Nazim Gadzhiyev, 72, who since 2012 has headed the Lezgin public organization Sadval (Unity), was found stabbed to death on March 21 at his apartment in Makhachkala, almost exactly one year to the day since the still-unsolved death of Sadval activist Ruslan Magomedragimov.
Bloggers such as Ruslan Gereyev who commented on Gadzhiyev’s demise lauded his commitment over five decades to the concept of Lezgin autonomy, but at the same time opined that Sadval and the older generation of activists cannot achieve the desired results in today’s evolving political landscape.
The Lezgins are a north-eastern Caucasian ethnos who claim to be the descendants of the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania that fell to Arab conquerors in the 8th century A.D. Their historic homeland was divided in 1860 between two gubernias of Tsarist Russia — Daghestan, which in 1918 remained part of Russia, and Shemakha, which formed part of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic that was subsumed into Soviet Russia in 1920.
At the time of the 2010 Russian Federation census, there were 385,240 Lezgins living in Daghestan, primarily in the south of the republic. They were the fourth largest ethnic group (13.3 percent of the total population.)
Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan vary widely. In 2014, they were officially estimated to account for 2 percent of the total population of 9,686,210 (193,724), while unofficial estimates range from 400,000 to 850,000.
The first demands by Lezgins in the U.S.S.R., including Gadzhiyev, for a separate Lezgin territorial-administrative unit date back to the 1960s, and were swiftly suppressed.
In July 1990, inspired by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, Lezgins in Daghestan established the informal organization Sadval to campaign for the “unification” of Lezgin-populated territories, a demand that resonated with at least some of their co-ethnics in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
Spearheading Public Protests
From the mid-1990s through the first decade of this century, however, Sadval’s primary objective has switched several times, depending on whether its moderate or radical wing was formulating policy, from an independent state, to an autonomous Lezgin region within Daghestan that would subsume part of northern Azerbaijan, to an autonomous Lezgin region within Azerbaijan, which would have necessitated ceding Russian territory.
Over the past few years, Sadval’s focus has narrowed. Its activists spearheaded public protests in 2013 against the perceived threat posed to the ecosystem of Daghestan’s Magerramkent district by Azerbaijan’s alleged use of more water from the Samur River than it is entitled to under the September 2010 interstate border treaty. They also opposed what were seen as efforts by Azerbaijan to expand its presence and influence in southern Daghestan, especially the town of Derbent.
Meanwhile, the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of the Lezgins (FLNKA), an official body with close ties to the Russian State Duma and the Russian Foreign Ministry, apparently took upon itself those aspects of Sadval’s agenda that derive from the division of the ethnic group between two states.
In 2008, FLNKA together with the State Duma’s Committee for Nationality Affairs compiled and circulated a brochure calling for official condemnation of the division and “ethnocide” of the Lezgin people in the 1920s, and demanding that the border between the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan be redrawn to incorporate the northern districts of Azerbaijan into Daghestan. (That demand was not met by the terms of the 2010 treaty.) In other words, FLNKA allowed itself on that occasion to be used as a policy instrument for exerting Russian pressure on Azerbaijan.
FLNKA has recently formally applied for consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
At the same time, on the local as opposed to the federal level, successive Republic of Daghestan leaders have energetically sought to establish cordial and mutually beneficial ties with Azerbaijan, in the name of which the interests of the Lezgins have been quietly shelved.
That situation may change, however, if, as some analysts speculate, North Caucasus Federal District head Sergei Melikov, who is of Lezgin extraction, is chosen to succeed incumbent Ramazan Abdulatipov as Republic of Daghestan head when Abdulatipov turns 70 later this year.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.