Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Lezgins (also known as Lezgi or Kyirin) are a Caucasian mountain people related to smaller groups including Aguls, Rutuls and Tabasarans. Accounting for 2.2 per cent of the population with 180,300 recorded in the 2009 census, they are the largest ethnic minority group in the country. However, some local experts claim that their number is significantly higher, in the region of 250,000–260,000.
Lezgins live on both sides of the Samur River in Southern Dagestan in Russia and in the northern district of Kusari in Azerbaijan, where they form a local majority, and in adjoining areas such as Hachmaz and Kuba. Their language belongs to the north-east Caucasian language group.
In general, Lezgins enjoyed better rights in Dagestan under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation than in Azerbaijan itself, where they have been subjected to assimilation policies. This could in part explain the variance in official statistics and unofficial estimates in the numbers of Lezgins in Azerbaijan.
The area known as ‘Lezgistan’ was divided between the tsarist districts of Derbent and Baku in 1860, a division which continued into the twenty-first century. In 1992 a Russian organization named Sadval was established to promote Lezgin rights. Sadval campaigned for the redrawing of the Russian–Azerbaijani border to allow for the creation of a single Lezgin state encompassing areas in Russia and Azerbaijan where Lezgins were compactly settled. In Azerbaijan a more moderate organization called Samur was formed, advocating more cultural autonomy for Lezgins in Azerbaijan.
Lezgins traditionally suffered from unemployment and a shortage of land. Resentments were fuelled in 1992 by the resettlement of 105,000 Azeri refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on Lezgin lands and by the forced conscription of Lezgins to fight in the conflict. This contributed to an increase in tensions between the Lezgin community and the Azeri government over issues of land, employment, language and the absence of internal autonomy. A major consequence of the outbreak of the war in Chechnya in 1994 was the closure of the border between Russia and Azerbaijan: as a result the Lezgins were for the first time in their history separated by an international border restricting their movement.
The high tide of Lezgin mobilization in Azerbaijan appeared to have passed towards the end of the 1990s. Sadval was banned by the Azerbaijani authorities after official allegations that it was involved in a bombing of the Baku underground. The end of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Lezgin resistance to forced conscription, deprived the movement of a key issue on which to mobilize. In 1998 Sadval split into ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ wings, following which it appeared to lose much of its popularity on both sides of the Russian–Azerbaijani border. Depending on which wing has had the upper hand, demands have varied from independence to autonomy to other cross-border issues. For instance, in 2013, Sadval members and other activists organised protests against what they saw as Azerbaijan’s excessive use of water drawn from the Samur river, endangering ecosystems in Dagestan’s Magerramkent district. In March 2016, Sadval’s leader Nazim Gadzhiyev was found stabbed to death in his home in Makhachkala, Dagestan; the killing followed the murder of prominent Sadval member Ruslan Magomedragimov the previous year.
Lezgins expressed concern over under-representation in the Azerbaijani parliament (Milli Meclis) after a shift away from proportional representation in the parliamentary elections of November 2005. Lezgins had been represented by two members of parliament in the previous parliament, but are now represented by only one.
Lezgins state that they face discrimination and that they feel forced to assimilate into Azeri identity to avoid economic and education discrimination. Therefore, the real number of Lezgins may be significantly higher than presented in censuses. Lezgin is taught as a foreign language in areas where many Lezgins are settled, but teaching resources are scarce. Lezgin-language textbooks come from Russia and are not adapted to local conditions. Although Lezgin newspapers are available, Lezgins have also expressed concern over the disappearance of their rich oral tradition. The only Lezgin television broadcasting available in Azerbaijan is that received over the border from Russia.
Updated March 2018