Nakhichevan: Disappointment and Secrecy

Institute of War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
May 20 2004

Nakhichevan: Disappointment and Secrecy

Although the ‘Nakhichevan clan’ continues to run Azerbaijan, their
home region sees no benefits.

By Adalet Bargarar in Nakhichevan (CRS No. 234, 19-May-04)

Last week’s celebrations of the 80th birthday of Azerbaijan’s
autonomous republic of Nakhichevan were not much of an occasion for
joy for the people who live there. For most, the past decade has
been a story of poverty, emigration and authoritarian rule by local
strongman Vasif Talibov.

“We call him our own Turkmenbashi,” Abbasali, an unemployed man told
IWPR, referring to the dictatorial leader of Turkmenistan. “He is a
real despot in Nakhichevan. He is able to do whatever he wants, arrest
whoever he wants, seize any private property he takes a liking to.”

Talibov, who is related by marriage to Azerbaijan’s ruling family,
the Alievs, has been speaker of the local parliament and unchallenged
leader of the republic for the past seven years.

Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev led the festivities on May 12-14
to mark the anniversary of the creation of Nakhichevan, an exclave
separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by the territory of Armenia and
Iran. It was Aliev’s first visit to his family homeland since he was
elected president last October.

If locals had been hoping that the 42-year-old president would bring
a breath of reform to the region, they were disappointed.

“We’re all fed up, it’s hard to live like this,” said Abbasali. “We
were hoping that President Ilham Aliev, as a young reformer, would
get rid of Talibov for us despite his family ties with him. But he
not only left him in his post but even gave him his support.”

None of the large group of journalists Aliev took with him from Baku
was able to interview any Nakhichevani officials. Local reporters
explained to their colleagues that any official who talks to the
independent media risks being sacked from his job.

Cut off from the rest of the country and with the border of its former
Soviet neighbour Armenia closed, Nakhichevan has suffered economic
collapse. A tiny border to Turkey provides a trade lifeline, while
the main access to Baku is by plane or else by a long and expensive
land route through Iran.

The region’s population is officially given as 364,000 people,
but independent experts say at least a third of that number have
emigrated in search of work, mainly to Turkey. “The scale of emigration
from Nakhichevan has increased markedly over the last few years,”
an independent analyst who wished to remain anonymous told IWPR. He
said that many trading outlets had closed over the past three years
and unemployment had rocketed.

“Emigration rates to Turkey are so high that most of the residents of
the Besler district in Istanbul are Nakhichevanis,” said the analyst.

With the republic forced to import most of its energy, the provision of
heat and light remains its biggest problem. “Last year the temperature
fell to 40 degrees below freezing and there were no natural gas
supplies,” said Elmar, a local teacher. “They put us on a ration of
three to four hours of electricity a day and confiscated our electric
heaters. In one village in the Sharur district, a five-year-old girl
froze to death.”

Almaz, a retired teacher, had tears in her eyes as she recalled how
she scraped the money together to buy just enough Iranian gas to cook
by. “Last year I sold the ring which my mother bequeathed to me and
which was a family heirloom. For more than nine generations my family
wore this ring and kept it for their children, and I sold it to buy
gas,” she said.

President Aliev promised that his government was working on a deal
where Iran would supply gas to the region on a regular basis. The plan
is to repay the debt in the future with gas or electricity produced
in the main part of Azerbaijan. “But Iran has other proposals,”
said Aliev.

Ilham Aliev’s father, the long-serving president Heidar Aliev, was
born in Nakhichevan and as a result, people from the republic have
dominated Azerbaijani political life since the Sixties. But the elite,
especially the younger generation, now spend little time back in
Nakhichevan, and they are a disappointment to those still living there.

“We are the real Nakhichevanis, not the people who live in Baku, who
have too much money to spend and are a disgrace to us,” said Almaz.
At the age of 70, she is selling potatoes in the market to make
ends meet.

Local Nakhichevanis said they were astonished at the amount of money
lavished on a new school that was opened during Aliev’s visit. The
Heidar Aliev School cost an astonishing 2.2 million US dollars to
build, is equipped with the latest technology and has 1,200 pupils.
The project was financed by Azerbaijan’s national oil company SOCAR.

Not far from the school, 15-year-old Allahverdi was selling fruit at
the market rather than attending classes. He said he worked a 12-hour
day, earning between two and four dollars.

“I have to do this, otherwise we wouldn’t have anything to eat in the
evening,” Allahverdi explained. “There’s no time for school. Every
day I go past the school and I feel envious looking at this lovely
building. I would like to go there too, but it’s only for the kids
of rich people.”

Allahverdi’s father is disabled and cannot support his family. In
theory he should be able to benefit from another new project opened
during Aliev’s visit to Nakhichevan, a treatment centre for the
disabled. Azerbaijan’s social welfare minister Ali Nagiev said that
the centre, which had received more than 300,000 dollars in government
funding, would offer free care to 17,000 invalids.

Imangulu, a disabled veteran of the Karabakh war, who gets a monthly
pension of 24 dollars, does not believe it. “It’s all lies,”
he complained. “It will all be for money, like in all the other
clinics in Nakhichevan. They ask for money even for the use of basic
equipment. An appendectomy costs 200 dollars. And I wouldn’t wish a
stay in hospital here on my worst enemy.”

News of what is going on in Nakhichevan barely gets out to the outside
world. The one independent newspaper, funded by the United States
media support organisation Internews, has a small print-run.

Most people watch Turkish television for their news, ignoring
Nakhichevan television, which broadcasts nine hours a day. “It’s
a propaganda vehicle for Talibov and the Alievs,” said a local
journalist. Like all other independent voices in this fearful part
of Azerbaijan, he asked for his name not to be used.

Adalet Bargarar is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist.