Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Wanting to Have Their Cake and Their Neighbor's Too: Azerbaijani Attitudes towards Karabakh and Iranian Azerbaijan

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Wanting to Have Their Cake and Their Neighbor's Too: Azerbaijani Attitudes towards Karabakh and Iranian Azerbaijan

Article excerpt

Azerbaijan's foreign policy agenda, even prior to independence in 1991, has been largely dominated by two main issues: how to regain the Armenian-occupied region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and what relationship the state should have with the millions of ethnic Azerbaijanis who live in the bordering provinces of Iran. Over the past decade, two schools of thought have emerged, which reflect not only two different approaches to these issues, but also two opposing notions of what constitutes the Azerbaijani nation.

Undoubtedly, January 1990 was one of the most tumultuous times in Azerbaijani history.

On the one hand, two years of massive demonstrations against Armenian attempts to bring Azerbaijan's autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast (or simply Karabakh, a region populated by an Armenian majority) under its control culminated with protests and strikes all across the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. Led by several nationalist opposition parties, these protests grew in intensity after Moscow's January 1989 decision to give itself direct control over the disputed region. In the months leading up to January 1990, there were numerous rallies with tens and hundreds of thousands participating-some even reaching over half a million demonstrators.1

This tension burst wide open as nationally-motivated clashes broke out in several locations, the worst taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan, between January 13 and 14, 1990; clashes which ended with close to 90 Armenians and dozens of Azerbaijanis killed.2 These clashes resulted in a massive Armenian emigration from Baku.3

At almost precisely the same time, thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis (also known as Azéris) on both sides of the Iranian-USSR border began protesting the tight border restrictions, demanding that the two governments allow families and friends to reunite after 160 years of formal division and 70 years of near total separation. With an estimated three-fourths of all ethnic Azeris living outside of the Azerbaijani Republic in the bordering northwestern provinces of Iran, some of the same political parties that were active on the Karabakh issue even went so far as to call for the "restoration of ethnic unity of Azerbaijanis living on both sides of the border,"4 and referred to the Azerbaijani portion of Iran as "Southern Azerbaijan."5

On December 31, 1989, after about a month of relatively passive protest, large numbers of demonstrators attacked border stations and the fence separating the two countries. This was followed in Baku on January 4, 1990, by a 150,000-person protest against the tight border restrictions with Iran. In addition, thousands of Azerbaijanis began crossing the border illegally (and legally when the regimes tried to 'release steam' and arranged for mass meetings and reunions), reaching a peak of 5,000 on January 18, 1990-only four days after the Karabakh-motivated violence in Baku.

On the evening of January 19, Russian troops stormed Baku in an operation to reassert its control in the area; in the process, 132 Azerbaijanis were killed.6

Looking back at that tumultuous period of January 1990, clearly both the Karabakh and Southern Azerbaijan causes were the main issues fueling Azerbaijani nationalist flames and served as critical catalysts in the Republic's drive toward independence. In fact, these two topics were the core political questions addressed by all of the nationalist parties established at that time, including Qizilbash, Birlik (Unity), and especially the most influential opposition party at that time, Azerbaijan Khalq Jebhesi (the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, or PFA).7 Even the local Communist party was eventually forced to adopt similar positions on these two issues.

Yet, at the same time, these two issues-which are still two of the most critical foreign policy issues in the country's national agenda-appear on the surface to contain two very different, and even contradictory, claims. On the one hand, the Azerbaijani claim to control over Karabakh seems to rest on the notion of the sanctity of historic state borders and territorial integrity, claiming that even if an ethnic minority has a majority in a given region of a country, it is not sufficient grounds for gaining full independence or being annexed to a bordering country. …

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