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AZERBAIJAN MARKS CENTENNIAL OF DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC WITH LITTLE FANFARE

The Azeri Times

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One hundred years ago this month, the first secular democracy in the Muslim world was established, the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The republic’s progressive credentials – it was the first Muslim country to allow women to vote – are often touted by the publicity-loving Azerbaijani government.

But as the centennial of the republic’s founding approaches, the same government is taking a low-key approach, offending some of the republic’s admirers and highlighting the complex attitude that current authorities hold toward their forebears.

During a speech last year about the upcoming centennial, President Ilham Aliyev paid a sort of tribute to the republic. But when he named several of the key figures in Azerbaijani history, he pointedly omitted Mammad Amin Rasulzadeh, the leader of the first republic.

And when Aliyev again discussed the republic at an economic forum in March, he suggested that “if the founders of the first Democratic Republic had a chance to see how Azerbaijan develops today, they would have definitely been proud of us,” a formulation that admirers of the republic found insulting.

The first republic was a well-established democracy which was based on liberal values, said Altay Goyushov, an Azerbaijani historian. “Today, Azerbaijan is at the bottom of all the rankings, and if the founders of the Azerbaijan Republic actually saw it, they would be very upset,” he said.

The republic was founded on May 28, 1918, emerging out of the collapse of the Russian Empire. It was the first state in history to use the name “Azerbaijan,” and ran the country on liberal, modernizing principles until the Soviet Union invaded and annexed it in 1920.

“The republic’s leaders were the most successful in Azerbaijani history,” said Jamil Hasanli, a historian and opposition politician.

The admiration of the republic and its leader Rasulzadeh, however, comes at the expense of the man the current government prefers to see as the father of the nation: Heydar Aliyev, president of the country from 1993 to 2003 and the father of the current president, Ilham.

For Ilham Aliyev, “the current republic is the heir of Soviet Azerbaijan under Heydar Aliyev,” rather than of the 1918-1920 republic, said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at Carnegie Europe, in an interview with Eurasianet. That means that “the first republic, with its Musavat government, language of democracy and rights, does not fit so well into this legacy,” he said. (Musavat was Rasulzadeh’s political party; one of today’s embattled opposition parties, of the same name, sees itself as that party’s heir.)

Baku, indeed, has sought to steadily erase Rasulzadeh from the public sphere. Monuments and statues to him have been taken down over the past two decades, and his picture was removed from the country’s currency.

The way the history of the republic is taught today is a direct result of the government’s political directives, said Nigar Maxwell, head of a department dedicated to studying the first republic at Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences.

“Each statement by the authorities, starting with the president and then down the organizational ladder is a signal to public organizations and scientific institutions as a guideline for building a definite direction for them,” Maxwell told Eurasianet.

Formal events celebrating the centennial are few: a handful of museum exhibits and scholarly conferences have taken place, but they have been overshadowed by other events like the recently held Formula 1 race in Baku.

In the absence of larger events, republic admirers are marking the centennial online, by changing their social media profile photos to include a frame honoring the republic, setting up Facebook pages to raise awareness about the founding fathers, or organizing volunteering projects to commemorate the centennial.

The opposition political party ReAL has organized a commemoration on May 28, involving a number of Azerbaijan’s most prominent government critics including Anar Mammadli and Khadija Ismayilova. The invitation to the event makes a veiled but clear reference to today’s political situation: “The path to freedom is not easy. One hundred years ago our ancestors accomplished this in spite of all the obstacles. We urge you to celebrate the proud page of our history – the 100th anniversary of our republic.”

Some government loyalists have complained about Rasulzadeh’s admirers, including Zahid Oruj, who ran in April’s presidential elections while asking his supporters to vote for Ilham Aliyev.

“Why is Rasulzadeh, a person who created Azerbaijan during the first republic, accepted by everybody, but Heydar Aliyev, who is the founder of the modern Azerbaijani state, is not accepted by the opposition and they don’t hang his photo in their offices?” Oruj asked in a pre-election interview with the BBC’s Azerbaijani service. “Let’s change this mindset. If they accept the Heydar Aliyev model, these parties might participate in the future development of the country.”

“Right now there is a narrative struggle between these two camps,” said Erkin Gadirli, a ReAL board member. “The government takes this [Rasulzadeh commemoration] seriously because the opposition made Rasulzadeh into an icon. If not, they would never have tried to put Aliyev ahead of Rasulzadeh.”

The government’s recent rhetoric about Yerevan and other parts of current-day Armenia being Azerbaijan’s “historical lands,” which sparked an international backlash, is part of its attempt to denigrate the first republic, Maxwell said.

“Today’s Azerbaijan cannot be compared with the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, because at that time there were difficulties and our independence did not allow Azerbaijan to pursue an independent policy,” Aliyev said in a January speech. “We had economic difficulties, land losses, and our historical city [Yerevan] was given to Armenia.”

“Unfortunately, the republic is remembered only from anniversary to anniversary, and so is easily used by both powerful and opposition figures as a card in their political games,” Maxwell said.

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Azerbaijan

The US Calls Azeri Government to free All Individuals Imprisoned for Exercising Their Fundamental Freedoms

The Azeri Times

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The US welcomes the release of the opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov from imprisonment in Azerbaijan and calls on the authorities to remove accusations from him, as well as to release all other persons arrested for the implementation of fundamental freedoms.

This was stated by the Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

“The United States welcomes the decision of the Azerbaijani Court of Appeal to release Republican Alternative Party Chairman Ilgar Mammadov, whose conviction and imprisonment for over five years raised serious concerns about the rule of law in Azerbaijan. We call on the government to drop the charges against him, in keeping with its international obligations and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.

We urge the Azerbaijani authorities to release all other individuals who have been imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms,” Nauert said in the statement published on the website of the US Department of State.

According to local human rights defenders, there are at least 150 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

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Azerbaijan

The true price of Azerbaijani cotton

The Azeri Times

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The fall in oil prices during the last few years has forced the government of Azerbaijan to seek alternative revenue sources. Baku placed its bets on cotton, without heeding the consequences – human rights violations, rising costs of agricultural produce and even the threat of boycotts by major buyers. After the mass poisoning of cotton workers this summer, Meydan TV reporters started to wonder: what is the price this country has to pay for growing cotton?

Criminal proceedings after poisoning allegations

“We all started to have bad stomachaches, then foam came out of our mouths. We got scared and left the field. Those who were not affected took us to a hospital,” recalls Gulnara Gardashova.

The 33-year old is one of the Azerbaijani cotton workers who was poisoned while working on the fields this summer. There are said to be hundreds of people like her, though the government is concealing the actual scale of what is happening.

On 10 July, 25 other people were poisoned along with Gulnara, working on cotton fields in the village of Simada in the southwestern Saatli district.

“Before we started working, the farmer told us that he had sprayed the soil with a chemical two weeks earlier, and that it was safe to resume work after two days. But it seems that the effect of the chemical lingered.”

Gulnara and the others affected were taken to the local hospital. She said their condition was taken seriously, which is why they were sent to the Clinical Medical Center in Baku.

When talking to reporters, Azer Magsudov, head of the clinic’s Toxicology Department, confirmed that those affected were feeling “lightheaded and sick” but rejected the suggestion that this was due to poisoning. He did not specify what caused the symptoms. Similarly, doctors in other hospitals who treated the patients with the same symptoms told journalists that the cause was excessive exposure to the sun, not poisoning due to pesticides.

The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office has launched criminal proceedings into negligence by officials and potential violations of procedures in combatting plant diseases and pests. On 10 August, the Prosecutor-General’s Office said it had completed a preliminary investigation in the criminal case regarding 10 people – agronomists, heads of centers for the protection of plants, and other officials. All of them have been charged with violating occupational health and safety rules, and their cases have been passed on to courts in Saatli, Imishli and Tartar districts.

Scale of poisonings remains unclear

There is no official information about the number of people affected. Media reports and eyewitness testimonies suggest that there have been at least 400 cases this summer alone. Among the victims are children, who often help their parents on the fields. In Saatli, a Meydan TV correspondent saw three teenage girls weeding a cotton field.

So far, the poisonings occurred in four districts: Imishli, Saatli, Tartar and Yevlakh.

In June, around 80 cotton workers were poisoned working on fields in the Imishli district. Since the official narrative of sunstroke had not yet been established, the head of the local hospital, Eynulla Gasimov, shared his assessment freely:

“In Soviet times, people used to get poisoned by pesticides. Such incidents still happen today, and this is one of them.”

