Despite peaceful co-existence, Azerbaijan should remain “vigilant” over the well-being of its diverse ethnic minorities, especially on its borders. That is one of the messages to emerge from a new study, “Azerbaijan – Ethnic Diversity, Peaceful Co-existence and State Management,” on 15 ethnic groups in the country.
The leading NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), which commissioned the in-depth analysis, presented the results at a special hearing in the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday.
Opening the debate,Mr Mark Barwick, of HRWF, stressed that the 80-page report was not an evaluation of the current state of democracy or rule of law in the country, accepting that in some respects “all was not well.”
Rather, he emphasized, it was a piece of research into the history and origins of the country’s ethnic minorities.
The report’s author Mr Willy Fautre, director and founder of Brussels-based HRWF, told the packed meeting that he found an “appalling situation” when he first visited the country in 1998 but, in subsequent visits, he had noticed many “positive” changes.
In his presentation, he focused on three groups, the 120,000-strong Russian community, the Lezgis, which numbers some 180,000, and Jews, of whom there are about 9,000 in Azerbaijan.
One area of concern, he had detected, was the “growing influence” of Islamic State in areas occupied by the Lezgis, one of the largest ethnic groups in Azerbaijan.
Mr Fautre also highlighted the work of the country’s Ombudsman, saying there were generally two types of complaint he received from minorities – that their regions were economically underdeveloped and, secondly, they were “insufficiently” represented in the country’s parliament.
Publication of the document, he believes, is particularly timely in light of recent events in Crimea and the unfolding crisis in Ukraine while independence votes in places like Scotland showed that the issue of ethnic minorities was “not insignificant.”
The lively hearing also heard from two representatives of the Russian and Greek communities in Azerbaijan who highlighted the work ethnic groups have made to life in the country.
Saida Mehdiyeva, a leading figure in the small Greek community, was instrumental in setting up and running the Argo organization which, she told participants, aims to promote the Greek language and culture.
She said her group had successful integrated into Azerbaijani life, a sentiment echoed by schoolteacher Helena Voronina who pointed out that teaching of the Russian language is now “well established.”
She pointed out that the report says there are 12 schools in regions with Russian-speaking people while 450 schools have a Russian section and 50 pilot schools teach Russian from the first grade.
Another speaker, Mr Etibar Najafov, a senior adviser in the Azerbaijani ministry for multiculturalism, said the country had sought to embrace the culture and values of its ethnic groups rather than “assimilate” them into a single national identity.
He accepted that while some “problems” remained, notably the ongoing situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, the government’s policy had generally succeeded to the point where some minorities who had previously left the country, such as Jews, were now returning to Azerbaijan.
In a short question and answer session, Mr Najafov said there were no parallels to be made with the current crisis in Ukraine “because we have never had problems with our minority groups.”
Mr Fautre, however, cautioned that the country should remain “vigilant” about the well being of its ethnic groups “especially those living on the border with Russia and Iran.”
The NRWF report says that social hostility to 60-80 ethnic minority groups in the country is “non existent” but says that “many other measures” are still needed to protect the rights of the many diverse ethnic groups in Azerbaijan.
It makes some 16 recommendations to the Azerbaijani authorities urging them to ratify the European Charter for Regional for Minority Languages and increase funding for projects.
Other recommendations include increasing the visibility of the country’s ombudsman and “redoubling” efforts to tackle unemployment, particularly in those areas where minority communities live.
Azerbaijan, notes the report, is a “mosaic” of numerous ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that could be conflicting as it is the case in the North Caucasus.
However, it says that all ethnic groups, such as Quiz, Khanbalik and Budge, live in peace despite their different languages, traditions and cultures.
It states, “So far, the multi-ethnic character of Azerbaijan has not caused serious problems.”
The exhaustive study states that Azerbaijan has put in place mechanisms and policies that aim at bringing closer national minorities and that multi-ethnic diversity in Azerbaijan is a proof that peaceful co-existence is possible in the Caucasus.
The country enjoys a healthy civil society, with some 2,700 registered NGOs, and, in the capital Baku alone, there are more than 20 different cultural communities, including Russians, Ukrainians and Kurds.
A “culture of tolerance” has been the catalyst for economic development, resulting in 1.1m jobs being created since 2004, with 30,000 jobs in the first quarter of 2014.
In the last seven years, more than 35,000 new enterprises have been launched in Azerbaijan with more than 77 per cent of new jobs created in the regions.
Managing such a multinational population is both a “challenge” but also an “opportunity” towards achieving and preserving peaceful co-existence between various ethnic groups, it states.
The research concludes,”Violent ethnic conflicts in other parts of the Caucasus persuaded people that inter-ethnic clashes have no military solution except the gloomy prospect of destroyed settlements and the emergence of refugees.”
“There may be lessons to learn from the country’s experience of ethnic and ethno-religious diversity that could be helpful for other states that are dealing with comparable diversity within their borders.This study is presented in this hope.”
By Martin Banks