MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 398: Udi minority in Azerbaijan and Armenia

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Sat Jun 30 11:34:36 2007


Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <editor@iwpr.net>


WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 398, June 28, 2007

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE JUNE 28 

GEORGIA PROMOTES ITS MAN IN SOUTH OSSETIA "Alternative" South Ossetian
leader addresses parliamentarians in Brussels. By Dmitry Avaliani in
Tbilisi 

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY IN DECLINE IN AZERBAIJAN The Udi people, an
ancient Caucasian community, are being hit by emigration. By Farman
Nabiev, Sadyq Fataliev and Fidan Mamedova in Nij

ARMENIA'S VANISHING UDIS Small community is slowly losing its ancient
language. By Tatul Hakopian in Dedebavan 

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ANCIENT CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY IN DECLINE IN AZERBAIJAN

The Udi people, an ancient Caucasian community, are being hit by
emigration.

By Farman Nabiev, Sadyq Fataliev and Fidan Mamedova in Nij

Despite its problems, the village of Nij brims with generosity to the
visitor. When IWPR correspondents asked the way to this large settlement
in northern Azerbaijan, the passer-by who stopped to help was not
content until he had led us to the door of the house we were looking
for. 

It is not so hard to find locals, because the women spend much of the
day in the shops in the centre of Nij and the men in its tea-houses,
where a stranger will almost certainly invite you to take a glass of
tea.

If you are invited into a home, you cannot leave without being fed at a
table decorated with fruits, sweets and conserves.  

Most of the people in Nij belong to a small ethnic group called the
Udis. They are remarkable for many reasons - they are Christians in an
overwhelmingly Muslim country; their language is unrelated to those of
the big nations of the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia; and
they can trace their ancestry back to an ancient people, the Caucasian
Albanians (not related to the Albanians of the Balkans). 

Sadly, the future of this unique people is now under threat from
emigration. The Udis also find themselves unwilling actors in a
historical dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Just over 4,000 of the 7,000 people in Nij are Udis. They live in a rich
agricultural region - as the head of the local library, Sahib Muradov,
noted, their village is the most prosperous of the 60 settlements in the
Gabala district. 

"Nij has the largest market in the region," said Muradov. "Products from
all over of Azerbaijan are brought here. There's great demand for
hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, apples and vegetables grown by Nij
residents. And our muscat wine is unique.

"People in our village are quite well off... But it's also true that
some people are leaving the village."

At the Sunday market, it was obvious that prices were low, suggesting
living standards in the village are not high. A poor walnut crop this
year and low prices have hit the locals hard. 

Most of those who leave in search of work are young people, and the
majority head for Russia. 

"Young people are looking for a comfortable life," said Gerasim
Chulayury. "They wouldn't leave here if there were businesses and
factories working in the village."

The only factory in the village- a Soviet-era cannery - has long stood
idle, while the people who used to work there are still unemployed.

Of the five secondary schools, three teach in Russian and two in Azeri.
The Udi language is taught only in primary school, and most Udi children
go to the Russian schools. 

Sergei Dallarin, headmaster of secondary school No 1, which dates back
150 years, said many school-leavers look for a college education abroad,
generally in Russia. 

"When they graduate from college, they don't return to the village, as
there's no work for them here," he said. "As a result, the number of
Udis living in Nij has been shrinking. The village had 6,000 Udis ten
years ago, whereas today there are just 4,500."

"Our representatives used to have government jobs," said Mikhail
Gangalov, who is head of the Udi Cultural Centre. "Now, because of the
migration problem, there are almost no educated Udis left in the
vicinity, which means there's no one to represent us in state
structures. That explains why over the past few years, the Udis - unlike
other ethnic groups - have not even been consulted when decisions
regarding national minorities are taken."

The Udis all say there are no tensions with Azerbaijanis.  

A local man named Ashot writes poems in the Azeri language under the
pseudonym Udioglu. "I write in Azeri because all Udis speak, write and
read the language," he said. "We have long become related to the
Azerbaijanis."

Ashot's wife is Udi on her mother's side and Azerbaijani on her
father's. Ashot's older brother and sister are also married to ethnic
Azerbaijanis.  

A crisis hit Nij at the end of the Soviet period when the Udis, whose
surnames at that time ended with the Armenian-sounding suffix "-ian",
were often mistakenly identified as Armenian. 

"There was trouble in the late Eighties, when the conflict with the
Armenians began," recalled local government official Vidadi Mahmudov,
who is half Azeri and half Udi. "When Armenians started leaving
Azerbaijan in great numbers, a rumour spread that Nij was harbouring
Armenians... But the local government and authorities got the better of
those forces that were trying to inflame passions, and prevented them
from insulting us."

As a result, only limited numbers of Udis went to Armenia. 

In recent years, the Udis have shed the "-ian" suffix and young Udis
have begun to serve in the Azerbaijani army for the first time. 

"Today we're proud to say that 20 young men represent the Udis in the
army," said Mahmudov.

The Armenian association dogged the village two years ago when the a
project to restore an old church became controversial. Work on the
Albanian Christian church in Nij was completed last year, with support
from the Norwegian embassy in Azerbaijan. It had been previously used as
a warehouse. 

"Udis can now come to church every week to light a candle, pray and make
an donation," said the church's warden and gardener, Sevan Magari. "I
get my wages from these offerings. I am the only worker at the church so
far. Currently, three of our villagers are receiving religious
education, so we are going to have priests of our own soon. There are
two [Armenian] Gregorian churches in the village, though no one ever
goes there."

Norwegian ambassador Steinar Gil refused to attend the opening ceremony
at the church, after local people erased Armenian inscriptions there
during the restoration work. 

Robert Mobili, head of the Udi community in Azerbaijan, defended the
action, saying, "We don't consider it necessary to leave inscriptions in
a foreign language on one of the main Albanian shrines, all the more so
because these inscriptions were made after the Albanian church was
placed under the protection of the Armenian church," 

The church exemplifies a broader, deeply controversial issue.

Azerbaijani historians say the Udis or Albanians underwent forced
assimilation by Armenians only in the last few centuries, and that most
of the churches in Azerbaijan and in the disputed region of Nagorny
Karabakh are not Armenian but Albanian Christian.

"This church was built in 1723," said historian Farida Mamedova. "In
1836, the Albanian church was handed over to the Armenian Apostolic
Church. This was not just a physical handover; it meant that all the
literature, all the church plate and, most important, the church's
libraries and books went to the Armenian church. 

According to Mamedova, the Armenian church destroyed the Albanian's
literature, which explains why none of it survives. 

However many people leave their village, Nij remains the spiritual
centre for the Udis of Azerbaijan. Four of the six cemeteries in the
village are Udi, and cultural centre head Gangalov said wealthy people
living abroad have brought their dead to Nij to bury them there.

Farman Nabiev is the editor of the regional newspaper Mingechevir
Ishiqlari, and Fidan Mamedova is a correspondent for Khazri newspaper.
Both are members of IWPR's EU-funded Cross-Caucasus Journalism Network
project. Sadiq Fataliev is a freelance Azerbaijani journalist. 


ARMENIA'S VANISHING UDIS 

Small community is slowly losing its ancient language. 

By Tatul Hakopian in Dedebavan 

Seda Kumsieva, a teacher for 36 years, lives in Armenia although she
used to teach Russian language and literature in the village of
Vardashen in Azerbaijan. 

The crisis of the late Eighties that led to the Armenian-Azerbaijani war
over Nagorny Karabakh forced her to flee her home and resettle in
Armenia.

Seda is an ethnic Udi - a Christian group with its own unique language -
but her husband is Armenian, a fact which sealed her fate. Her family is
now scattered across the Caucasus. 

"Some of my relatives stayed in Vardashen, others settled in Tbilisi. I
am completely Udi by blood, but my husband is Armenian and we and other
families who had mixed marriages left Azerbaijan," she said. 

Eleven Udis from Azerbaijan resettled in Dedebavan and many more have
found homes in other villages. In conversations with IWPR, the Udis made
it clear they feel quite secure in Armenia, but are worried that their
unique culture is dying out. 

The head of the village community in Dedebavan Georgy Babayan told IWPR,
"We don't make any distinction between Armenians and Udis. During the
emigration from Vardashen in 1988, several Udi families came with the
Armenians. Later on, many of them emigrated to Russia. We are the same
as the Udis - we share our joy and grief with them."

Hranush Kharatian, an ethnographer who has written extensively about the
Udis, says that there are only around 200 of them in Armenia.  

"The community does not have the status of a national minority," he
said. "Today there isn't a single regulatory document on this issue.
Only those groups which systematically try to preserve their ethnic
identity are recognised as minorities."

Kharatian said that the Udis had fled Azerbaijan not just because of
mixed marriages with Armenians, but because they were a persecuted
minority. 

"Udis who were persecuted in Nij have resettled in the Georgian village
of Oktomberi. Until the recent deportations from Azerbaijan there were
not just two but five whole Udi villages. We don't know much about three
of the villages, because although the Udis living there were Christians,
they spoke Azeri. These villages were called Jourlu, Mirzabeilu and
Sultan Nukhi. Several people from there emigrated to Armenia."

Seda Kumsieva uses her cousins in Tbilisi - who now go by the surname
Kumsiashvili - to get information about relatives who stayed behind in
her home village. She still badly misses Vardashen - now renamed Oduz. 

"Although our way of life and traditions are Armenian, Udis have their
own specific festivals," she said. "As a child, I remember how in May
they used to tie multi-coloured threads round the hands of little
children and then hang these little bundles on the branches of trees.
Everyone used to make a wish to have their dream come true. The festival
was called Dimbaz."

Forty-five-year-old Zanna Lalayan is married to an Armenian and her
family is also scattered. "My brother Oleg and other relatives live in
Nij. My other brother and other relatives live in Ukraine - his children
don't know the Udi language. Our generation of Udis based in Russia and
other countries doesn't know our language. 

"Our nation is gradually dwindling." 

Seventy-year-old Arshaluis Movsisian, an Udi whose late husband was
Armenian, lives in the village of Bagratashen and left behind a large
part of her family, a whole troop of nieces and nephews. "My heart is
breaking, I want to see their faces," she said, holding back the tears. 

"Like the Armenians, we recognise the cross and the church," she said.
"We didn't marry our girls off to Azerbaijanis and we didn't marry
theirs, because we are people of the cross. Like the Armenians, our
brides come out in white clothes, with uncovered faces , we dance
Armenian dances and bury our dead according to Armenian customs. Apart
from the language, we are no different to them."  

Armenian historians, like their Azerbaijani counterparts, say that the
Udis are the descendants of the Caucasian Albanians. But Armenians say
the process of assimilation happened much earlier - that the Albanians
converted to the Armenian church in the 5th century and at the same time
began to adopt the Armenian language, customs and names. 

The Udis alone, the historians say, survived as a tiny remnant of a once
much bigger culture. They point out that the Udis' language has nothing
in common with either Indo-European Armenian or Turkic Azeri. 

Some unique Udi customs also seem to date back to pre-Christian times. 

Arzu Dargiyan recalls how in Azerbaijan they used to pay homage to
sacred trees. "We would choose a fruit tree in the garden and performed
an act of worship in front of it," she said. "We lit candles and
sacrificed animals. It was forbidden to climb the sacred tree or pick
its fruit. You could only eat them if they fell from the tree." 

Oleg Dulgarian is an Udi also from Vardashen, although he left as a
small child. He runs a non-governmental organisation for refugees, and
is passionate about trying to preserve the culture of this ancient but
tiny community. 

Dulgarian says that he wants to create an organization called "Aghvank"
(the ancient name for Caucasian Albania) that will aim to preserve
traditions and engage in academic study of the Udis. 

"It's not a problem to be an Udi in Armenia; no one forces us to
renounce our ethnicity. The main problems that Udis who have emigrated
from Azerbaijan face are the same as those facing the Armenian
refugees."

Dulgarian wants to get government help for his project but the main
element of Udi culture - their language - is now in apparently terminal
decline. 

"My sons don't speak Udi at all," lamented Alexei Kazarov, who also fled
from Vardashen. "Our nation is gradually disappearing. There are only
eight or ten thousand Udis left in the whole world."

Tatul Hakopian is a political observer for Public Radio in Armenia.

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