Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Talysh are a predominantly rural people who are mostly bilingual in Azeri and Talysh, a north-west Iranian language. Talysh are culturally close to the Azeris; they are also known as Tolish or Talush. They are concentrated in southern Azerbaijan and areas contiguous with Iran. Like Azeris, they are predominantly Shi’a Muslims and maintain strong ties with Iran. Only since the 1989 census have Talysh had the right to identify as a separate ethnic group. The suppression of their identity, language and culture during the Soviet era means, however, that the actual number of Talysh in Azerbaijan may be significantly higher than the figure of 112,000 in the 2009 census, with unofficial estimates putting their number at between 200,000 and 300,000.
Talysh have suffered as a result of the long-term deprivation of cultural and education rights and from the effects of economic neglect of their region, situated in south-east Azerbaijan and bordering Iran and the Caspian Sea.
Azeri fears of the emergence of pro-Iranian separatist sentiments led to the formation of the Azerbaijan Talysh National Party in 1992. In June 1993, as part of the general political unrest resulting from the campaign against the then President, Abulfaz Elchibey, and recent defeats on the battlefield in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ali Akhram Hummatov declared the formation of the Talysh-Mugansk Republic. The republic was short-lived, however, lasting only until August. With the accession of Heydar Aliyev to power in Baku, the Azerbaijani centre reasserted itself and Hummatov was arrested. Initially sentenced to death, he was then given a life sentence. Hummatov was released in 2004 as a result of pressure from the Council of Europe. The Talysh National Movement continued its activities, although within the framework of a unitary Azerbaijani state.
In the aftermath of these events, the Azerbaijani state mounted a campaign of intimidation and repression against leading Talysh activists, journalists and other prominent people, with reports that leading figures within the Talysh National Movement were harassed by law enforcement officials, who allegedly interrogated movement members and confiscated identity documents.
Even though Azerbaijan is party to the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on the National Minorities, Azerbaijani law provides not more than two hours per week of Talysh language lessons. There is also a shortage of teachers and teaching materials. Moreover, the only Talysh newspaper prints a limited number of copies and is under government control. While the state-run media company broadcasts a 15-minute radio programme in Talysh twice a week, most are unaware of this.
In 2012, the Talysh-language newspaper, Talysho Syado (‘Talysh Voice’) was closed down by the government and the editor Hilal Mamadov was arrested, accused for possession of heroin at his home; this was followed by other accusations such as treason. Many human rights organizations regarded Mamadov’s arrest as politically motivated. In 2013, he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, but he was released in 2016. Even though Azerbaijan joined PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) it has still not adopted comprehensive legislation on ethnic minorities.
Updated March 2018