The three main capital cities of the region have their own distinct histories. A century ago, neither Tbilisi (Tiflis), Baku, nor Yerevan had a majority population of Georgians, Azerbaijanis, or Armenians, respectively. Tbilisi can lay claim to being the capital of the Caucasus, but its Georgian character has been much more intermittent. For five hundred years it was an Arab town, while the older city of Mtskheta was the old Georgian capital. Then, in the medieval period, the city was taken over by the Armenian merchant class. They were the biggest community in the nineteenth century and finally left en masse only in the 1960s. Famous Tbilisi Armenians have included the world chess champion Tigran Petrosian and the filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Baku became a cosmopolitan city with many different ethnic groups from the late nineteenth century. Russian became its lingua franca. Garry Kasparov, the Jewish Armenian world chess champion, who was born in Baku but is unable to return there because of his Armenian roots, describes his nationality as “Bakuvian” (Bakinets in Russian). Baku only turned into a strongly Azerbaijani city with the end of the Soviet Union, the Nagorny Karabakh war, and the mass emigration of other national groups.
By contrast, up until the First World War, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, had a Persian flavor and a Muslim majority population. Its major landmark was a blue-tiled mosque, and there was no big church. Von Haxthausen wrote, “In Tiflis, Europe and Asia may be said to meet, and the town has a divided aspect; but Erivan is a purely Asiatic city: everything is Oriental, except a few newly-built Russian houses, and occasionally Russian uniforms in the streets.” More Armenians lived in Tiflis, Baku, Shusha, and Van. Yerevan became an Armenian city only after the mass flight of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and of Azerbaijanis from eastern Armenia in 1915–18.
Arguably, strong national identities only began to emerge in the three countries of the South Caucasus in the Soviet era. A consolidation of national identity created a demographic pull such that Armenians moved to Armenia and Azerbaijanis to Azerbaijan, and Tbilisi became a strongly Georgian city for perhaps the first time in its history. The biggest losers were the smaller minority peoples of the Transcaucasus, who feared assimilation, even though their rights were nominally protected by Soviet law.
Half a dozen smaller nationalities form sizeable communities in the South Caucasus. Kurds are spread throughout the region. So-called Yezidi Kurds are Armenia’s biggest minority, and there are large numbers of Muslim Kurds in Azerbaijan. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians (discussed in chapter 5) are both few in numbers. There are fewer than one hundred thousand Abkhaz in Abkhazia and even fewer Ossetians in South Ossetia—many more Ossetians live in Russian North Ossetia. Azerbaijan’s main two minority ethnic groups are the Lezgins in the north and the Talysh in the south. The two hundred thousand Lezgins (according to official figures) live in the north of Azerbaijan across the border from around four hundred thousand of their ethnic kin who live in the Russian republic of Dagestan. They are Sunnis, and they speak a language apparently indigenous to the Caucasus. The Talysh live in southern Azerbaijan near the Iranian border and speak a language related to Farsi. Officially, they number eighty thousand, but the Talysh themselves give much higher figures. Neither of these ethnic groups plays a political role in the country, although there are occasionally glimmers of discontent about their cultural rights.
30 November 2015
South Caucasus Minorities Within Minorities
From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 258-286: