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Sergey Markedonov
Northern Azerbaijan: Re-branding or raising of stakes?

Northern Azerbaijan: state re-branding or raising of geopolitical stakes? 

6 February 2012 

                

The first sitting of the spring session of Milli Mejlis (Parliament) of Azerbaijan took place on the first day of February. And the Azerbaijani parliamentarians immediately made a serious political appeal, suggesting changes to the official name of their state – not more, not less. Both the majority and the small opposition were of one mind on this. According to the words of a representative of ruling party «Yeni Azerbaijan» («New Azerbaijan») Sijavush Novruzov, the MPs are simply reacting to the society’s demand of changing the country name. Opposition deputy Gudrat Hasanguliev even suggested going back to the legal assessment of two agreements of the first quarter of the XIX century (Gjulistan agreement of 1813 and Turkmenchaj agreement of 1828), which ended two Russian-Persian wars of 1804-1813 and 1826-1828, respectively. In the MPs’ opinion, as the territory of “historic Azerbaijan” was divided between Iran and Russian Empire and later – the Soviet Union, from which the independent Azerbaijani Republic separated in 1991, it would be more correct to be named “Northern Azerbaijan”. During the discussion some MPs went even farther, discussing a constitutional referendum to vote for amendments on territorial configuration of the country. Given certain peculiarities of the internal political life of the current Azerbaijan, it is difficult to imagine the February initiative as a display of parliamentary will. Most likely, the “impromptu” initiative was well prepared in the bodies of the executive power, which today would not like to be associated with initiatives of this kind. It is clear that if such suggestions were voiced by the heavy guns of the Azerbaijani politics, then the reaction of official Tehran would not be as it is now. The representatives of the Islamic Republic are for the moment trying to behave in a reserved manner.

 

Let us try to make out, why a topic, so popular in the beginning of the 1990s and which then was left in the shadow, all of a sudden became topical again. Is there a practical point for Baku? Or should we rather talk of a political PR with an eye on the presidential campaign of 2013?

 

Indeed, the problem of Iranian-Azerbaijani relations is not a simple one. Today, on the territory of Iran, according to various estimates, live 25 to 35 million ethnic Azerbaijanis (“Azerbaijani Turks”). This is, one should remember, nearly one third of total population of Iran. The Azerbaijani population of Iran is three times higher that of Azerbaijan itself (and this is according to the official statistics only, in reality this can be even a higher figure).

 

The issue of the Southern (Iranian) Azerbaijan is, together with the “religious issue”, a main painful point in relations between post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Islamic Republic of Iran. Since independence, the official ideology and history of Azerbaijan are dominated by a vision of Azerbaijan as a single historic territory, artificially divided into two parts. The Azerbaijanis, in turn, are viewed as a “divided nation” between the Southern Azerbaijan (in Iran) and Azerbaijani Republic. In 1945 the Soviet Union was trying to create on the territory of Southern Azerbaijan a Soviet Republic, headed by Seid Jafar Pishevari (1897–1947). Furthermore, the autonomy of  Southern Azerbaijan was acknowledged by the Iranian Government. However, after the Soviet troops were pulled out from Iran, this republic was liquidated by the Iranian authorities. Some 30,000 Iranian Azerbaijanis settled in Azerbaijani SSR.

 

In the beginning of the 1990s many political and public figures in Azerbaijan were voicing the necessity of uniting Southern and Northern Azerbaijan. This objective was included into the political programme of the People’s Front of Azerbaijan. The most logical supporter of the idea of “unification” was the late Abulfaz Elchibey. The Iranian authorities on various occasions expressed their discontent over Baku’s sponsorship of organizations of Iranian Azerbaijanis (National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijanis). In 1999 Heydar Aliev signed a decree to grant Azerbaijani citizenship to Pirouz Diljanchi, one of the leaders of irredentist organization of Iranian Azerbaijanis. The Iranian authorities, in turn, are blamed by the Azerbaijani politicians of support to radical islamists in Azerbaijan.

 

However, today’s Azerbaijani elite did not have political resources to turn the uniting plan of Azerbaijani radical nationalists into practice. This can be the explanation of a rather weak reaction of official Baku to the events of May - June 2006, when Iranian Azerbaijanis held mass protest actions, provoked by the cartoon scandal. Then, the reason for the unrest was publishing of a cartoon in Tehran Iran newspaper, where the Azerbaijanis were presented as similar to cockroaches. And despite the authorities apologized before the Azerbaijani community, the unrest had to be stopped by means of special forces. At that time the official Baku announced its non-interference into Iranian internal affairs. Noteworthy, public-wise the topic of a “divided nation” was more promoted by the non-governmental movement, like the youth organizations.

 

But today Iran is on top lines of world news headlines. It is likely that the US and its allies will be putting increasing pressure on the Islamic Republic. And not necessarily in the military mode solely. In this regard, the issue of the so-called “Southern Azerbaijan” acquires another meaning. Washington could have interest in attaching of independent Azerbaijan and fighting Iran indirectly rather than directly. Leaders of Movement for National Awakening of Southern Azerbaijan live in the US, even though today they are not so notable in the public area. Israel could also have interest in Iran’s Azerbaijanis’ fight for self-determination. This would create a symmetric response to Iran. In fighting its enemy, Tehran resorts to asymmetric weapon, and Tel Aviv can respond similarly. Turkey also has its interest in the Southern Azerbaijan. With that, Turkey’s interest is not in following behind the American politics. Turkey and Iran (Persia) are historic rivals over domination in the Middle East and the Caucasus. According to a fair opinion of journalist Petr Krymskij, “Ankara in this vase behaves rather independently of the US, playing its own game, which in case of US-Iranian war might yield significant dividends to Turkey, from the creation of a Turkish autonomy on Iran’s north to the establishment of an independent state”.

 

In this situation, the divided nation theme might be used for gaining geopolitical profits. There is no argument, this game is dangerous. Tehran will hardly like historic and ethno-political speculations. But nobody said that Baku is going to win its land back in a battle. Such an idea would look at least strange, especially against the background of unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But it is possible it will attempt to raise its geopolitical capitalization, force the West to move human rights issues on the second plan and to promote strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. The necessity to untie the Gabala knot is another stimulus for this (radio location station in Azerbaijan, rented by Russia – the term expires this year), and the peace process around Nagorno Karabakh (alliance with the West can result in a harder pressure against Armenia). Therefore, Baku, as it has already been not once, is trying to raise the stakes in the game. Though in this game acornered Iran can prove to be rather dangerous. We shall see in the very near future, how the interest of US, Israel and Turkey can merge in one, and how their actions and Baku’s position will be harmonised.

Sergey Markedonov, he has a Doctorate in History, and is Visiting Fellow at the Center of Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC, USA).

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