Long live the Azerbaijani diaspora!

Baku is going to great lengths to mobilise, or even create, an international Azerbaijani diaspora. To what end? Русский

Sergey Rumyantsev
18 May 2017

Members of the Azerbaijani diaspora in Moscow celebrate international Azerbaijani solidarity day. 23 December 2014. Photo CC: Kaspiy.AZ. Some rights reserved.

Despite the economic crisis of the past two years, it’s still fashionable in Azerbaijan to take trips to “western” countries. A funny incident happened recently when a group of mid-rank government officials from Azerbaijan visited Berlin and Paris. Accompanied by an Azerbaijani who had lived for many years in the German capital, they took a stroll through the streets — and incessantly complained to their companion about the poor street lighting. 

In their opinion, things weren’t much better in Paris. As they took a walk through the city centre in the evening, they could only find one brightly-lit building. They were proud to discover that it was the Azerbaijani cultural centre. 

Like many others founded across the EU and US, this cultural institute was a result of Azerbaijan’s official policy of diaspora-building. It’s a policy born of Azerbaijan’s decades-long struggle with Armenia for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which remains unresolved to this day.

The Armenian diaspora is well-rooted and well-known in Europe and North America. In Azerbaijan, it’s seen as immensely influential and strongly united in solidarity. No surprise, then, that it became something of a case study for Azerbaijan’s own diaspora project.

For Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev regime, a diaspora is synonymous with an overseas political lobby

In Azerbaijan today, it’s easy to believe that the Armenian lobby alone guaranteed strong international support for Armenia throughout the course of the conflict in Karabakh. The depth of Azerbaijanis’ belief in the omnipotence of the Armenian lobby has become even clearer in recent days, following the supreme court of Russia’s decision to annul the registration of the All-Russian Azerbaijani Congress on 15 May (link in Russian). Many commentators rushed to conclusions about Armenian plots and intrigues. 

As such, the luminaries of this project are convinced that a diaspora’s size directly determines its influence. Therefore, the Azerbaijani diaspora is portrayed as a trans-national community of solidarity numbering some ten million people, living outside the “historical homeland” and spread throughout 70 countries. 

For Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev regime, a diaspora is synonymous with an overseas political lobby. Indeed, it’s been declared that the most important element of this policy is officially that a strong and unified Azerbaijani lobby in the “west” and post-Soviet space will be able to successfully resist the power of the Armenian lobby. 

Since the early 2000s, the Azerbaijani authorities have invested large sums of financial and symbolic capital into this project. They’ve tried to conjure up a diaspora to their liking as quickly as possible. How has that worked out for them?

The “great national leader” and the birth of a diaspora 

With the dissolution of the USSR, Azerbaijanis living in the Republic of Azerbaijan could once again contact their ethnic kin from the other side of the iron curtain. At that moment, the young state was economically devastated and locked into a fierce war with neighbouring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. A handful of Azerbaijani emigres, then known as “foreign Azerbaijanis”, made some efforts to send humanitarian aid. Their best efforts came to naught. Azerbaijan’s economy soon stabilised as the Karabakh conflict froze. 

When Heydar Aliyev, former head of Azerbaijan’s communist party and father of the current president Ilham, came to power in 1993, he soon recognised that ethnic Azerbaijanis living in “the west” and other post-Soviet countries could be political resource. And the behest of the “great leader”, as he’s known in Azerbaijan to this day, plans for a diaspora were born.

In his numerous speeches before Azerbaijanis living in several different countries, the former president laid out the objectives of this diaspora-building project. One of the first was in Bern in 1995, where Heydar Aliyev told his “compatriots” about a conversation he had with the Irish president Mary Robinson, who told him about Ireland’s potato famine, as a result of which millions of people had to leave the country (1995 marked the 150th anniversary of the tragedy).


A woman walks past the Azerbaijani embassy in Moscow. Photo (c): Evgeny Odinokov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Heydar Aliyev responded that while he didn’t know how Irish people commemorated the date, he was sure that “while it may have been a tragedy 150 years ago, it must be a great source of joy for your nation today. Because as a result, Irish people can be found across the whole world, particularly in the USA and in several European countries. Such a small country as Ireland now has a big lobby overseas.” 

But Aliyev senior didn’t finish there. He added that he used his position as head of Soviet Azerbaijan to found a large internal lobby for his quasi-independent state. Yet unlike the Irish experience, history did not give Azerbaijanis the opportunity (or “great joy”) to found a diaspora of victims. “In those days [the 1970s-80s], I wanted to settle Azerbaijanis across the entire Soviet Union” he said. “Not through tragedy, of course, but through other means. This would create a great source of support for Azerbaijan […] The more Azerbaijanis live in each country, the better it is for us. The only condition is that they don’t forget their nation, their religion, and their motherland.”