The main buyers and distributors of pesticides are agro-industrial unions. Since they are controlled by the government, it is difficult for journalists to obtain information about the specific types of pesticides used on the fields.

In a recent investigative report, Ifact.ge published pictures of chemical containers found on Saatli cotton fields. They contained Rifle 48 EC, which contains the herbicide Trifluralin. The EU banned it ten years ago, but it is still permitted in some countries – including the United States and Turkey – provided that workers spraying it wear protective clothing.

Контейнеры от химикатов, найденных на хлопковых полях Саатлинского района Фото-ifact.ge

Other pictures show empty chemical containers scattered around fields in Imishli. The labels indicate that the farmers used domestic pesticides made by the Azerbaijani Gilan Holding.

An OCCRP investigation recently revealed a link between Gilan Holding and the daughters of the Azerbaijani president, Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva, who are its main shareholders.

Agrarian expert Vahid Maharramov believes that it will the source of the pesticides will remain a mystery.

“Those guilty of what happened are so powerful that law-enforcement agencies are not in a position to deal with them.”

Fotolar ifact.ge saytına məxsusdur

The area of land on which Gulnara Gardashova and 25 other cotton workers were poisoned belongs to farmer Latif Khalidov.

Farmers used to buy pesticides for their fields without knowing about potential health and safety risks.

“We are ordinary people. We do not know what kind of chemical this is, if it is safe or not, we were not warned when we bought it. We saw that it did not have any effect on the weeds after we sprayed it, so we decided to clear the field of weeds manually. We hired some workers, and this is the result.”

After the first mass poisonings, cotton workers started to be more careful. Workers told reporters in Saatli that now, they ask if a pesticide has been sprayed, and if so, they refuse to enter the field.

“Farmers sow cotton out of fear of losing their land”

Lawyer Khalid Bagirov believes that violations of labor rights are particularly common in the agricultural sector: “People do not have labor agreements and they never have insurance. A person who spends the entire day weeding cotton fields under the baking sun makes eight to ten manat (four to five euros).”

But not all cotton workers are paid. In the past few years, employees of public-sector organisations and students had to work on cotton farms without getting paid. Economist Natig Jafarli says that the state not only forces citizens to work on fields for free (which is illegal) but also urges farmers to sow cotton:

“As a result of the land reforms, land in Azerbaijan has long become private property. However, in 2016, as a result of the referendum and under the pretext of efficient land use, the state imposed restrictions on the right of ownership. Executive authorities abuse these changes to legislation and make farmers sow certain products. Most farmers sow cotton out of fear of losing their land.”

Economist Togrul Mashalli believes that the government’s interventions in cotton-growing decreases the industry’s output and profitability. In 2017, the per hectare output actually decreased compared to the previous year, falling from 1,730 tons o 1,510 tons, despite all the efforts.

“When the executive authorities are forcing the farmers to sow cotton, the farmers either do not know how to increase their output, or what kind of pesticides they should use. Consequently, they fail to produce quality output, and they don’t make a decent profit either.”

Natig Jafarli does not believe that profit is the government’s main goal. “They view cotton-growing as a social project. Their aim is to create a lot of jobs, even if those jobs are paying low salaries, because they want to reduce social tension in the regions.”

In Azerbaijan, the official unemployment rate is just 5%, but analysts dispute those numbers. They say that the very methods used to calculate it do not conform to international standards, and therefore do not reflect reality.

For many Azerbaijanis living in the regions, the economic situation leaves no other choice. Most of the cotton workers who were poisoned have now returned to the fields. Some say they are still unwell but must work to provide for their children. One of the women, Hagigat Mammadova, says that after she was poisoned, her arm went numb and she is now unable to weed.

“Now I do not have an income, and nor do I have money to continue my treatment,” she complained.

A threat of boycott?

During the Soviet years, Azerbaijan successfully grew cotton. The industry declined in the 1990s, but recently underwent a renewal. Three years ago, the government indicated that cotton could become an alternative to energy after the decline in oil prices and declared cotton a strategic industry. Last year, the president issued a decree saying that output should grow to 500,000 tons a year by 2020.

The key buyers of Azerbaijani cotton are Turkey and Russia. Exports are growing: in 2016, the country exported 89,400 tons of cotton worth 24 million dollars and 207,000 tons worth 52 million dollars in 2017.

