation will mean.


According to the 1999 census, the Lezgins are the country’s second largest ethnic group after the Azerbaijanis. Their community is concentrated in the northern district of Kusari, where they are the majority, and in adjoining areas such as Hachmaz and Kuba.


Official statistics indicate that the 178,000 Lezgins account for two per cent of Azerbaijan’s total population. However, the real figures may be significantly higher. Demographic expert Arif Yunus maintains that the number is closer to 250,000-260,000. In the Soviet period, many Lezgins concealed their ethnicity in an attempt to benefit from educational and social programmes that they felt excluded from.


There are another 204,000 Lezgins in the south of Dagestan, the Russian republic that borders on Azerbaijan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Lezgins found themselves living in two different states, divided by the river Samur that marks the border.


This year, for the first time, attempts were made to increase the number of seats for national minorities in the Azerbaijani parliament. But these efforts were thwarted by the government, which saw no need for change.


According to Vladimir Timoshenko, an ethnic Russian member of parliament, the proposed change could really have helped improve the position of minorities in Azerbaijan.


"It is no secret that [minority] rights are violated, but it’s disguised as the social problems that are common to everyone," he told IWPR.


There are currently two Lezgin deputies in parliament: Asya Manafova, who ran on the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party’s list, and Gulmet Pirmetov, elected from Kusari district by direct vote.


But two years ago, proportional representation was abolished, so that candidates can now be nominated only for single-seat constituencies. For the Lezgins, this will mean their representation in parliament will be reduced by half.


This year, the competition is tougher than ever, with 14 Lezgin candidates standing in Kusari district. "It’s the highest number for our district in any parliamentary election held so far in Azerbaijan,” said Vagif Mustafayev, an election official in Kusari.


“The battle to win the parliamentary seat will probably be fierce. Former deputies as well as new candidates will compete for it."


Both Manafova and Pirmetov have decided to stand again. Local businessman Madreddin Hajiev voted for Pirmetov in the last election, but now takes a jaundiced view of the candidate’s election posters.


"What did he do for our district? Five years on, and none of his promises has been fulfilled,” complained Hajiev. “What is more, we’ve never even heard his voice in parliament. Why should we elect him if he cannot speak up for us?"


For the first time, some of the Lezgin candidates are representing opposition parties. Abdulhalim Ahmedov represents the Azadlig (Freedom) bloc, Nizami Sultanov the Adalat (Justice) party, and Shakir Magomedov the People's Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.


However, the opposition does not enjoy particular support in Kusari. In recent years, the Lezgin community has shied away from overt political activity, mainly because of the problems they faced in the early Nineties as a result of a secessionist moment, Sadval.


Sadval, which means “unity” in the Lezgin language, emerged on the wave of popular movements that swept the Soviet Union at the start of the Nineties. In 1992, a year after Azerbaijan became independent, it held demonstrations on both sides of the Russian-Azerbaijani border to press for the creation of a unified republic that would bring all Lezgin-inhabited areas inside Russia. The Azerbaijani authorities banned Sadval after accusing it of being behind an explosion on the Baku metro.


Since then, the Lezgins have avoided this kind of activism, and have even steered clear of public events celebrating their ethnic identity, as the Azerbaijani security services have closely monitored such festivities.


Some of the problems the community faces are common in other outlying parts of Azerbaijan – poor infrastructure, undeveloped industry, and a lack of employment opportunities. But they also have particular concerns, to do with keeping their culture, history and language alive.


Lezgin, which is unrelated to the majority Azerbaijani language, is taught as a foreign language at schools in Kusari, just as English or Russian would be, and the only Lezgin textbooks available come from Russia and are not adapted for local conditions.


As a result, fewer and fewer Lezgins can speak their own language. Lezgin history and culture has a strong oral tradition, and Sadegat Kerimova, a popular poetess who is editor-in-chief of the Lezgin-language newspaper Samur sees the tradition disappearing before her eyes.


"Most popular songs and historical legends were never written down. They were carefully handed down to future generations. Today this has become a practically impossible task as there is no one in the current generation to take them and pass them on,” she said.


But Rabiyat Aslanova, deputy chairwoman of the Azerbaijan parliament’s Human Rights Commission, maintains that all ethnic minorities are well catered for.


"The state is doing all it can to protect the rights and aspirations of people of all nationalities [ethnicities] and to preserve their language. Money is allocated from the budget to publish textbooks and other literature in the languages of national minorities," she maintained.


The Lezgin language has become the main electoral issue for Kusari candidates. Broader issues such as unemployment or road construction appear to sway voters less than the preservation of their cultural heritage.


Shamil Ahmedov's concerns about reduced representation in parliament are fuelled by the fact that his daughter has been unable to find a job after training as a teacher of the Lezgin language in Dagestan.


"There is only one Lezgin teacher in each school, and we were told that there is no need for any more. [My daughter] tried to study Lezgin history and culture instead, but the education ministry and the Academy of Sciences have refused to help her," said Ahmedov.


Aslanova thinks it is only to be expected that minority languages are of limited use in professional life. "The fact of the matter is that if your university education is in a minority language, the only real scope for finding work is in the schools," she said.


The director of Azerbaijan’s new Public Television Channel recently announced that it would begin broadcasting in Armenian, but, so far, there has been no talk of programmes in other languages such as Lezgin. In Kusari, people watch Lezgin-language TV from across the border in Dagestan.


Asked whether there were plans to broadcast in minority languages other than Armenian, Public TV’s press office told IWPR merely that "we are currently preparing the ground for programmes for national minorities, which we plan to start next year. In addition to news, there will be programmes on the culture of minorities living in Azerbaijan".


Leyla Amirova is an independent journalist in Baku.


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