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  • Main minority or indigenous communities: Lezgins (1,7 per cent), Talysh (0.9 per cent) and Russians (0.7 per cent)

    Main languages: Azerbaijani (Azeri), Russian

    Main religions: Islam (majority Shi’a, minority Sunni), Orthodox Christianity

    There are more than 13 ethnic groups in Azerbaijan, together constituting 5.2 per cent of the population. Most live in compact settlements. Over the past decade the population share of all major ethnic minorities of Azerbaijan except Tats has been shrinking.  Recent censuses have recorded a dramatic fall in numbers of Russians and Armenians in the republic. Practically all Armenians have left Azerbaijan as a result of the recent conflicts concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Many Russians have also opted to leave for socio-economic reasons. Lezgins became Azerbaijan’s largest minority as a result of these changes.

    According to the most recent population census conducted in 2019, Azerbaijanis made up 94.8 per cent of the population, Lezgins (1.7 per cent), Russians (0.7 per cent) and Talysh (0.9 per cent). Azerbaijan has a large number of smaller minorities, each comprising less than 1 per cent of the total population, including Avars (0.5 per cent), Turks (0.3 per cent), Tatars (0.2 per cent), Ukrainians (0.1 per cent), Georgians (0.1 per cent), Jews (0.1 per cent), Udins (0.1 per cent) and Tsakhurs (also 0.1 per cent).

    Lezgins are a Caucasus people who speak Lezgin (which belongs to the north-eastern branch of Caucasian languages). Lezgins live in the northern regions of Azerbaijan. Their population is estimated at 167,600 (2019 Census). They comprise the largest ethnic minority in Azerbaijan.

    Armenians were the second largest minority with a population of 120,300 (2009 Census) before the recent conflicts over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Armenians were living mainly in Nagorno-Karabakh, although some also lived outside the region, including in Baku city. According to the 2019 Census, Armenians still living in Azerbaijan comprised only 200 persons; however, this could not have included the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh as subsequent displacements showed. More than half of what were then estimated to be 120,000 ethnic Armenians left the region in the week after the ceasefire of 2020. Another wave of approximately 100,000 ethnic Armenian refugees fled Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia in 2023, as a result of a months-long blockade and Azerbaijan’s offensive in September of that year to regain control over the region.

    Talysh are now the second largest minority. They live in the southern regions of Azerbaijan and number 87,600 people (2019 Census). They speak Talysh, an Indo-European language common in northern Iran, as well as Azerbaijani.

    Russians are the third largest minority with a population of 71,000 (2019 Census). They live mostly in urban areas and speak Russian. The Russian language is officially one of the three languages of instruction at public schools in Azerbaijan. There are 16 Russian language public schools in Azerbaijan.

    There are 48,600 Avars (2019 Census) living in the northern regions. They speak Avar (of the north-eastern Caucasian languages) and Azerbaijani.

    Turks-Meskhetians live in the northern and lower regions of the country. They speak Azerbaijani. Their population is estimated at 30,500 (2019 Census).

    Around 17,700 (2019 Census) Tatars live in the cities of Azerbaijan. They speak Tatar, which is a Turkic language, and Russian.

    Ukrainians live mainly in Baku city. They speak Ukrainian (of the Eastern-Slavonic language family), as well as Russian. Their population size is estimated at 13,900 (2019 Census).

    Other small ethnic groups whose populations are 15,000 or less (2019 Census) are: Tsakhurs (13,400), situated primarily in Zakataly region; Georgians (8,400 living primarily in Gakh region); Kurds (4,100); Jews (5,100 living in Guba region and Baku city); and Udins (3,500, based mainly in the northern regions).

  • Environment

    The Republic of Azerbaijan, formerly the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, is situated in the South Caucasus on the western coast of the Caspian Sea. It borders Iran to the south, Armenia to the west, Georgia to the north-west and the Republic of Dagestan in the Russian Federation to the north across the Caucasus Mountains. The Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, bordering Armenia, Iran and Turkey, is also part of Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh, formerly an autonomous region in Soviet times, lies in south-west Azerbaijan; it was populated largely by Armenians until their mass displacement in 2023.

    History

    Historically, Azerbaijan formed a borderland between the Russian and Iranian empires and their spheres of influence. This is reflected in the fact that today there are more ethnic Azeribaijanis living in Iran, where they comprise approximately one-fifth to one-quarter of the total population (exact numbers are uncertain), than in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis are ethnographically and linguistically a Turkic people, although they are differentiated from Turks as Shi’a rather than Sunni Muslims.

    Azerbaijan’s exit from the Soviet Union was shaped by the conflict with the majority Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh. At the end of 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh rapidly became a rallying point for Azerbaijani nationalism. Having initially fared well in the war, Azerbaijan suffered a series of catastrophic defeats in 1993, leading not only to the taking of Nagorno-Karabakh but the occupation of seven regions of Azerbaijan surrounding it by Karabakh Armenian forces backed by Armenia. Armenian occupation of these territories was accompanied by the forced expulsion of ethnic Azerbaijanis. At the time, it was thought that there were in the region of 750,000 internally displaced people and refugees from Armenia living in Azerbaijan, accounting for some 9 per cent of the total population. Likewise, Azerbaijan’s Armenian population was forced to leave the country after pogroms in Baku and its suburb Sumqayit; Azerbaijan lost much of its multi-ethnic character as a result of these population shifts.

    Disasters on the battlefield contributed to internal turmoil throughout the early 1990s as successive governments rose and fell according to developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. It was eventually Heydar Aliyev, former first secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party who acceded to the presidency in 1993. Through a combination of political guile, lucrative contracts for Caspian oil exploitation and a fragmented opposition, President Aliyev was able to entrench his regime over a decade and secure the accession of his son Ilham to the presidency in 2003. Although bringing much-needed stability to Azerbaijan, Aliyev senior’s rule was characterized by recognizably Soviet methods: the creation of a one-party state in the form of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) securing social mobility only for party members, a personality cult, manipulation of electoral processes and recourse to violence against opposition when necessary. The YAP has retained a high level of cohesiveness since its creation, remaining closely intertwined with both familial loyalties in its higher echelons and state structures (employment in the public sector is contingent on YAP membership). The party has been consistently victorious in parliamentary elections, enjoys tight control over local executive appointments and provided the vehicle for Ilham Aliyev’s smooth accession to power.

    Efforts to secure a lasting peace settlement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continued following the 1994 ceasefire, mediated by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Azerbaijan continued to insist on territorial integrity within its Soviet-era borders and refused to negotiate directly with the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh refused to relinquish control of the occupied territories until mechanisms for determining Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status were put in place. During Ilham Aliyev’s rule there has been a rise in militant rhetoric, coupled with a rise in military expenditure, contributing to expectations of a military ‘solution’ to the conflict. In April 2016, heavy fighting broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops, with both sides blaming the other for triggering clashes that left at least 30 soldiers dead. Following the second Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020 an armistice was established by a tripartite ceasefire agreement resulting in Azerbaijan regaining all the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as capturing one-third of the region itself. Ceasefire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Armenian–Azerbaijani border continued following the 2020 war. Azerbaijan began blockading Nagorno-Karabakh in December 2022 and launched a large-scale military offensive in September 2023, resulting in the surrender of the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities. Azerbaijan claimed full control of the breakaway region. The self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as the Republic of Artsakh) officially dissolved on 1 January 2024, ending the decades-old conflict.

    The opening of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline in July 2006 has brought billions of dollars of revenue to Azerbaijan. However, in a context of corruption, the extent to which ordinary Azerbaijani citizens, in particularly members of marginalized minorities, have benefitted from the oil boom is limited.  These issues are especially pertinent as Aliyev and his supporters have cemented their position in the country, with rights groups highlighting the persistent lack of transparency surrounding oil deals.

    Governance

    Azerbaijan is characterized by a highly centralized and autocratic form of governance. Its political system may be described as super-presidential, with virtually all significant decision-making powers concentrated in the office of the president. The 125-member parliament (Milli Meclis) is a largely formal body, packed with representatives belonging to the presidential party or nominally ‘independent’ deputies. The current President, Ilham Aliyev, has been in power since 2003: his position was strengthened by a landslide victory in the 2013 presidential elections. In the April 2018 and February 2024 elections, Aliyev was elected President for a fourth and then a fifth term in a row. In the 2024 poll, Aliyev won over 92 per cent of the vote. The ruling political party, New Azerbaijan Party (Yeni Azerbaycan Partiyasi, YAP), is headed by Aliyev and dominates the political system, with little substantive resistance from opposition parties. The last parliamentary elections took place in February 2020 and the ruling New Azerbaijan Party claimed victory, winning 70 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly amidst an opposition boycott.

    Aliyev’s rule has seen a significant consolidation of power, human rights abuses and repression of political opposition groups, civil society and media, with many activists and journalists imprisoned for their work. In addition, there are few opportunities for legal redress within the Azerbaijani legal system with the judiciary firmly under the control of the executive.  In this environment, minorities and minority rights activists are especially vulnerable to exclusion and persecution, with little recourse to official justice mechanisms. Azerbaijan lacks comprehensive legislation on ethnic minorities, and at an institutional level there is no specific body to deal with minority issues. Although an Ombudsman Institute exists in Azerbaijan, it is ineffective when it comes to representing the priorities and demands of all minority groups in this country. The state institution most engaged with ethnic minorities is the Ministry of National Security of the Republic of Azerbaijan, but this body is reflective of a situation where official policy on minorities is primarily developed from the perspective of national security, with minority rights issues tackled primarily in response to fears of state disintegration or secession, particularly in the South Caucasus.

    There are several legal provisions protecting Azerbaijan’s minorities. For example, the Constitution guarantees rights and freedoms to all people regardless of race, nationality, religion, ethnicity or beliefs. Article 44 secures the preservation of a national identity, while Article 45 guarantees the right to use one’s native language in one’s upbringing, education and creative activity. Yet in practice these protections are only weakly implemented, and minorities have limited recourse to justice from official channels in the event of discrimination.

    The overall legislative framework pertaining to national minorities is vague, and there is only limited understanding of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) among government entities and society at large, despite Azerbaijan having been a state party since 2000. The primary tool for protection of minority rights appears to be a series of presidential decrees. A 1992 decree of the President of Azerbaijan on ‘State assistance for the protection of rights and freedoms of national minorities, minority people and ethnic groups living in Azerbaijan and promotion of their language and culture’ long served as the national legal framework for the rights and freedoms of national minorities. Implementation of this decree was stalled by the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which further contributed to a unitary vision of Azerbaijani statehood inhospitable to the granting of wide-ranging rights to minorities perceived as sources of further separatism. Continuing this trend, the Aliyev regime has consistently promoted a civic vision of Azerbaijani nationhood, which has obliquely promoted the interests of the titular Azerbaijani nation and remained vague in its provisions for ethnic minorities.

    The 1992 decree was augmented by the ‘National Action Plan on Protection of Human Rights’, also adopted by presidential decree in December 2006, and presented as evidence of the importance of minority rights protection for the state in its third FCNM periodic report. In its fourth periodic report, submitted in 2017, the government noted that its ‘National Action Programme on Increasing Efficiency of Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms in the Republic of Azerbaijan’ contained provisions for the protection of minority rights. The report was nevertheless met with criticism by the Advisory Committee, which noted in its 2017 Fourth Opinion that an overall legal and institutional framework for the promotion and protection of minority rights was lacking. The Advisory Committee concluded that the government appeared to prioritize private expressions of minority cultural identity over public expression and participation. In its fifth periodic report, submitted in 2022, the government claimed that in accordance with the National Action Programme, it had increased the effectiveness of the protection of human rights and freedoms as well as developed and preserved the cultural heritage of ethnic minorities in the republic. At the time of the most recent update to this country entry, the Advisory Committee had not published its pending Fifth Opinion, but it should be noted that Azerbaijan has yet to adopt any kind of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation – notwithstanding the Advisory Committee’s strong recommendation in 2017 to do so.

    Despite persistent reports of discriminatory attitudes faced by persons belonging to some minorities, there are very few cases involving allegations of discrimination brought to the attention of the courts or the Office of the Ombudsperson. Strikingly, in its 2017 FCNM report, the government stated that, ‘[N]o cases of violation of rights or discrimination of any national minority or their representatives, who reside in the Republic of Azerbaijan, by state authorities, no cases of persecution or detention without a court order for their views or use of their primary rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, have been revealed.’ Human rights NGOs criticize the Ombudsperson’s Office as lacking independence and effectiveness and ignoring abuses in politically sensitive cases.

    Selective criminal proceedings and convictions of persons engaged in the protection of human rights, including minority rights, have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Human rights including minority rights defenders continue to be targeted in criminal proceedings with accusations of disloyalty to the state based on their work to promote minority identities and to seek the enjoyment of their rights. A negative public narrative against some minorities further limits their access to rights. There is no effective consultative mechanism to ensure that the concerns of national minority communities in different regions, as well as in the capital, are brought to the attention of the various ministries that deal with these issues.

    In its sixth monitoring report, issued in 2023, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) expressed concern for the lack of criminal law provisions against incitement to violence or support for groups espousing racist views. Colour, language, citizenship and ethnic origin are not explicitly mentioned as protected characteristics within the Criminal Code despite some efforts taken by the Ministry of Justice in 2021 to amend the legislation and bring it into line with ECRI and other international standards aimed at combating racism and discrimination.  In its comments on the sixth monitoring report, the government stated that no single crime of harassment, racial discrimination, or violation of the right to equality had been registered over the period of five years. The general school curriculum is taught in three main languages: Azerbaijani, Russian and Georgian. Talysh, Avar, Udi, Tat, Tsakhur, Khinalug and Kurdish are taught for the first four years of primary school, and Lezgin for nine years, in the regions where these groups are concentrated. The National Academy of Science has a special department for studying the languages, culture, history and ethnography of national minorities. However, in pursuit of the goal of promoting the state language, a Law on the State Language was adopted in 2002, which contains certain regrettable reductions in the legal guarantees for the protection of national minorities. These put at risk certain practices in the field of electronic media. Although the Constitution provides for the right to maintain minority culture and language, authorities have restricted minorities’ effort to teach, or print materials in, their native languages. Farsi-speaking Talysh in the south of the country, Caucasian Lezgins in the north, displaced Meskhetian Turks from Central Asia, and displaced Kurds from the Lachin region have all experienced discrimination, restrictions on the ability to teach in their first languages, and harassment by local authorities. Authorities fail to take suitable measures necessary in the education system to tackle and prevent all forms of racism and intolerance. School textbooks often contain references reinforcing prejudice and discriminatory content. Azerbaijan has signed but not yet ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, a treaty adopted by the Council of Europe in 1992.

    NGO registration continues to be problematic. The administrative code and laws on NGOs, grants and registration of legal entities impose additional restrictions on NGO activities and the operation of unregistered, independent and foreign organizations. The law also places some restrictions on donors. It is reported that around one thousand NGOs remain unregistered in Azerbaijan. Such limitations have a negative impact on NGOs working on human rights and minority issues. According to the Economic Research Centre, only six per cent of national NGOs work on human rights. Some NGOs claim that the State NGO Council established in 2007, which distributes government funds to civil society organizations (CSOs) on a competitive basis, gives preference to those CSOs run by members of Parliament and with close ties to the Council.

    In the absence of any comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, access to public services and social benefits is limited for various marginalized groups, including national minorities.  Armenians and persons of mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani descent have been denied work, medical care and education, and have been unable to register their residences due to their ethnicity. Discrimination and harassment at work seems to be the norm, and in some cases local authorities have refused to pay pensions to members of the Armenian minority.

    Despite these restrictive state policies, a significant number of cultural centres have been established across the country with the aim of preserving the ethnic identity of certain minority groups. However, these organizations are generally limited to the arrangement of cultural events and the teaching of language classes. In addition, in regions with large concentrations of minority groups, there are club-based amateur societies, national and state theatres, amateur associations and interest-focused clubs. In total, there are about 36 minority centres and organizations listed as ’always operating under the protection of the state’ and benefiting from state financial assistance in organizing various cultural events.

  • Azerbaijan is a very diverse country with more than 13 different ethnic minorities comprising 5.2 per cent of the population. However, the proportion of minority communities in the country has decreased by almost 3 per cent since 2009 due to complex issues such as the repeated conflicts with neighbouring Armenia, discrimination against ethnic minorities and an ongoing crackdown against political dissent, human rights activists, the media and civil society more broadly.

    The status of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where most of Azerbaijan’s Armenian minority were previously based, has been a source of ongoing tension between Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia since the early twentieth century.  While still nominally part of Azerbaijan, the territory had been under de facto autonomous rule since the outbreak of a protracted conflict in the early 1990s between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It is estimated that as a result of the conflict in the 1990s, over a million people were displaced. The ethnic Azerbaijani population left Nagorno-Karabagh (about 25 per cent of the total) and Armenia, while 300,000 Armenians left Azerbaijan. Only around 18,000 Armenians were thought to remain in Azerbaijan outside of Nagorno-Karabakh region.

    Although a ceasefire was established in 1994, no official peace settlement was signed. A major ceasefire violation occurred in April 2016 when dozens of soldiers on both sides died in clashes. Fighting continued for four days before a ceasefire was agreed. Border skirmishes persisted since then at a lower level, with multiple incidents during 2017 that saw soldiers from both sides killed or injured, including an incident in July 2017 when Armenian-backed troops shelled an Azerbaijani village, killing two Azeris, one of them a two-year old child. The second large-scale conflict commenced on 27 September 2020 with an Azerbaijani offensive and continued until 10 November 2020. Russian-led efforts facilitated a ceasefire resulting in Azerbaijani forces regaining all of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as capturing most of the territories (one-third) occupied by Armenia in the previous war in the early 1990s. Ceasefire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border continued following the 2020 war.