For cotton to grow, land is needed, and the numerous cotton plantations in Azerbaijan have already caused a noticeable reduction in pastures.

Хлопкоробы на поле, Саатлинский район, Июнь 2018. Фото:Мейдан ТВ
Хлопкоробы на поле, Саатлинский район, Июнь 2018. Фото:Мейдан ТВ.

Agrarian specialist Vahid Mahharamov estimates that a total of 50,000 hectares of pastures are being used as cotton fields, while the import of animal products into the country has tripled in the past two years. This has caused prices of staple products like meat, milk, herbs and melons to shoot up; people are paying three times as much as they used to.

Cotton Campaign coordinator Kirill Boychenko has described how the cotton industry works in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan:

“In Uzbekistan, the government sets quotas for the production of cotton. Farmers who do not own land but lease it from the government are obliged to grow and sell cotton for low prices that do not match actual market costs. Each year the government forces students, teachers, medical workers and other public and private sector employees to collect cotton, and makes farmers fulfill the output norms. If they refuse, they are punished. In Turkmenistan, the situation is even more difficult. In addition to forcing adults, they are also relying on children. According to international conventions and recommendations, cotton-growing is a poisonous activity, and child labor is not acceptable.”

Cotton Campaign was established in 2005 to eliminate forced child labor in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. According to Boychenko, about 300 companies including major world clothing brands have already refused to buy cotton from these countries because of child labor. Starting in 2018, the United States banned cotton imports from Turkmenistan.

“I really hope that Azerbaijan will not go along the same path”, concludes Kirill.

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Azerbaijan

Boss sues cleaning lady for her interview with Meydan TV

The Azeri Times

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The chairman of the Gazakh District Utilities Services is suing an employee for 10,000 manats ($5,900) for claims that she made in an interview with Meydan TV.

On 26 July, Meydan TV published an interview with Royala Azimova, a cleaning lady at the utilities service in the Azerbaijani region of Gazakh. Azimova claimed that the organization’s chairman, Arif Heydarov, did not distribute the bank cards with which employees in Azerbaijan normally receive their salaries. According to Azimova, Heydarov kept the cards and withdrew all the salaries himself, keeping the lion’s share. Azimova said that she received 52 manats ($30) per month out of her official monthly salary of 122 manats ($72).

Azimova told Meydan TV that just before losing her job she confronted her boss. “This time, when the boss called me in and gave me half my salary, I said that I want my full salary. I’ve got three kids at home and my husband is disabled and can’t work. How long will I sweep the streets while you take my salary? He said that that’s the rule here, and if you don’t like it you’re welcome to leave.”

Now Heydarov is suing Azimova at the Gazakh District Court for 10,000 manats (($5,900) in damages for libel and insults to his dignity. In the lawsuit, Arif Heydarov denies Azimova’s allegations that he stole money from his employees’ salaries. “On 26 July I was told that Royala Azimova had had an article published about me on the Meydan TV website, the Qazaxlilar Facebook page, and Xalqxəbər.az,” the document reads. “I purportedly took her salary from her, gave her 52 manats and kept the rest. All employees, including Royala Azimova, received their salaries from Kapital Bank using their plastic cards. People who posted comments on those libelous and insulting articles used indecent and insulting phrases about me.”

The regional executive authorities declined to comment on the lawsuit, stating that the court will have the final word.

Royala Azimova’s husband, Mirjafar Huseynzadeh, told Meydan TV that he recently had a run-in with his wife’s former boss. “Using obscenities, [Heydarov] insulted me for our complaints to the press about him, and the two people who were with him came at me and grabbed one of my ears each and pulled,” Huseynzadeh says. “Arif Heydarov said that if I complained to anyone again, he would have my ears cut off.”

Huseynzadeh is disabled and unable to work. “We have three ill children, and my wife started working so our family could somehow meet its demands,” he told Meydan TV. “My pension is 165 manats ($97), and it’s not enough to support the family or to buy medicines. Arif Heydarov has no idea about our situation… If the court satisfies his suit, we’ll renounce our citizenship and go to embassies to seek asylum. An official demanding 10,000 manats from a hungry family that lives an intolerable life is the greatest disgrace.”

The Gazakh District Court will hold a hearing on Arif Heydarov’s suit against his former employee on 3 September.

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