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

The Nakhichevan Factor

What is it about Nakhichevan? Although comprising only 10 per cent of the Azerbaijani population, virtually every member of the country's political elite hails from the tiny enclave.
By Elmar Gusseinov

The Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic is a small enclave wedged between Armenia, Iran and Turkey. The territory covers approximately 5,500 square kilometres, is home to some 320,000 people and was created under the terms of the Kars Treaty of 1921 between Russia and Turkey.

In 1996 the Azerbaijani President, Heydar Aliyev - born in Armenia but raised in Nakhichevan - introduced a new constitution creating the Autonomous Republic. But the region remained a part of the Azerbaijan Unitarian State (created under the constitution of 1995).

As an autonomous republic Nakhichevan has an independent executive and its own national bank. The region is not, however, economically strong - most of the territory, around two thirds, is mountainous and mineral water is the only indigenous export. The illegal import of goods from neighbouring Turkey and Iran and the illegal export of oil and non-ferrous metals have, however, generated a healthy black economy in the region.

Despite such inauspicious origins Nakhichevan has provided Azerbaijan with an ex-President (Abulfaz Elchibey), ex-Speaker of the Parliament (Rasul Gouliyev), National Independence Party leader Etibar Mamedov, Democratic Party leader Sardar Jalaloglu, the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the Parliament and of course Heydar Aliyev - the current President. In fact people from Nakhichevan hold 65 per cent of senior political and legal posts, 90 per cent of senior business and banking posts and dominate in the spheres of education and science.

So why do Nakhichevan citizens enjoy such a dominant grip on Azerbaijani politics? Ramiz Mehtiyev - Aliyev's Chief of Staff - argues that "the regions of Azerbaijan have narrow social specialisations". In Mehtiyev's scheme - "regional distribution of labour" - the peoples of the Karabakh region excel in music, those from the western regions of Azerbaijan excel in technical sciences. The people of Nakhichevan on the other hand "have a mission to rule the country".

A more likely explanation for the Nakhichevan phenomenon lies, however, in the tribal values still common in Azerbaijani society. Tribal loyalties still prevail over national ties and the tendency to promote people from within one's own territorial group remains a strong force within all walks of life.

And this combines with habits entrenched during decades of Soviet rule, where promotion depended on 'nomenclature' status, which in turn depended on the favourable opinion of one's seniors.

Add to this the particularly cohesive nature of tribal ties within Nakhichevan - strengthened during centuries of external oppression - and you have a potent force pushing for political control once a window of opportunity was opened.

That window opened in June 1993 when Heydar Aliyev, then Chairman of the Parliament, assumed the powers of president following the flight of sitting President, Abulfaz Elchibey.

Given the rise and rise of Nakhichevan dominance was pinned on the Presidency of Heydar Aliyev, one has to ask what becomes of this elite when their leader leaves office? An internal feud over the succession is very likely - some will group around Aliyev's son Ilham, some radicals will support Abulfaz Elchibey, but the majority is expected to rally around Rasul Gouliyev, the man most likely to forge cross tribal links.

Should the clan survive such internal strife, the Nakhichevan still face the same long-term dilemma confronting all Azeri tribal based groups - whether to modernise into a more pluralist, conventional political party or to defend their elite position and risk destruction in an anti-tribal backlash.

Elmar Gusseinov is editor-in-chief of Monitor magaizine in Baku.