Saturday, September 28, 2013

Talysh Rebel Leader, Former Political Prisoner, Resurfaces in Armenia, Challenging Azerbaijani Unity

Alikram Hummatov
Like a bad penny, we knew Alikram Hummatov would show up again, and it is reactivating a lot of the animosities of the regional animosities in the Caucasus region that swirled around the time of the fall of Leninism.  This week, the Azerbaijani former political prisoner and separatist leader has been greeted as a political celebrity in the Republic of Armenia and its puppet state carved out of Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (N.K.R.).

In orange and brown is the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,
on what the world considers Azerbaijani territory.
Hummatov, also known as Ali Akram Hemmatzadeh, was the separatist hero and self-proclaimed president of the brief-lived and tiny independent Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic (T.M.A.R.) (a.k.a. Talyshtan) in southeastern Azerbaijan, right along the border with Iran, in 1993.  This was in the midst of a coup d’√©tat in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, in which the elected president of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey, was overthrown by Heydar Aliyev, the ex-boss of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic (S.S.R.).  The T.M.A.R. was quickly crushed by Azerbaijani forces.

Heydar Aliyev
This week, on September 24th, Hummatov, who is a member of the Talysh ethnic minority, appeared in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to help inaugurate a postgraduate Talysh Studies Program at Yerevan State University (Y.S.U.), under the Iranian Studies rubric.  (The Talysh language is related to Persian, unlike Armenian, which is an Indo-European isolate, and Azeri, which is Turkic.)  Then, two days later, he spoke before the N.K.R.’s parliament.  Hummatov and the legislature’s chairman, Ashot Ghulyan, praised the Talysh-Armenian brotherhood and their parallel oppression by stronger nations.  Hummatov still considers himself president of the T.M.A.R., which operates a government-in-exile in Iran, and reiterated that independence was still the goal of the Talysh people.

After the failed separatist rebellion in 1993, Hummatov fled to Russia but was extradited and sentenced, in 1995, to death, then commuted to a life sentence.  He was released in 2004, after he and other political prisoners in Azerbaijan became the focus of pressure by the Council of Europe and Amnesty International.  He was stripped of his citizenship and exiled to the Netherlands.

Many today suspect that the 1993 declaration of independence was orchestrated from Moscow, perhaps even by Aliyev himself (he was once the K.G.B. head for the republic) in order to create a distraction, including convincing the public that ethnic uprisings needed a strong leader.  Elchibey had, after all, failed to secure the southwestern chunk of Azerbaijan from being solidified as a de facto independent Nagorno-Karabakh, propped up by Armenia and, indirectly, by Moscow.  True or not, the Talysh struggle for self-determination clearly became a pawn in the larger game of the Caucasus’s polarized politics.

When the southern Caucasus was absorbed by Russia’s newly installed Bolshevik regime at the close of the First World War, a Mughan Soviet Republic was briefly set up, as a Communist bulwark against the rebellious Azeri nation-state which proved difficult to snuff out.  Ethnic national identities were suppressed during the Soviet period, in accordance with Marxist–Leninist “internationalism,” though some Caucasian nationalities suffered particular oppression, especially those historically antagonistic to Georgia, the nation into which Josef Stalin, the the Soviet Union’s first minister in charge of nationalities, was born.  Some groups were promised autonomy but then denied it.  Moscow also reneged on its promise to redraw borders to accommodate the ethnically Armenian population in southwestern Azerbaijan.  When Communism began to falter in the late 1980s, Armenians in this region, Nagorno-Karabakh, demanded to be transferred to the Armenian S.S.R.; the republics were moving toward more autonomy, and they feared direct rule by Azeris unmediated by Russia.  Mikhail Gorbachev initially sided with the Azeris, out of inertia and unwillingness to redraw borders, but Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries—and, covertly, some claim, official Russian forces—helped Armenia set up the N.K.R. as a de facto state.  By 1994, Boris Yeltsin, the born-again-nationalist president of post-Soviet Russia, brokered a deal which solidified the N.K.R. as a permanent “frozen conflict” with a tense cease-fire line, which is the situation, more or less today.

The fact that Gorbachev wasn’t sure whom to back in the Karabakh conflict illustrates just how ideologically neutral many of the nationalist struggles of the early post-Communist period were; they were all in it for themselves.  But the fact that Russia soon settled in to become Armenia and the N.K.R.’s most solid backer shows that the polarizations of the Cold War were, and are, still playing themselves out.

