Nakichevan: Trouble Brewing in Aliev's Backyard

A protest by desperate women in the Nakhichevan reflects wave of popular discontent in the traditionally pro-Aliev province.

Nakichevan: Trouble Brewing in Aliev's Backyard

A protest by desperate women in the Nakhichevan reflects wave of popular discontent in the traditionally pro-Aliev province.

The group of women crowded in front of the mosque in the village of Bananyar said they were on hunger strike. The desperation of their lives was written in their grim faces, as they shouted the slogans "Bread!" "Work!" and, occasionally, "Resign!"

The protest in Bananyar began on February 13, spread to three neighbouring villages and lasted about a week. It has now been suspended, while the demonstrators wait for the authorities to respond to their demands. But already it has posed a serious challenge to the local leaders of what should be Azerbaijan's most loyal province, the birthplace of President Heidar Aliev, Nakhichevan.

The Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan is an exclave, separated from the rest of the country by Armenian territory. For the past ten years, the only access to it from other parts of Azerbaijan has been by air. Isolation has taken a heavy toll: Nakhichevan has been entirely without gas and suffered serious shortages of electricity, both of which used to come from its Soviet neighbour-turned-enemy, Armenia.

The wives and mothers of Bananyar complained they had nothing to feed their children with and their husbands and sons had disappeared to foreign countries in search of work. "We simply don't have any strength left," said one woman. "How long can the government remain deaf to our poverty, hunger and unemployment?"

The villages of the region are suffering the most. In theory, Nakhichevan gets two hours of electricity every four to six hours. In practice, people tend to receive half an hour of power every eight to nine hours. In the countryside people rely on basic oil and kerosene lamps.

In winter the villagers struggle to buy coal to heat their houses. In summer they say there is a dire shortage of basic drinking water, which they have to walk many kilometres to find.

Yashar Veliev, the head of the local authority in the Julfa region, where Bananyar lies, received the protestors last week and promised to improve power supplies for Julfa. However, when the demonstrations in the town died down, villagers in another area, Sharura, complained that their electricity charges had just been doubled.

A journey round the villages of the region explains why this is primarily a women's protest: the region has lost almost its entire male population. The men have mainly left to find work in neighbouring Iran and Turkey. Even many woman, breaking centuries of conservative tradition which demands that they stay at home, have gone abroad to find work.

Official figures from the Employment Office in Nakhichevan say that of 172,897 people of working age, only 79,500 have full-time work and 7,000 have part-time work.

Even those who have a job face hardship because, while salaries are the same throughout Azerbaijan, most goods are brought in from the rest of the country by air and their prices are raised.

A teacher in Bananyar complained that teachers' salaries had been cut by ten per cent on the grounds that they received free subscriptions to newspapers. The trouble was, he said, no one needed these newspapers, which came three months late and were only either official or pro-government publications.

The local authorities in Nakhichevan responded to this torrent of complaints by saying that they are politically motivated. One official in Julfa told journalists that the protestors were members of the opposition Democratic Party, whose leader, Rasul Guliev, a former speaker of parliament, is in exile in the United States after quarrelling with President Aliev. Guliev also comes from Nakhichevan.

The head of the local branch of the Democratic Party in Nakhichevan city, Yasin Rustamov, conceded that some of the protestors belonged to opposition parties. But he insisted that the demonstration by 500 villagers in Bananyar had begun spontaneously and unexpectedly.

So far, most residents of Nakhichevan still express their support for their most famous son, President Aliev. But the wave of popular discontent in Nakhichevan suggests he cannot take their continued loyalty for granted.

Gulnara Mamedzade is a journalist with the Echo newspaper in Baku

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