Azerbaijani Jewish leader lobbies in Sacramento

As the world watches Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move in Ukraine, another annexation debate is picking up steam in the nearby country of Azerbaijan. And, as in Ukraine, Jews who live there are concerned.

Milikh Yevdayev, the leader of the Jewish community in Azerbaijan, displayed the level of his concern last week by making a 7,000-mile trek to Sacramento to lobby lawmakers as they considered a resolution involving Azerbaijan.

Milikh Yevdayev in front of the state Capitol

Assembly Joint Resolution 32 calls for recognizing a contentious area now within Azerbaijan — the Nagorno-Karabakh region — as an independent region. In what was viewed as a victory for the neighboring nation of Armenia, the resolution passed the assembly 70-1 on May 8 and now goes to the state senate.

“I heard about this resolution and it concerns our Jewish community,” Yevdayev told J. through a translator. “That’s why I came [to California], to share my concerns with the community and committee members.”

The Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted from the late 1980s until a 1994 cease-fire, created the region now in dispute. The region currently operates as a semi-autonomous entity within Azerbaijan. Peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been brokered for a decade, but no resolution has been reached.

In California, leaders of the large Armenian community have been urging state legislators to support the resolution, which would remove the region from Azerbaijani control; the United Nations recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.

The concern, said Yevdayev, is that the California vote could give momentum to the movement to let Armenia rule the region, which could put the Jewish community there in jeopardy.

Yevdayev says there are 30,000 Jews in Azerbaijan, with approximately one-third of them living in the disputed region along with ethnic Armenians. The region is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, Red Village, which, at nearly 4,000 people, is the largest all-Jewish burg outside of Israel.

Azerbaijan’s Jews are known as Mountain Jews, and most trace their roots to ancient Persia. The country, on the Caspian Sea north of Iran and south of Russia, has long been heralded as a safe haven for Jews, Yevdayev said, a place where they have fought in wars alongside their Muslim brothers.

Coexistence has gone on for a long time in the primarily Shiite Muslim country, he added. “Jews came to Azerbaijan over 2,000 years ago, and have lived in the country without any persecution among their Muslim brothers, which is why the Jews who are there do not want to leave.”

Yevdayev noted that Azerbaijan is an ally of Israel and the United States.

In 2011, the Azerbaijani government, which has a Muslim majority, built a $2 million synagogue in Baku, the capital.

Yevdayev said he paid his own way to get to Sacramento, where he and leaders of California’s Azerbaijani community spoke at a committee hearing. His hope now is that Jews in the state will call their state senators “to reject this biased and flawed resolution that will damage Azerbaijan.”

Abra Cohen