Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The 2009 census recorded 6,100 Kurds in Azerbaijan accounting for the 0.1 per cent of the population. Estimates from the 1990s suggested far higher figures, however, up to 200,000 and estimates from the 1920s put their number at 40,000. These apparent discrepancies may reflect the fact that Azerbaijani Kurds have heavily assimilated into Azeri identity, with many using Azeri as their mother tongue.
Kurdish settlement of Azerbaijan is thought to date from the seventh century CE, but only assumed a mass character in the late sixteenth century, when Shah Abbas of Iran deployed Kurdish tribes from western Iran to guard the empire’s north-western frontier. Large numbers of Kurds arrived in Azerbaijan from Turkey and Iran in the late 1800s and early 1900s, seeking refugee from the Russo-Turkish wars.
In Soviet times, the majority of Kurds were situated in the Lachin area of western Azerbaijan, where from 1923 until its abolition in 1930 they enjoyed the status of having an autonomous area known as ‘Red Kurdistan’. A campaign was begun by the Kurdish populations in Lachin, Kubatly and Kelbajar in 1992 for the restoration of the Kurdish Autonomous Area, allegedly receiving support across the border from activists from Armenia. In 1993 the Kurdish population of the Kelbajar region was forced to flee as a result of a military offensive by the Karabakh Armenians, during the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. Kurdish resentment against Azerbaijan has also been fuelled as a result of forced conscription of Kurds into the Azerbaijani army.
Azerbaijan’s Kurds are now scattered across the country as a result of displacement, following the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. This has further increased the assimilation of this minority. Although limited Kurdish-language media are available, in the form of radio broadcasting and newspapers, a language shift to Azeri within Kurdish families is widely reported.
Allegations of potential separatism and Azerbaijan’s close relations with Turkey have had a negative impact on the Kurdish national minority in Azerbaijan. Up to 2001, 32 Kurds were reportedly arrested in Azerbaijan on suspicion of membership of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). In 2005–6 Azerbaijan extradited a number of foreign citizens of Kurdish ethnicity to Turkey on the basis of Turkish extradition orders claiming their membership of the PKK. The situation of Kurds in Azerbaijan is made more precarious by the PKK’s policy of criticizing Azerbaijan and praising Armenia with regard to their respective treatment of their Kurdish minorities.
In the wake of the Iraqi Kurdish referendum in September 2017, the Azerbaijani government stated its opposition to the result, condemning it as a violation of Iraq’s territorial integrity.
Updated March 2018.