MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 400: Talysh of Azerbaijan Look South and North

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Fri Jul 20 17:11:43 2007


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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 400, July 12, 2007

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE JULY 12 

UPSURGE OF FIGHTING IN CHECHNYA Summer campaign by rebel fighters casts
doubt on official claims that the war is over. By Umalt Dudayev in
Grozny 

TALYSH OF AZERBAIJAN LOOK SOUTH AND NORTH Ethnic minority builds ties
with Iran while declaring loyalty to government in Baku. By Idrak
Abbasov in Lenkoran 

CROWDS FLOCK TO PAGAN-CHRISTIAN OSSETIAN SHRINE Traditionalists deplore
music and drinking at North Ossetia's biggest festival. By Elizaveta
Valieva in the Hetag Grove, North Ossetia 

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TALYSH OF AZERBAIJAN LOOK SOUTH AND NORTH

Ethnic minority builds ties with Iran while declaring loyalty to
government in Baku

By Idrak Abbasov in Lenkoran (CRS No. 400, 12-July-07)

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."

Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent with Aina newspaper in Baku. This
article forms part of IWPR's EU-funded Cross-Caucasus Journalism Network
project.

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