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The Lord of Nakhchivan

November 30, 2013

The whims and dictates of one man reach deep into the lives of those in this isolated piece of Azerbaijan.

The Lord of Nakhchivan
The whims and dictates of one man reach deep into the lives of those in this isolated piece of Azerbaijan.
by Shahla Sultanova
29 November 2013
BAKU | Nakhchivan, an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan that is physically cut off from the rest of the country, can surprise first-time visitors.

Habib Heydar, who took his first trip there in October, said he was struck by its cleanliness and the politeness of the people he met, starting at the airport and continuing everywhere he visited on his three-day stay.

“Even at the airport you feel the discipline,” he said, calling the capital, also named Nakhchivan, “an incredibly clean city.”

Workers putting in an orchard this fall.

“I didn’t see even the smallest piece of paper in the street. The colorful buildings with decorated facades were lovely. Special yellow taxis with taxi drivers in uniform serve people. It’s amazing.”

Heydar said he will definitely go back. But the cleanliness and “discipline” he admires so much are the product of unpaid labor forced upon Nakhchivan’s government workers, including teachers, doctors, musicians, academics, and even local government ministers.

And while those workers give up every Saturday for the beautification projects decreed by the region’s near-absolute leader, they live in a society increasingly bound by bizarre and cynical rules that make life harder for the average person but easier for those at the top.

Authoritarianism has long been the governing principle of Azerbaijan, but Vasif Talibov, the supreme leader of Nakhchivan, adds more than a touch of feudalism.


“Nakhchivan is so attractive because of the unpaid work of local people and absurd unwritten rules of Vasif Talibov,” said Afgan Mammadov, 51, who as a teacher at a village music school for years did unpaid work called imecilik. Each Saturday he swept streets, watered trees, or cleared away demolished buildings.

Vasif Talibov sits under a portrait of the late Heydar Aliev, a former president of Azerbaijan and father of the country’s current ruler.

Imeciliks are descendants of the Soviet subbotnik, a day of voluntary work for the state usually held on Saturdays. But unlike Soviet tradition, modern subbotniks in Nakhchivan, in place since 1995 when Talibov came to power, have for the past decade been governed by strict rules and are held every Saturday.

One unofficial rule is that all civil servants, regardless of rank, must participate – except Talibov.

“Today, subbotniks are like supreme rules in Nakhchivan,” said Yafez Ekremoghlu, a freelance journalist working for Radio Free Europe. “It’s OK to stay home from your job – administrations are flexible and will forgive you. But you cannot avoid subbotniks. The penalty for that is harsh. Either a fine is taken out of your salary or you’re fired.”

That is what happened to Mammadov. In the summer of 2012 he decided to take a real vacation from work and did not participate in the imeciliks. He said he received a few phone calls from his school’s principal telling him the imeciliks were not optional. Still, he refused and had a restful summer.

But when he returned to work, his bosses told him he was fired, citing absenteeism. “My payment was transferred to my credit card and my dismissal paper was signed.”

Fikret Gulmammadov, Mammadov’s boss, said he missed five working days before the start of the school year without telling the school, an account Mammadov disputes.

These days, a bath scale has become the only source of income for Mammadov and his family of four after having left their two houses, friends, and relatives behind last year. His family’s only breadwinner, every day Mammadov stands in downtown Baku with the scale, charging the curious 20 qepiks (about 25 cents) each to weigh themselves. He earns about 10 manats ($13) a day, from which he must pay 250 manats per month for rent.

Human rights researchers and residents of Nakhchivan say the unpaid work performed on imecilik days includes sweeping streets, trimming trees, watering grain fields, harvesting crops, clearing demolition sites, and whitewashing walls.

The official website of the Nakhchivani parliament constantly reports detailed numbers of trees planted in each village. It says workers on the 2 November subbotnik planted 10,600 trees across Nakhchivan. Recent reports are that the authorities want to see 200 hectares’ (500 acres’) worth of trees planted during this fall’s Saturday work periods.

Hasan Hajiev, a liaison for the Nakhchivan government in Baku, said subbotniks are held for the common good. “They’re essential to have green communities. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

In addition to the subbotniks, government agencies, schools, hospitals, universities, cultural centers, and other institutions are given annual harvest quotas for certain crops. “They’re given no land, no technology, no labor force to bring in the crop. They have to organize and finance everything themselves,” said Hakimeldostu Mehdiev, a human rights defender and representative of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety in Nakhchivan. “Mostly they have to grow grain, as well as beets and onions.”

The government also dictates to a fine degree what government employees can wear on the job. Long sleeves and suits are mandatory no matter the weather, which can be stifling in the summer, with temperatures into the 40s Celsius (100s Fahrenheit). Female public-school teachers must wear a uniform designed by the local government and manufactured in Nakhchivan. In addition, women who work for the public sector cannot dye their hair blond or red, which the government considers unnatural for the dark-haired Azeris, and cannot wear colorful tights, which are deemed frivolous.


Nakhchivan, with a population of 427,000, is almost entirely surrounded by Armenia and Iran. It has its own 45-member parliament and cabinet of ministers except for foreign affairs and defense.

Talibov, married to a cousin of President Ilham Aliev – himself a native of Nakhchivan – is the speaker of parliament as well as the supreme leader of the republic. He is essentially Nakhchivan’s only enforcer and he uses that free hand in increasingly arbitrary, even bizarre ways.

Take the case of tea houses, which for centuries have been places for Azerbaijani men to play dominoes or dice or read the newspaper. Almost every village in Azerbaijan has at least one tea house – except in Nakhchivan, where they have been banned for 10 years with no explanation.

For Sabir Veliev, a 60-year-old shopkeeper in Nakhchivan, the tea house was a place for socializing and getting information about the outside world. “At the tea houses we discussed almost everything from gossip to international news. They banned them to block the exchange of information. It was also a place of entertainment for us.”

Recently, two new tea houses opened in Nakhchivan’s capital, but Veliev and other men stay away. “Those tea houses are run by people who are close to government and they watch people. The cultural value of tea houses is lost in Nakhchivan,” he said.

Tea houses are not the only cultural element banned in Nakhchivan. Tandoors, cylindrical clay ovens for baking bread, have also fallen victim to Talibov’s whims.

Tandoors are a staple of rural life in Azerbaijan, saving many poor people from having to buy bread at the market. That can be a significant savings, considering that bread figures in virtually every meal here.

“Families usually bought a few sacks of flour to have homemade bread in a way they like, and it was much cheaper than bakery bread,” said Ekremoghlu, the journalist. But tandoors have been unofficially banned in Nakhchivan for years.

There is a cynical logic to the ban, as most bakeries belong to local officials.

Banned also have been Soviet-era motorcycles with sidecars and the compact, Soviet-made Moskvitch 412 sedan, both of which were popular with poor families in Nakhchivan but deemed unsightly by the government.

“Three years ago, officials started to eliminate Soviet motorbikes and Moskvitches from households,” said Yashar Baghirsoy, a representative of the opposition Popular Front Party in Nakhchivan. “They paid some token amount of money for those that were in good condition. The rest were confiscated.”

Other rules for living in Nakhchivan include a requirement that taxi drivers wear a government-issued uniform and that all taxis be Chinese-manufactured Lifans, as well as an unofficial curfew on walking in public spaces between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Hajiev, the Nakhchivan liaison, refused to comment on the region’s unique rules.

Although the trend isn’t seen in census figures, which have the region’s population on the rise, such intrusions in daily life, combined with a dismal human rights environment, drives some to leave Nakhchivan for other regions of Azerbaijan.

“Those who protested against weird regulations and human rights violations were arrested, beaten, and threatened. Many left Nakhchivan,” Ekremoghlu said. “Today, for most people living there those regulations have gradually become normal. For them, that is how life should be.”


By Shahla Sultanova, a journalist in Baku. Photos from the website of the Nakhchivani parliament.


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