Azerbaijan’s Dark Island: Human Rights Violations in Nakhchivan

This report tries to provide a full assessment of the grim human rights situation on the ground in Nakhchivan, which is the most repressive and authoritarian region of Azerbaijan, where the political scene is characterised by uncertainty, and where a sense of public apathy is likely to stem from and geographically. The report is based on field research, interviews and a handful of published articles. For security reasons, most of the people interviewed are not named.

Nakhchivan is an Autonomous Republic under the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in the Southern Caucasus.

Vasif Talibov, who is related by marriage to Azerbaijan’s ruling family, the Aliyevs, has been the chairman of the local parliament – Ali Majlis (Supreme Assembly) – and unchallenged leader of Nakhchivan for the past twelve years. More than a decade of Talibov’s rule has left the society with little hope, while widespread poverty and a high unemployment rate have had a dramatic negative impact on living conditions. The authoritarian rule and the destruction of civil society has been reinforced by strict censorship and grave human rights abuses.

In 2003, Human Rights Watch characterised the situation in Nakhchivan as “even  more severe than in other areas of Azerbaijan”. Nakhchivan’s record on human rights and political liberties has been dismal over the past decade, and has grown worse. Political opponents of the regime are under pressure, and human rights activists have faced increased harassment, intimidation and violence. Civil society and independent media have almost disappeared, while journalists working for foreign news services also face similar attacks. We have also seen cases of outspoken people being forced into mental asylums or facing deportation from Nakhchivan, in a chilling reminiscence of Soviet times.

According to Jeffrey Gedmin, President of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Azerbaijan is a dangerous place for journalists and activists, but “the risk is magnified in Nakhchivan, where arbitrariness seems to be the only rule”. Despite the elimination of formal censorship, newspapers and broadcasting remain exclusively under state control, and opposition journalists work under constant, rigid pressure from the authorities.

Though a part of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is largely independent. Many representatives of western organisations, human rights organisations and critical journalists still continue to experience difficulty in travelling freely and in obtaining direct information from Nakhchivan. On several occasions, security agents have followed, detained and deported foreign and local outspoken journalists and human rights activists from Nakhchivan. Foreign citizens arriving at Nakhchivan airport have to submit their passports even when arriving there on domestic flights within Azerbaijan Their local IDs issued by the central government in Baku are not accepted.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though reforms have been adopted, they have often been measures to concentrate resources in yet fewer hands, giving almost unlimited power to the regime and closing off avenues of advancement for most people. Since power is concentrated in the hands of Chairman Vasif Talibov, the judiciary system continues to be subservient to, and manipulated by, the ruling elite.

The regime in Nakhchivan relies on the security forces and police to prevent and control any signs of public discontent and to crush dissent. Torture and ill-treatment are widespread in places of detention. The police perpetrators enjoy virtual impunity. Imposing fear in the population is a key instrument for ensuring obedience and limiting public dissent.

Azerbaijan is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, mainly due to vast oil revenues and foreign investments in the energy sector. However, this wealth has not translated into the improvement of living standards, and many Azeris complain that the oil revenues are not equally distributed. It is still difficult for many to make ends meet in Azerbaijan. Transparency International (TI) ranked Azerbaijan 158th on its index of the 180 most corrupt countries in 2008.

From the outside, Nakhchivan gives an impression of prosperity that does not reflect the deep poverty of most of the population. The feudal-style system in Nakhchivan manipulates the national budget to support grandiose projects (i.e. construction), primarily for the financial gain of the political elite. The national budget provides a sizeable amount of money to Nakhchivan, but a large portion of it gets lost to corruption instead of being used for its intended purpose. The unemployment level has forced people to migrate to Turkey, Russia and the capital Baku in search of work.

Too often, the international community in Azerbaijan has ridiculed the comical despotism and strong-arm rule of Talibov, and treated him as a rather bizarre eccentric, who bans teahouses, urges his ministers to clean the streets and prohibits the drying of any clothing on balconies. But the reality is much more ominous and dangerous. The international community, mainly the western diplomats in Baku, needs to continue and intensify its true engagement with Nakhchivan.

If the present situation continues and the international community continues to back the regime uncritically, the remaining few outspoken organisations, such as the 2009 Rafto award winner Malahat Nasibova’s Democracy and NGO Development Centre, may have disappeared by the time of the parliamentary elections in November 2010. It is very important that the international community does everything possible to stop the totalitarian regime and to support a civil society in danger of disappearing altogether.

Read the report here