Heydar Aliyev succeeded in constantly increasing quotas for Azerbaijani students in the most USSR’s most prestigious universities

From the 1920s, Azerbaijani students were sent to study in Moscow, Leningrad, and other large cities thanks to Soviet educational and nationalities policies. Heydar Aliyev succeeded in constantly increasing quotas for Azerbaijani students in the most USSR’s most prestigious universities.

“Aliyev sent us” recalls a participant of the programme in 1976, “There was a ceremony. He shook everybody’s hands, and kissed the girls on the cheek. And we lucky few, ‘Heydar’s kids”, were sent to conquer Moscow and Leningrad. Many returned home; those who didn’t went on to build the Azerbaijani diaspora in the 1990s.” 

A historical homeland and spurious statistics

The circle of emigres mobilised to build this diaspora was a lot wider than university graduates. Azerbaijani Turks (as they were then known) and the migrations they underwent in the 20th century were defined by the policies of several empires, from the Ottoman, Persian and Russian to the Soviet, and the absence of their own nation-state. In the post-Soviet context, where ethno-nationalist ideas predominate, myths of “historical territories” are in fashion — accordingly, members of this diaspora can include citizens of several states, whose ancestors may never have lived in the territories which came to form today’s Republic of Azerbaijan. 


At the intersection of the Soviet and Turkic worlds. Carpets on sale in Old Baku. Photo CC-by-NC-2.0: Ken Smith / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

These people are now considered to be ethnic Azerbaijanis who have somehow ended up outside their “historic homeland”, whose borders should encompass not only the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan but, according to some historians and politicians, all of Armenia, parts of the Russian region of Dagestan, large parts of north-western Iran and areas of eastern Georgia. In this manner the Azerbaijanis of Georgia, Turkey and Iran, whose exact numbers are unclear, are all counted among the Azerbaijani diaspora. 

According to some historians and politicians, “historic Azerbaijan” encompasses all of Armenia, parts of the Russian region of Dagestan, large parts of north-western Iran and areas of eastern Georgia

This provided big opportunities for conjuring up statistics. In preparation for the second World Congress of Azerbaijanis, held on 16 March 2006, the state committee for working with Azerbaijanis abroad produced a documentary film with the telling title “we’re a nation of 50 million.” By their arithmetic, this includes ten million Azerbaijanis living in around 70 countries. As for the rest — they must be living “at home”. But the entire population of modern Azerbaijan barely approaches this figure [ed. — it’s estimated at 9.7 million]. 

As is true of many other cases, solidarity between this supposed ten million strong trans-national Azerbaijani community exists only in the context of official diaspora discourse. In the absence of traditional community structures which would provide a degree of cohesion (such as political parties or religious institutions), diaspora activism is generally limited to quite a small circle of ethnic Azerbaijani businessmen and their family members.

A constitution for a diaspora

In fact, when people from Azerbaijan emigrate and have the opportunity to get to know ethnic Azerbaijanis from, say, Iran or Turkey, they’re sometimes in for a shock. The true extent of behavioural and cultural differences becomes all too clear. The everyday experience of communicating with Azerbaijanis from elsewhere forces even ethnic activists to doubt the possibility of any strong solidarity. “I’ll tell you this much” begins one, “even if, one day, the southern [Iranian] Azerbaijanis get independence, we’ll be two separate nations in two separate states.”


Heydar Aliyev, former president of Azerbaijan and father of the current president Ilham Aliyev. Photo CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: Begemot / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This intra-group diversity was supposed to be reflected in the “Charter of Solidarity of the World’s Azerbaijanis.” This document, and the programmes surrounding it, was drafted by Azerbaijani academics on the initiative and under the patronage of the authorities in Baku. The charter largely reiterates the ideas set forth in the law “on state policy concerning Azerbaijanis living abroad”, which was passed on 27 December 2002. Following the spirit of this law, the charter defines Azerbaijanis living abroad as former citizens of either independent or Soviet Azerbaijan “who consider themselves to be Azerbaijani.” It also includes “persons and their children who do not belong to the above categories, but consider themselves to be Azerbaijani due to ethnic, cultural, linguistic or historical ties.” 

The only reason why the diaspora’s being dispersed across 70 countries is not a hindrance to its unity is stated to be, of course, the existence of an independent Azerbaijan. Among other factors are “the historical homeland’s deep roots in the ethnic memory of the nation,” the existence of shared traditions, a shared language and religion, a “particular ethno-social worldview and system of values” and the ideology of “Azerbaijanism”, or contemporary Azerbaijani nationalism. Finally, there’s the presence of a “shared national leader” in the personage of Heydar Aliyev. The charter repeats his motto: “I have always been proud and I am proud today that I am Azerbaijani!” and calls on “dear compatriots” to “be proud that you are a child and descendant of this ancient land, that you represent a nation with a glorious history! BE PROUD THAT YOU ARE AZERBAIJANI!


Bureaucrats of the diaspora, unite!”

This political project had acquired a distinct form by the early 2000s. In November 2001, Baku held the inaugural World Congress of Azerbaijanis at the initiative of Heydar Aliyev. The following year saw the foundation of the state committee for working with Azerbaijanis abroad — Nazim Ibragimov was appointed its permanent leader. Its first convention led to the creation of yet another body, the “Coordinating Council of World Azerbaijanis”, led by, of course, pan-Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev. The success of diaspora-building henceforth came to be measured in how many organisations existed, and how to unify them into one structure.

When Ilham Aliyev, the current president of Azerbaijan, came to power in 2003, he inherited all these institutions and a style of diaspora-building along with them. The only major change was a symbolic one; renaming the aforementioned state committee for working with Azerbaijanis abroad to the “committee for working with the diaspora.” 


Baku to Moscow: a popular journey. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis live and work in Russia. Photo CC: Müsavat. Some rights reserved.

At the base of this massive bureaucratic pyramid of Azerbaijani diaspora organisations are various city and regional-level bodies. Above that are coordinators for individual countries, such as the Coordination Centre for Azerbaijanis in Germany or the All-Russian Azerbaijani Congress. Next come organisations which claim the leadership of Azerbaijani communities across several countries, and finally the World Congress of Azerbaijanis. The ministry of foreign affairs and state committee then coordinate and direct the activities of these diaspora organisations however the authorities in Baku see fit.

President Aliyev himself praised the success of this diaspora-building project in the penultimate World Congress of Azerbaijanis, pointing out that “if we had 336 diaspora organisations five years ago, now we have 416.” At the fourth congress last year, delegates stated that there are now 462 such organisations. 

The congress can’t count

Earlier this month, Baku suffered its first disappointment in the All-Russian Azerbaijani Congress after its registration was annulled by Russia’s supreme court. This was a particular blow, since its foundation in 2001 had been personally supported by Heydar Aliyev and Vladimir Putin. The Azerbaijani parliament, state committee and of course the Russian community in Azerbaijan protested. Azerbaijan’s ministry of foreign affairs also voiced concern.

In Azerbaijan, it’s normal to believe that all diaspora organisations are (or should be) controlled and financed by the government of the “homeland state”

It’s difficult to know if there were any reasons for the closure of the congress apart from the legal justifications as officially declared. Given how politics functions in Azerbaijan and Russia, particularly in regard to ethnic minorities, it’s clear that such issues are usually resolved on the very highest levels, allowing leaders to turn a blind eye to formalities. It’s possible that the Russian government decided it would rather support the Federal National Cultural Autonomy of Azerbaijanis in Russia, created on their own initiative. Soyun Sadykov, the honorary president and former head of this organisation, is known to be close to the Russian authorities. Or perhaps the fiasco was provoked by internal rifts in the Azerbaijani community and competition for subsidies from Baku. 

The reaction of Azerbaijani mass media to the closure was very illustrative. Of course, there was much speculation about the Armenian lobby in Russia — supposedly so powerful that it could shut down the congress on its whim. Moreover, the annulment of the congress’s registration was presented as the destruction of country’s entire Azerbaijani diaspora. That is to say, the authorities have successfully taught Azerbaijani society than a diaspora is the sum of its formal organisations and bureaucratic structures — hence it’s perfectly normal to believe that all diaspora organisations are (or should be) controlled, directed, and financed by the government of the “homeland state.” Because how else could it be? In any case, the resources allocated to the All-Russian Azerbaijani Congress would have been enough for several diaspora organisations. 

Essentially, the congress was a community of influential businessmen who attempted to use the social capital of an “ethnic community” to curry favour with both the Azerbaijani and the Russian authorities. It also enlisted the support of intellectuals to create a positive image of Azerbaijanis in Russia. The congress was something like a branch of the embassy, foreign ministry, and state committee for the diaspora. There’s a multitude of organisations like this in Russia today, for various ethnic groups. However, the overwhelming majority of Azerbaijanis in Russia were indifferent to the congress and its work — unless you count the occasional free concert for National Salvation Day, of course [ed — Heydar Aliyev came to power on 15 June 1993, which is celebrated as a national holiday in Azerbaijan].

