Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Nakhichevan: Disappointment and Secrecy
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.
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