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Azerbaijan: Teachers, Doctors In Naxcivan Tend The Fields To Keep Their Jobs

By Babek Bakir Naxcivan doctors on a "subbotnik," unpaid weekend work (RFE/RL) NAXCIVAN, Azerbaijan; October 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For teachers in the Autonomous Republic of Naxcivan these days, having access to a shovel or a hoe is just as important as a blackboard or pencils.

In recent months, state employees -- be they teachers, doctors, or cleaners -- have been asked to do extra work on weekends, usually manual labor. They tend gardens, work in the fields, or clean the streets.

During the Soviet era, "subbotniks" regularly went to work in the fields on special occasions -- for instance, to celebrate Lenin's birthday -- all in the name of glorifying communism. They are a thing of the past in the rest of Azerbaijan. But now many state workers in Naxcivan say they are expected to work almost every weekend.

Naxcivan state television carries reports about these modern-day "subbotniks," as unpaid weekend work and those taking part in it are called.

"The collective of the elementary school actively participated in yesterday's 'subbotnik,'" went one recent item. "The parties worked at the site in front of the school, clearing weeds and watering the trees. Another group did work inside the school. The 'subbotnik' was created with great activity."

Pressure To Comply

Some state workers, fearing reprisals and speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said that while the extra work isn't compulsory, they have been told they will lose their jobs if they don't take part.

One who spoke openly to RFE/RL was Hakimeldostu Mehdiyev, a journalist for the opposition "Yeni Musavat" newspaper based in Naxcivan.

"It is obligatory for teachers and for anybody that works with state-budget organs to work in the fields," Mehdiyev says. "Every teacher has to produce 80 kilograms of wheat, which costs $200 [to produce]. But the monthly salary is $60. But if you don't do it, you're fired."

Critics of the authorities' scheme say that local farms are taking advantage of the dire situation in the autonomous republic and gaining free labor.

Employees of state institutions on a 'subbotnik' (RFE/RL)

Unemployment is very high in the region. Many people from Naxcivan have gone to work in Turkey.

Naxcivan is run by Vasif Talibov, the head of the National Assembly of Naxcivan. He is a close relative and supporter of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

Rights observers fear that Naxcivan is becoming a more closed society. Other Azerbaijanis joke that it is becoming like North Korea.

While in Naxcivan, this correspondent was regularly followed by security officers.

And soon after "Yeni Musavat" journalist Mehdiyev spoke to RFE/RL, he says he was beaten and arrested in front of his home. He was sentenced by a court to 15 days in prison on a charge of resisting arrest. Mehdiyev says he was targeted because he had shared information with RFE/RL.

After three days, he was released. He told RFE/RL that the police said that he didn't have to serve his 15-day sentence.

Opposition Risky

Naxcivan is part of Azerbaijan. but the region is separated from the rest of the country by Armenia, and it has always been strongly independent. When the Soviet Union was collapsing, the Naxcivan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was the first part of the Soviet Union to declare independence. Azerbaijan's first two post-Soviet presidents, Abulfaz Elchibey and Heydar Aliyev, both came from the region.

But now activists say that being in opposition is much more dangerous than it used to be.

The office of the local branch of the Popular Front Party is now closed. In recent years, the local government has banned teahouses, where people would typically meet to have political conversations.

"To be in opposition in Naxcivan means you will be unemployed and unable to support your family," says Isa Mirzeyev, the head of the opposition Adolat (Justice) party. "You will create problems for your brothers and your sisters. Naxcivan is the best classic example of tribalism. You can't even find one opposition member working in the government."

Opposition activist Alesker Ismaylov (RFE/RL)

Another opposition activist has recently ended up in psychiatric institution.

Seventy-year-old Alesker Ismaylov, a prominent member of the Popular Front Party, was arrested on September 20 and, after interrogation, taken to a local psychiatric institution.

His detention followed an incident in which he formally filed complaints about his neighbor, Farid Mammadov, the local police chief in the Sadarak region.

The U.S. Embassy in Baku recently sent two representatives to Naxcivan to discuss Ismaylov's case.

Ten days later, he was transferred to a Baku psychiatric hospital, where relatives haven't yet been able to see him.

Before being transferred to Baku, Ismaylov told RFE/RL from the psychiatric hospital that the local police chief determined he was crazy because he was complaining about injustices in the region. Doctors allowed him to meet with journalists.

"The police chief issued a diagnosis and that's why I am here," Ismaylov said. "I am a doctor myself but the police have decided that I am crazy and I ended up here. And now when I'm asking the doctors at the institution what should I do, the doctors tell me to be patient."

Mehemmed Rzayev, the head of a local NGO, Civic Union For A Healthy Future, says he has been kidnapped by police and beaten.

"In Soviet times, people from Naxcivan were very active in demanding their rights," Rzayev says. "They would complain to Baku, to Moscow with letters. But the rulers now in Naxcivan have created an atmosphere of fear. People are afraid-- if they talk, if they give interviews."

What many people in Azerbaijan are worried about is whether the situation today is the past or whether it represents the future. But for now, state workers will have little choice but to keep on cleaning the streets and pulling out weeds on their days off.

(RFE/RL's Luke Allnutt contributed to this report)

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