Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Talysh of Azerbaijan Look South and North

Ethnic minority builds ties with Iran while declaring loyalty to government in Baku
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Immediately you enter the town of Lenkoran, you are overwhelmed by the delicious aroma of “levengi”, a meat dish prepared in small bakeries along the highway. Few travellers will be able to drive by and resist the temptation to try this local delicacy.



“Anyone who hasn’t tasted levengi and drunk tea with locally-grown lemon has never really been in Lenkoran,” said Yunis Agayev, 57, who was travelling with this IWPR contributor.



Levengi is the national dish of the Talysh, an ethnic minority living in Azerbaijan’s southeastern region close to the border with Iran. Despite their growing links with this southern neighbour, they are keen to stress that they are loyal Azerbaijani citizens.



A 27-year-old “chaichi”, the owner of a local chaikhana or tea house, confesses that it has been a long time since he treated his guests to Lenkoran’s own tea rather than the imported Ceylonese product. The area used to grow a lot of tea, but production shrank drastically after the collapse of the Soviet Union.



The town’s main square has recently been given a facelift and now boasts new buildings and a statue of former Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev.



Not everyone is happy with the new look.



“We used to have oaks more than a hundred years old on this square,” lamented local resident Sahib, 67. “Even in the hottest summer weather, we could rest in their cool shade. They’ve been felled and dwarf palms and fir trees have been planted in their place. Just imagine, fir trees in subtropical Lenkoran!”



Life here is little different to other parts of Azerbaijan. Most people are struggling to make ends meet, a minority are thriving – in this case mainly because of cross-border trade with Iran – while the authorities insist everything is getting better.



“The state has been doing its utmost to improve life for the population,” said Shadadat Bagirov, who heads the Lenkoran district tax office. “For instance, it’s been equipping the town with modern amenities, laying out parks, building sports centres and bridges, and repairing the roads.”



Azerbaijan’s southern districts of Lenkoran, Lerik, Astara and Masalli are populated largely by the Talysh, the country’s fourth-largest ethnic minority. According to the 1999 census, there were 76,800 Talysh in Azerbaijan. However, human rights campaigner Atakhan Abilov, an ethnic Talysh, claims the true number is around 320,000.



One reason the census figure is low is that in the Soviet period, many Talysh recorded their “nationality” or ethnicity as Azerbaijani in their passports so as to advance their careers. The passports now issued in Azerbaijan do not indicate ethnic origin.



There are also Talysh in neighbouring parts of Iran, and the Talysh language is closer to Persian than to Azerbaijani.



Lenkoran resident Agali Mirkazimov, 35, said Talysh is taught in secondary schools in this part of Azerbaijan, but there is a shortage of textbooks and specialists.



“There are no Talysh newspapers and television channels locally,” he said. “There’s only a 15-minute programme broadcast by the state radio station.



“Still, no one here is demanding anything. If it weren’t for the Karabakh conflict, we might make our demands hear. At present, however, that would only play into the hands of our enemies, who would say the rights of minorities in Azerbaijan are being violated.



“We can do without a radio station and newspapers, we just want to have our lands liberated,” he said, referring to Armenian control of Nagorny Karabakh and adjacent territories in Azerbaijan.



The relationship with Iran is a sensitive topic in this border region, given the sometimes difficult relationship between Baku and Tehran.



These sensitivities may have been behind the controversial arrest of two Talysh journalists earlier this year. In February, the authorities detained Novruzali Mamedov, a well-known figure who is editor-in-chief of the Tolyshi Sedo (Voice of the Talysh) newspaper, together with his deputy Elman Guliyev.



The two men are accused of treason. Azerbaijan’s national security ministry has made no public comment on the case, but unofficial sources say that Mamedov and Guliyev are being accused of maintaining secret contacts with the Iranian security services.



In late June, Hilal Mamedov, who heads the newly-created Committee to Protect the Rights of Novruzali Mamedov and Elman Guliyev, appealed to foreign diplomats to intervene to help the two men, who he said were the victims of a campaign against minorities.



Mamedov, who was one of the leaders of the unregistered Talysh People’s Party and participated in a short-lived Talysh nationalist movement in 1993, says the arrests are all part of Azerbaijan’s behind-the-scenes intrigues with Iran.



A straw poll of 30 people in Lenkoran found no one who thought there was a problem of ethnic discrimination against the Talysh.



“Officials get rich here just as they do in Baku,” said Yusif Shahbazov, 45. “There are a lot of senior officials and wealthy people among the Talysh, for example Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, the religious leader of [Azerbaijan’s] Muslims. There are many Talysh in the interior, national security and defence ministries as well as in the presidential administration.”



Turning to the detention of Mamedov and Guliyev, he said, “If these two men have been arrested, it means they really have broken the law, and their ethnic origin has nothing to do with it.”



Lenkoran has the reputation of being a hotbed for a radical strand of Shia Islam, the dominant religion here as in Azerbaijan as a whole. But that is not the impression you get on the streets - there are few men with beards, or women in Iranian-style headscarves. Older women wear traditional long dresses and headscarves, but young women dress in modern European fashions.



“It used to be that only Russian women would wear trousers and miniskirts here. Now our girls have surpassed even the Parisian women,” complained Ali Sadygov, 32, a devout Muslim. “Sure, everyone wants to dress well. But they shouldn’t dress in a shameful way and lose their dignity as Muslim women.”



A local religious leader, Hojjat-ul-Islam Sheikh Asif, agreed that Iran does have an influence here when it comes to matters of faith.



“Our ayatollah is in Iran, just as the Catholics’ spiritual leader has his seat in Rome,” he said. “If there’s some disagreement between Baku and Iran on religious matters, we will obey our spiritual mentors in Iran.”



The connection with Iran is economic as well as religious. Under an agreement between their governments, Iranian and Azerbaijani nationals living close to the frontier do not have to get visas to travel up to 45 kilometers inside the neighbouring state.



Visiting the a border checkpoint at Astara, this IWPR correspondent saw that most of the goods imported from Iran consisted of food products such as butter, eggs, potatoes, sugar and rice, while western clothes, audio and video equipment were going the other way.



On both sides of the border, people are increasingly worried at the prospect of a military confrontation involving the United States and Britain against Iran because of the latter’s nuclear programme.



“No country will get the better of Iran,” said Ali Mansuper, 42, an ethnic Azerbaijani from Iran. “Those who want a war in Iran should first sort out the problems in Afghanistan.”