Shirali Muslimov, presumed to be 168 when he died in 1973
and thus often called the world’s oldest man, was Talysh.
Historically, the Russian Empire had always had more troubles with its Muslim minorities in the Caucasus—Chechens, Avars, Circassians—than the far fewer Christian ones, such as the Georgians, Armenians, and Ossetians.  The fact that not-yet-independent Azerbaijan was being helped in the Karabakh war by Chechen and even Afghan fighters with sectarian bones to pick doubtless helped Gorbachev choose sides eventually.  Today’s polarization of (a) the United States aligned with Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan against (b) Moscow and its client states Iran, Armenia, and the N.K.R. has become one of the few areas in the world where a Washington-vs.-Moscow cold-war mentality still dictates regional alliances.  The early-20th-century Turkish genocide of Armenians was always soft-pedalled in the West (it still is) so as not to offend the strategically important Republic of Turkey, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s only member-state bordering the U.S.S.R.—much to the (legitimate) fury of the U.S.’s huge Armenian-American lobby, which is estimated to be the third-most-influential immigrant lobby in American foreign policy, behind the Jewish and Cuban ones.  (California has more Armenians than Armenia, and this week when a legislative delegation from that state, under pressure from Armenian constituents, showed up in Stepanakert, the U.S. State Department scrambled to contain the damage.  See an article from this blog on the definition of genocide and its relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.)  Russia found it useful in the Soviet period to conflate Turkish crimes with Nazi ones and thus position itself as being a valiant foe of Germany in both world wars and of Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) in the first one as well (never mind that Stalin was just as bad).  After 1979, when a virulently anti-American Islamist government overthrew the U.K.- and U.S.-installed Shah of Iran, Moscow revived its decades-old project of seeking to bring Iran into its orbit as a way of inching toward the warm-water ports of the Indian Ocean—this time successfully, since even today Russia is almost Iran’s only ally.  The U.S., as a consequence, finds it useful to use Azerbaijan (as well as, now, the de facto independent and U.S.-liberated Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Iraq) as a staging ground for its espionage and sabotage campaign against Iran, and as oil-rich states that it is useful to have as allies.  Azeris and Kurds are happy for the patronage, even though neighboring Muslim states scorn them as stooges of America and Israel.

Yeah, it’s complicated.
This dynamic reverberates deep into the Caucasus region’s separatist politics as well.  The U.S. implicitly (and probably, in secret, concretely) backs a nascent movement to break Iran’s northwestern Azerbaijan region away so it can reunify with Azerbaijan proper.  Meanwhile, the loss of Karabakh has made Azeris nervous that the rest of their multi-ethnic republic could be whittled away too.  The Lezgin ethnic group over the northern border in the Russian Federation’s Republic of Dagestan would like to form a common territory with their Lezgin kin over the border in Azerbaijan, who have suffered serious repression.  Russian media celebrated gleefully when, in 1993, tens of thousands of Lezgins demonstrated in Azerbaijan against being drafted to fight the Karabakh war, and Moscow may even have been behind a Lezgin pro-unification march on the border from the Dagestani side.  Similar tensions prevail with respect to the Avar, Dagestan’s largest ethnic group, whose traditionally territory also extends into Azerbaijan.  How to count Azerbaijan’s minorities is highly politicized.  No one thinks they are as few in number as the government claims.  Officially, there are just over 100,000 Talysh in Azerbaijan, but some Talysh activists estimate they number more than 1 million of Azerbaijan’s population of just under 9 million.  After losing Karabakh, Azeri nationalists feel cooking the numbers is a matter of life and death.  Some Iranian nationalists, for their part, would rather see Talyshstan absorbed into Iran than become an independent state—a position that does not as yet make things as awkward as it should between the Talysh government-in-exile and its Iranian hosts.

Iranian nationalist propaganda sometimes portrays the non-Turkic Talysh people as “part of” Persia
This leaves Azerbaijan surrounded on three sides by powerful and to varying degrees anti-democratic states which are determined to chip away at it: Russia to the north, Armenia to the west, and Iran to the south.  Its only friendly neighbors are Georgia and Iraqi Kurdistan, and Azeris have already seen, during the 2008 South Ossetia War between Russia and Georgia, that the U.S. and the West are prepared to sit idly by while Russia bites large chunks (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) out of Western allies in the Caucasus.

The flag of Talyshstan (and of the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic)
For Hummatov’s part, here is what he said at the Yerevan State University event, which among other things involved a commitment to preserving the endangered Talysh language: “In Azerbaijan, the Talysh are deprived of basic rights.  We are not respected; we are being extirpated, with a policy of assimilation being implemented against us.  They at the same time declare that we are brothers.  This is illogical.  We want to write and read in the mother tongue.  In response to our demands, they openly say, ‘You, the Talysh, have no future, you must be assimilated.’”  In the 1990s, he added, “We considered Azerbaijan our homeland and were even prepared to give up our lives for it, but the homeland should also defend us with might and main, and if it refuses to do it, then we have our homeland and we will build our homeland—Talyshstan.  Our youths already have self-consciousness.  No one can stop us anymore.  We will speak in Talysh and struggle for our independence.”

A repressed Talysh newspaper
Indeed, the day after Hummatov visited the parliament in Stepanakert, the Azerbaijani government sentenced the editor of a small Talysh-language newspaper to five years in a labor camp for “ethnic hatred” and “drug-trafficking.”  The editor, Hilal Mamedov, has reason to worry: his predecessor as editor was arrested in 2008 on similarly dubious-sounding charges and died in prison the following year after being denied medical care.

Does Azerbaijan think it can keep doing that forever?  That’s what they thought about their Armenian minority too.

[N.B.: This article was modified on Oct. 3, 2013, to correct wording which suggested that Talysh and Persian were not Indo-European.]

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2013 or 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]


  1. Is it the polarizations of the Cold War playing out in Azerbaijan or is it more a newer Israeli-Iranian rivalry. It seems like the US and Russia have diminishing interests and an ever diminishing role.

  2. Armenian and Talysh are both Indo-European. The former is an isolate in that family while the latter belongs in its Indo-Iranian branch.

  3. Thank you, Tigerfire. I had indeed worded it badly. I have just modified it and indicated in the text that it was corrected from an earlier version. Thanks!


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