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Azerbaijan: Demonstrators Continue Protests For Back Wages

By Mirza Michaeli

Baku, 14 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Since early March, there has been a series of strikes and demonstrations in Azerbaijan to protest deteriorating economic conditions.

The first incidents took place March 3. About 100 workers at a Baku factory that manufactures air conditioners staged a picket to protest the fact that they had not received wages for six months. The factory's total 20,000 workers subsequently received their pay for last October.

A member of the factory management told RFE/RL that the factory is now self-financing, and no longer receives any subsidies from the Azerbaijan government. Production costs have risen sharply as a result of the closure of the frontier between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation in December, 1994. Although the factory is capable of producing 25,000 to 30,000 units per year, it currently manufactures only 5,000, and makes a profit of only $10 to $20 on each.

Also on March 3, kolkhoz workers from the town of Imishly, west of Baku and close to the border with Iran, beat up the local kolkhoz chairman and clashed with local police in a protest against alleged irregularities in the ongoing privatization of land. They were angry at not having received wages for two years. Two days later, about 2,000 kolkhoz workers blocked the main highway to Baku and clashed with local police. Several people were injured on each side, including the local police chief. The local district administrator then called on the police to withdraw. He promised that back salaries would be paid, but it is not known whether the promise has been honored.

This is not the first protest in Azerbaijan over land privatization. A similar protest, involving several hundred people, took place in Kazakh raion, in northern Azerbaijan, several months ago. On March 10, several hundred employees at the Sumgait factory that manufactures pipeline equipment blocked the highway from Sumgait to Baku. That group had not received wages since May 1996. They moved from the highway back to the factory when asked to do so by police.

One worker at the factory had committed suicide several days earlier. He left a note saying that his economic situation was desperate and he could not afford to feed his family.

The president of the Azerbaijan Metallurgy Company, Tofik Hasanov, said that the factory can no longer sell its output to Russian companies, and that sales of pipeline equipment to Iran do not bring in enough money to pay wages.