The goals of the regime in power “at home” dictate those of Azerbaijan’s diaspora organisations. Baku is eager that Azerbaijanis abroad tell the world “the truth” about Azerbaijan, about the “great successes” of the Aliyev regime. Azerbaijan, it’s believed, can not afford to be a terra incognita in public consciousness abroad. In order to inform the world about Azerbaijan’s existence (and its achievements), these diaspora groups organise concerts, exhibitions, days of Azerbaijani culture — as well as demonstrations and protests. 

Only a few diaspora activists take part in political protests, though their impact on public awareness in the EU or USA seems to be negligible. On the other hand, when these demonstrations appear on newsreels back home, Azerbaijanis feel that they have the support of a significant diaspora community around the world — which also happens to support the regime in Baku. In this manner, the activities and very presence of a trans-national, pan-Azerbaijani diaspora entrenches the cult and legitimacy of Heydar Aliyev and the regime he founded. 

Exporting conflict

One goal of Baku’s diaspora-building stands head and shoulders above the others — resolving the Karabakh conflict to Azerbaijan’s favour. As the USSR disintegrated, the conflict was the catalyst for Azerbaijanis living across the Soviet republics, the EU and in the USA to start mobilising in solidarity with Azerbaijan. 


“Mr President - you have the support of Azerbaijanis across the world!” Members of the Azerbaijani diaspora in Germany take part in a protest against Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan’s visit to Berlin, 2016. Photo CC: 1News / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Convinced that the Armenian lobby had brought international support for the Karabakh Armenian cause, the regime in Baku realised the urgent need to have a strong voice in the “west” which could put forward its side of the story. Existing emigre communities weren’t up to the task. So when the organised Azerbaijani diaspora was founded in the 2000s, the stage was set for a confrontation with Armenian communities overseas. 

The Azerbaijani government openly attempts to mobilise Azerbaijanis living abroad into confrontations with diaspora Armenians — even in circumstances when members of both communities hold citizenship of a third country (for example, in Russia or Ukraine). The regime in Baku is relentless in its attempt to export the Karabakh conflict in this manner — though admittedly it is not alone in doing so.

The Azerbaijani government openly attempts to mobilise Azerbaijanis abroad into confrontations with diaspora Armenians — even when members of both communities hold citizenship of a third country

State propaganda has convinced many Azerbaijanis that their ethnic kin in other countries should be motivated solely by the interests of the Republic of Azerbaijan — or rather, its government. For example, Azerbaijanis in Paris shouldn’t vote for Le Pen, not because she’s a wholly unsuitable candidate for France, but because she holds an “incorrect” position on Karabakh. Ethno-nationalist loyalty is perceived as the overarching priority — a natural law of sorts. Azerbaijanis who return to their country of origin on holiday are often asked what they’ve done recently to resolve the conflict.

The measure of a diaspora

Over the two decades which passed since Heydar Aliyev’s speech in Bern, an Azerbaijani diaspora has appeared practically everywhere. Or at least in those “western countries” the president intended. But despite it all, it’s worth asking whether this diaspora actually exists.

The American sociologist Rogers Brubaker once noted that if every group of migrants were to be called a diaspora, then none of them are. Clearly, the Azerbaijani diaspora is radically different from any of the well-rooted “classical diasporas”, such as the Armenian, Jewish or Greek. Some researchers believe that a diaspora must emerge from a historic trauma, which is inapplicable in this case. Robin Cohen, for example, identified three types of diasporas — labour, trade, and imperial. None of them would fully apply to the Azerbaijani diaspora.


The Alley of Martyrs in Baku, resting place of Azerbaijanis killed during the Karabakh war. Photo CC-4.0: Ilgar Jafarov / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

The brainchild of Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet rulers and developed by politically mobilised ethnic activists, this Azerbaijani diaspora appears to us in several forms. It’s a mythical, trans-national solidarity of ten million people. It’s a bureaucratic simulacrum; a vertical structure of 462 separate organisations, many of which exist only on paper. It also exists on the level of discourse, or to paraphrase Irina Sandomirskaja, only when it’s spoken about.

With that in mind, the Azerbaijani diaspora will certainly be with us for the foreseeable future, as a key talking point in the halls of power in Baku. 

Translated by Maxim Edwards

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData