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

Nakhichevan – Another Azerbaijan

Life is poor in Azerbaijan’s exclave province, where the authorities keep everything tightly under control.
By Sabuhi Mammadli
In Nakhichevan, an integral part of Azerbaijan but geographically completely separate from it, people live very different lives from the rest of the country. More authoritarian and orderly than the main part of Azerbaijan, the autonomous republic suffers badly from deprivation and emigration.



It is not even easy to get to Nakhichevan. Divided from the rest of the country by Armenia, it has had no land communications with the rest of the country for the past 16 years. The only route to Nakhichevan is by air from Baku, so there is always a massive queue of people wanting to buy tickets at the capital’s Heidar Aliyev Airport.



According to the last census, conducted in 1999, Nakhichevan had a population of 370,000, but in reality many of these people are just as likely to be living in Baku or in neighbouring Turkey.



By nine in the evening, the streets are all but deserted in Nakhichevan city, the provincial capital. Nor are there many people about in the central Aliev Park. As Ilqar Huseynov, a student at Nakhichevan State University, explained, "Young people are afraid to go to the park, especially in the evening. The police close all the chaikhanas [tea-houses] after ten in the evening anyway. The city authorities have also issued an unofficial ban on boys and girls walking out together. Girls can’t wear miniskirts, either".



Nakhichevan is as clean as the tidiest of European cities, and you will not find a single cigarette stub in the streets or parks. The reason for this is that the locals are made to turn out for used to be known in Soviet times as “subbotniks” - compulsory public work projects.



"Employees of public sectors organisations and soldiers from the Nakhichevan garrison are often out cleaning the streets," said local resident Gazanfar Agayev.



According to Mukhtar Yusifov, a member of the opposition Musavat party, "Doctors, nurses and teachers whitewash walls, sweep the streets and tend the trees. If anyone refuses to work, they are threatened with punishment, as the order comes from Vasif Talibov himself."



Talibov is the chairman of Nakhichevan's parliament and de facto ruler of the region.



"Vasif Talibov is absolute ruler throughout Nakhichevan,” said Vahid, a doctor. “It’s as though the entire republic is his own property. It’s not for nothing that he has been dubbed the Khan of Nakhichevan."



Vahid said the "khan" sometimes gives surprising orders. For example, it is forbidden to hang washing out on apartment balconies, and to drive old vehicles into the provincial capital on the grounds that they spoil the city’s appearance.



"The current harsh regime we have has made Nakhichevan into something similar to Turkmenistan," a taxi driver said, referring to the most repressive of the Central Asian states.



However, pro-government politicians say strong rule is justified. Fazail Agamaly, the chairman of the Ana Vatan (Motherland) party, told IWPR, "Vasif Talibov cannot be blamed for the tough regime we have in the autonomous republic. The region is an exclave cut off from the rest of the country and surrounded by Armenia on three sides. Chaos and anarchy would have broken out if there hadn’t been a firm hand in charge.”



The economy is the region’s biggest problem. Nakhichevanis struggling to make ends meet are hoping that some of the revenues from Azerbaijan’s Caspian oil will trickle down to them, but until that happens life is likely to remain difficult.



A taxi driver took this IWPR contributor to the market, which we found that prices are much lower here then in Baku. For example, a kilogramme of meat costs five manats in Baku and only three manats in Nakhichevan. Fruit and vegetables are sometimes two or three times cheaper.



Labour migration out of Nakhichevan remains very high. Agayev said that the villages of Yeyje and Gargun in the Sharur district have been completely depopulated. Entire families of residents of these villages, situated right on the border with Turkey, have moved to the nearby Turkish town of Igdir.



The chairman of the opposition Union for Democratic Reforms, Parvin Rajabov, said Nakhichevan’s true population numbers only half the census figure.



"There are 150,000 or 170,000 people left in the autonomous republic because of unemployment,” he said. “We have monitored the situation and found that 50,000 people from the Sarur district alone are living in the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Igdir. Remember that the official statistics say that about 120,000 people live in the [Sarur] district."



Adil Qahramanov, a press officer for Nakhichevan’s provincial government, insisted that the tide was beginning to turn, and that many people who had previously left were now coming back.



"New jobs are being created, as well as the conditions for small businessmen to operate, which is the main reason why people are returning to Nakhichevan," he said, adding that four large enterprises and about 200 smaller firms had started up in the past two years.



Fazil Qazanfaroglu, a Nakhichevan-born member of the Azerbaijani parliament and head of the Boyuk Qurulus (Great Creation) party, says that he believes the region does have economic potential.



“It’s impossible not to see a relative improvement in the autonomous republic's social conditions,” he said. “You can’t deny that the capital of Nakhichevan is clean and beautiful. However, I have to note with regret that this beauty is not making people feel better off.”



Isolation is the main factor hampering Nakhichevan’s development. The local authorities would like to encourage health tourism using their sanatoria, which were popular back in Soviet times. But Suleiman Mamedov, a doctor at the once-famous Batabat sanatorium, said, "There are sufficient resources for developing of tourism at our sanatoriums at Batabat, Badamly and Vanand. However, as these districts are situated on the border with Armenia, not even people from other parts of Azerbaijani come here any more, let alone people from the former Soviet Union or further afield."



Political life is effectively dormant in Nakhichevan. The opposition and independent newspapers seen in other parts of Azerbaijan are not on sale at the city’s kiosks. Instead, they pass from hand to hand. If they contain an article depicting Nakhichevan’s leaders in a negative light, the authorities try to confiscate them before they even reach the region. A salesman who dares to sell a newspaper containing critical content is liable to be detained for 15 days.



"When it comes to the opposition, it exists here only as a formality, to keep the international organisations happy,” said Elchin Gadimov of the Musavat party. “Opposition parties are prevented not just from holding protests, but even from publicly celebrating national holidays. They have to hold their conferences with police and intelligence services present."



One local resident, Ilham Narimanoglu, recently had to write a police statement just because a correspondent for an opposition newspaper had visited his home.



This correspondent had a taste of the official attitude of suspicion towards independent journalists, receiving a fine of two manats for the apparently innocent act of possessing a dictaphone while leaving for Baku. No explanation was given for the penalty.



Sabuhi Mammadli is a correspondent with Yeni Musavat newspaper in Baku.