Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Republic Of North Azerbaijan

In the parliament of Azerbaijan not long ago, an MP proposed changing the name of their nation to "North Azerbaijan".
To those not familiar with the nuances of this etymology and the history, they might well want to know what the reason given for the proposed name change was, and where was "South Azerbaijan", for that matter?

The nation state called Azerbaijan was created in 1992. However, the historical area known as "Azerbaijan" (also called "Atropatene") roughly corresponds with contemporary Azerbaijan (capital: Baku) and north-west Iran (major cities: Tabriz, Ardabil). This geographical area had been populated with ethnic Azeris (and a number of Kurds) for around a thousand years or so.

This historical "Azerbaijan" had been part of, and divided by, various empires over the centuries; arguably reaching its cultural zenith during the times of the Safavid empire around 500 years ago, ruling for more than two hundred years; the Safavids ruled from Ardabil and controlled the area of contemporary Iran, as well as parts of the Caucasus, Pakistan and Afghanistan, making it arguably the greatest of the dynasties of Persia. They were also the first dynasty to make Shi'ism the state religion. As Azeri was the main language of the Safavids, it could therefore be said that the apogee of the Persian empire was when it was, in effect, a greater Azeri empire.

After the fall of the Safavid dynasty in the middle of the 18th century, the nadir of Azeri fortunes was the treaty of 1821 between Russia and Persia. This carved up the area of "Azerbaijan" between the two warring states, the northern portion going to Russia, while the rest remained part of Persia. This northern portion is what the Republic of Azerbaijan is today.

Two hundred years is a long time for people to be apart. Since the re-establishment of an independent Azeri state twenty years ago, relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have, understandably, been strained. Thousands of ethnic Azeri Iranians have relatives in "the north", and even more of them take regular trips to Baku. But although the people of the north and south may still be technically the same, there is much to separate them.

Since becoming part of Russia, the Azeris in the north (I'll use this term from now on to describe people from the Republic, and those in "the south" being those in Iran) naturally became Russified. However, since independence, the northerners have increasingly rediscovered their faith. While the culture of "the north" has been increasingly influenced by the West, there is more and more anecdotal evidence to suggest a kind of "culture war" in Baku; those who still want to look to Russia, those who look to Europe and the West; and increasingly, those who look to their conservative culture, Shi'ism and the religious influence of Iran.
This "culture war" can be seen in the media, where judgemental journalists (who look like they're competing with the sanctimony of the UK's "Daily Mail" -ha, ha) harangue minor celebrities for their uncouth dress sense, women on the length of their skirts, couples kissing in public, women who smoke, and so on. This confusing cultural mess goes on every day in Baku. Turkey has similar issues, to be sure; but in Turkey, no-one is saying that the country is so clearly pulled three ways at once.

The Azeris in the south have had to contend with thirty years of Islamic fundamentalism. Ethnic Azeris make up fully a third of the population of Iran; ethnic Persians are not even a majority in their "own" country; they just happen to be the largest minority. So Persians have been extremely diligent in their oppression of other minorities; as Azeris are the largest minority after the Persians, it is they who are the most oppressed.
This "oppression" includes the active discouragement of Azeri being accepted officially. In response, Azeris in Iran react by ignoring it. It should be remembered that Ayatollah Khameinei is an ethnic Azeri; Iranian Azeris, however, have been taking their religion less and less seriously since the Islamic revolution. More and more, they take their inspiration from the West.
So the Azeris in the south have been growing gradually more and more conscious and vocal in asserting their identity; there is a South Azerbaijan movement that demands a breakaway from Iran, much as there is one for the Kurds in Turkey, minus the conspicuous terrorism.

When Southerners come to "the North", it is not difficult to spot them. They look obviously more Westernised than Northerners, the women wearing stylish dresses and the men smart suits. By comparison, except for those conspicuously showing-off in the top-class Baku cafes or on the "Bulvar", average Northerners wear very simple clothing. This is the paradox: that many of those in "the north" are slowly becoming more "Iranian", at the same time as those in "the south" are becoming more and more Westernised.

In an odd reversal of the 1821 treaty, whereas many Azeris in "the south" want to be an independent, Westernised nation-state, many Azeris in "the north" would like to be a virtual satellite of Iran.
I wonder what the Ayatollah would think of that. Or the West, for that matter. No wonder the powers that be in Baku are twitchy about their own population. They have a fair right to be on the current evidence.

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