    Azerbaijan began blockading Nagorno-Karabakh in December 2022 and then launched a large-scale military operation in September 2023, resulting in the surrender of the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities.  On 20 September 2023, a ceasefire agreement ending the Azerbaijani military operation against the self-proclaimed ethnic Armenian Republic of Artsakh in Nagorno-Karabakh was reached. The agreement was brokered by the Russian peacekeeping contingent based in the region since the second Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020. Under the terms of agreement, the Artsakh Defense Army was disbanded, and Artsakh officially dissolved on 1 January 2024, ending the conflict. According to official estimates, more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled to Armenia, adding to the refugee population that had already gone there.

    The situation of Nagorno-Karabakh has played an important role in shaping the attitude of the central government to the country’s minorities. While Azerbaijan has adopted a highly repressive approach to civil society activism under Ilham Aliyev, the country’s President since 2003, this is especially evident in the area of minority rights. Amidst fears of secession and state disintegration, the authorities primarily regard the situation of ethnic minorities from the perspective of national security, rather than human rights and inclusion.

    In particular, the Azerbaijani government has actively discouraged initiatives by Azerbaijani NGOs to engage with the Armenian minority and its issues. As a result, the situation for Armenians in Azerbaijan has long been difficult: hate speech against Armenians continues to feature heavily in state-controlled media, while peace-building efforts involving civil society actors are typically undermined, sometimes resulting in physical assaults on the property and persons of those involved.

    While Azerbaijan ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on National Minorities (FCNM) in 2000, the government has been criticized for taking a restrictive approach to minority rights protections. The FCNM’s Advisory Committee noted in its Fourth Opinion (adopted in 2017) that the vision of ‘Azerbaijani multiculturalism’ promoted by the government appeared to focus on private rather than public expressions of minority identities, with limits on civil society having a chilling effect on minority participation in public life.

    More specifically, the use of minority languages in Azerbaijan continues to be restricted. Despite signing the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 2001, Azerbaijan has not yet ratified it; the Charter had been adopted by the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1992 to protect regional and minority languages in Europe. A number of minority communities – Farsi-speaking Talysh in the south of Azerbaijan, Caucasian Lezgins in the north, displaced Meskhetian Turks from Central Asia and displaced Kurds from the Lachin region – have all experienced discrimination, restrictions on the ability to teach in their first languages and harassment by local authorities. This is reflective of a government that has placed little emphasis on promoting anti-discriminatory measures, despite the clear need to move beyond its current securitized approach to non-Azerbaijani communities in the country.

    The Azerbaijani authorities continue to be heavily criticized for the arbitrary detention of peaceful demonstrators and the arrest and imprisonment of human rights defenders and opposition politicians. While in May 2022, Azerbaijani authorities released more than 20 individuals imprisoned on politically motivated charges, at least 30 others remained wrongfully imprisoned. Restrictive laws continue to impede nongovernmental organizations from operating independently.

    Water crisis

    Representatives of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated in October 2023 that Azerbaijan is among the 20 countries most affected by water shortages in the world. More than 70 per cent of water resources are used for agricultural needs in Azerbaijan, which has caused extremely high levels of water consumption and water stress.

    Azerbaijan is facing water shortages as rainfall levels decrease. Rising temperatures continue to affect glaciers in the high Caucasus Mountains, with river flow levels dropping in recent years. Water tensions also contributed to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan faced a severe water shortage in the months leading up to the outbreak of the 2020 war. The government’s interest in regaining control over Nagorno-Karabakh was motivated at least in part by the availability of water and hydropower in this disputed region.

    With the Kura and Aras Rivers being important sources of water, roughly three-quarters of Azerbaijan’s water supplies originate outside the country. Both the Kura and the Aras Rivers originate in Türkiye. Azerbaijani forces managed to capture dams and reservoirs along the Aras in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 2020 war. Even so, water problems remain prevalent due to poor domestic water management, climate change and excessive construction of upstream dams.

    Environmental harm

    Several international reports suggest that the city of Baku, situated 28 metres below sea level and thus the lowest-lying national capital in the world, may be among the most environmentally vulnerable and polluted in the world.

    The Absheron Peninsula, where Baku is situated, is also considered one of the most heavily polluted areas in the world. The principal cause of ecological devastation in the Absheron Peninsula is oil and gas drilling and extraction activities, which have been ongoing for several decades. Environmental degradation is also due to the occurrence of artificial lakes and ponds affected by groundwater pollution, as well as the accumulation of waste generated by oil refineries. In addition, the use of DDT as a pesticide and toxic defoliants in the production of cotton have caused major chemical pollution on land and waters in this part of Azerbaijan. The combined pressure of pollution, climate change and natural hazards has had a major impact on the livelihoods of local communities, especially ethnic minorities such as Talysh and Lezgins.

Updated May 2024

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