Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Enclaves Fall Between Two Stools

Villages that legally belong to Russia say no one is interested in them except when elections come round.
Residents of two villages in northern Azerbaijan say they face neglect and bureaucratic obstruction because their unusual status as part of Russia means that neither government looks after them properly.

Like many communities in this part of northern Azerbaijan, the people of Khrakhoba and Uryanoba are mostly Lezghins, one of the numerous groups that make this part of the Caucasus one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse regions of the world.

There are also many Lezghins over the border in Dagestan, one of the southern republics of the Russian Federation.

Technically, the people of Khrakhoba and Uryanoba also belong to Dagestan and are therefore subject ultimately to Moscow, not Baku.

They form one of the numerous enclaves which were a feature of the patchwork of republics and “autonomous regions” that made up the Soviet Union. In those days, the distinction was nominal and the boundary lines drawn between different territories were largely there for administrative purposes.

The two villages originally became part of Dagestan in 1954, under a 20-year arrangement ordered by the Soviet government as a way of providing some extra pasture land. The territorial “loan” was extended by another 20 years, and continues to this day even though, technically, it expired in 2004.

Since 1991, however, Russia and Azerbaijan have been entirely separate states, and borders do matter. Places like Khrakhoba have been left over as anomalies, and their location outside the mother state – even if in this case it is only 50 kilometres – can create significant problems.

Unlike some enclaves in other parts of the former Soviet Union, people in this little pocket of Russia do not complain of political repression or ethnic discrimination.

Their problem, they say, is that their country has simply forgotten about them.

On the road to Khrakhoba, this IWPR contributor expected to pass through border controls – we were, after all, crossing from Azerbaijani to Russian territory. However, in the Azerbaijani district centre Khachmaz they told us there were no police or border checkpoints, and any taxi would take us there.

The road is in a terrible state, and our taxi driver told us this was a sign of the Russian authorities’ failure to provide for its exclave.

He added wryly, “Russia remembers its citizens in Khrakhoba only when the military draft comes round. Then the military registration and conscription office send representatives across from Dagestan.”

In Khakroba, there are few outward signs that this is a Russian outpost – no red-white-and-blue flags, not even any portraits of outgoing president Vladimir Putin apart from one at the local school, hanging alongside pictures of notable Russians from the past.

Legally, Khrakhoba belongs to the Novoaul municipality of Dagestan’s Magerramkend district. There are, however, no representatives of the Russian state, in the shape of district government officers or police, in the village, and residents say none ever visit the place. So Khrakhoba – a community of 70 households – is effectively governed by its local elders.

In some respects, the village is more integrated into Azerbaijan than Russia. The Azerbaijani manat is common currency here, not rubles. Since the village school only goes up to ninth grade, pupils complete the mandatory ten years of education at a Russian-language school in Khachmaz, rather than in Dagestan.

Abdullah Abdullayev, chair of the local municipality, reeled off a further list of connections with Azerbaijan, “We get electricity from Khachmaz; they say our village will soon start receiving natural gas when Khachmaz does. We have better connections with Khachmaz than with Dagestan. Even a few of the teachers at our school are Azerbaijani nationals from Khachmaz,. The only shop in the village has goods from Khachmaz.”

At a human level, the Lezghins here have family connections with those in the surrounding Azerbaijani territory, and specialise in the same line – fruit-growing – which is so intensive that each village looks like one giant orchard.

However, some of the official rules and regulations associated with an international border prevent these villages from communicating freely both with their neighbours in Azerbaijan and with Dagestan.

Abdullayev is well aware of the problems facing the community.

“After the end of the Soviet Union, they demanded that we obtain international passports to cross the border. We’ve more or less resolved that issue, but now we are being prevented from bringing in food and other necessary items from Dagestan,” he said.

Other villagers explained that when they bought things in Dagestan and tried to bring them back home, Azerbaijani customs officers on the border with the Russian Federation treated them as if they were importing goods, and charged them duties accordingly.

“We are Russian citizens, and effectively we are bringing products from Russia to Russia, albeit through Azerbaijan territory. Why do we have to pay tax to Azerbaijan?” said villager Magomet Agayev, adding that the behaviour of these officials “look illegal”.

Villagers said the Azerbaijani border officials would not let them cross unless they had a valid Russian international passport, which made life difficult as people needed to go to Dagestan frequently to buy things and to do administrative things such as registering a birth, for example.

Khrakroba still has a Soviet-era “sovkhoz” or state-run farm, but the creation of new states in 1991 drew an arbitrary line through time-honoured arrangements for land use.

“The canal we use to irrigate crops belongs to Azerbaijan. Before, we used to use this canal in turns,” explained Abdullayev. “But now we no longer able to use this water, because the land in Azerbaijan is now someone’s private property, and these people are refusing to allow us to use it.”

According to Ibragim Ibragimov, a villager from Uryanoba, that village is progressively becoming deserted as young people leave in search of a better life.

One of the few times when the Russian authorities pay attention to the two villages is when there is an election. Election officers and a polling station established for the December election to Russia’s parliament and the March 2008 ballot in which Dmitry Medvedev succeeded Putin as Russia’s president.

The 205 voters here mostly support Putin’s United Russia party, with a significant minority for the Russian Communist Party.

Across the border in Dagestan, there is a mirror-image enclave belonging to Azerbaijan. Khrakhoba resident Malik Shabanov has relatives in the enclave village of Zyugyuloba, and said it suffers similar neglect from its government and bureaucratic problems with the country that surrounds it. Villagers there are not even able to visit the main local town, Gusar, because Russian laws are so strict that they have to get their passport stamped and register with the police as if they were aliens.

“Just like the Khrakhoba villagers, the inhabitants of Zyugyuloba try to solve their problems by leaving the village”, said Shabanov

Another Khrakhoba resident, Mustafa, suggested that Russia and Azerbaijan should do a straight swap.

“Let Russia take the Azerbaijani enclave, and give its own one to Azerbaijan,” he said. “It’s very difficult to live in these small territories, separated from one’s country as a whole.”

Sabukhi Mamedli is a correspondent with the Yeni Musavat newspaper in Baku.