By Paul Goble
One of the most important trends in the South Caucasus over the last 25 years has been the emergence of almost completely mono-ethnic states in that region. As a result of refugee flows, Armenian occupation of parts of Azerbaijan, and the Russian invasion of Georgia, these three countries are more mono-ethnic than at any point in their histories.
That helps to explain the policies of the three governments there and also those of their most important outside supporters, Russia with regard to Armenia, Turkey with regard to Azerbaijan, and the West with regard to Georgia. But there are still important ethnic minorities in each of the three, and none is more significant than the two million Talysh of Azerbaijan.
The Talysh are an Iranian-speaking people who live in southeastern Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran, with an estimated 1.5 to 2.5 million in the former country and at least one million in the latter. The Azerbaijani authorities do not count them as a separate nation lest such identification provoke separatism as it did in 1993 with the Mugdam Republic.
(That contemporary attitude has its roots in Soviet times. In the 1930s, Talysh began to be written in Cyrillic rather than Persido-Arabic; and the Talysh were encouraged to say no more to declare themselves to be Azerbaijanis rather than members of their own ethnic community.)
In Iran, the Talysh suffer few limitations linguistically or culturally. Most Talysh there and in Azerbaijan are Shiites, although there are Naqshbqandia Sufis among them as well. However, even the latter follow many of the traditions of the twelver Shiites of Iran and consider Ali to be the only legal heir of the Prophet Muhammed.
Talysh activists in Iran and Azerbaijan have continued to call for autonomy or even independence despite the hostility to such appeals in both Baku and Tehran, but except in times of serious trouble in those two countries, the Talysh movement has largely been subsumed by larger social movements.
One might have expected Talysh activism to increase with the start of a new round of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, either sponsored by outsiders or the result of Talysh activists exploiting the situation. But in fact, Talysh activism has been on the rise in Azerbaijan for some months, the result of economic problems there (nar.am/2016/v-azerbaydzhane-neozhidanno-nachalis-protestyi-c-trebovaniem-avtonomii-talyishistan/).
The Azerbaijani authorities have treated the Talysh moves in recent weeks as being the result of efforts by the Azerbaijani opposition or religious groups to exploit the situation and have ignored the extent to which there is a genuinely Talysh ethno-national movement behind at least some of them
Most Azerbaijani analysts suggest that the Talysh movement is unlikely to take off not only because of Azerbaijani official actions but also because of the absence of genuine leaders. Those who had been in top positions in the early 1990s have either gone into emigration or been repressed.
Consequently, it seems unlikely that the Talysh will make a play for autonomy or independence even now; but they are one of the factors involved in the current crisis. And if the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia expands, it seems likely that just as in the difficult days of 1993, the Talysh may be heard from. At the very least, their demands will have to be addressed.