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Animal Rights Activists’ struggle to save stray dogs in Azerbaijan

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Animal rights activists were detained after a protest they held in defense of stray animals and taken out of the city. They returned to the city with a pregnant stray dog and named her Gizil.

Animal rights activist Elkhan Mirzayev and his friends found the dog, whom they nicknamed Gizil (Azerbaijani for “Gold”), in a wasteland on the outskirts of Baku a little more than a month ago. The dog was about to give birth, and so they immediately decided to take her with them.

A dog named ‘Gizil’

The animal rights activists found themselves in the deserted area about 20 km off Azerbaijan’s capital city after they held a protest in defense of stray dogs in the city center on 23 February. As has become common lately, police officers quickly dispersed the protest, forcibly pushed the protesters in buses, drove them a long way out of the city and dropped them off. This had the effect of ending the protest without much hassle.

There, a stray dog approached Elkhan Mirzayev and the other protesters, who were waiting for friends to arrive by car to pick them up.

“She was yelping and crying. I could see immediately that she was pregnant and she would deliver soon. When labor approaches, dogs always try to be close to people,” Elkhan says.

“It was the first time I had seen the place where the police officers dropped us. We learnt later that the wasteland is located in the village of Gizildash (“Golden rock”) in Garadag district. So, we decided to give the name Gizil to the dog that we found there.”

On the very day Gizil arrived in Baku, she gave birth to eight puppies. The animal rights activists put Gizil together with her puppies in one of their garages. They visit them every day, feed, and look after them. Mirzayev says that they had to put Gizil in the garage because all other shelters were packed. And, they do not trust state institutions, which operate under the guise of shelters for stray animals.

“Certainly, the garage is not the perfect place for them, but it is still better than a wasteland. And, unlike thousands of puppies born on the streets, Gizil’s puppies stand a greater chance of surviving here. After the puppies are two months old, we will try to find people who will adopt them and then sterilize Gizil,” Elkhan says.

Gizil's puppies are currently housed in a garage. Baku, March 2020.

Gizil’s puppies are currently housed in a garage. Baku, March 2020.

Source: Meydan TV

Horses, dogs, and cats

Animal rights activist Elkhan Mirzayev is a journalist by profession. He graduated from the journalism department of Moscow State University and lived in Russia for many years, working for NTV and Channel One as a correspondent, editor, and producer. One day, however, he decided to leave everything and return to Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, he bought a plot of land in the village of Gunashli in Lerik, built himself a house and realized his long-standing dream: To live far away from the hustle and bustle of the city together with his favorite animals. He has horses, six dogs and about a dozen cats. All these cats and dogs were strays who suffered violence at the hands of humans. Elkhan found them all in different places, nursed them back to health, and gave them names that matched their characters – Bertha, Jesse, Pirate, Deniz, Kazbek, Minashka.

The dog nicknamed Pirate, who is extremely disobedient, is missing a leg and an eye.

“Some punk set a pit bull on him. The pit bull severely maimed his leg and damaged his eye. And there was a large wound on his back that look liked something hot had been poured on it. Our doctor friends tried to attach a prosthesis to Pirate’s leg, but it did not work out. The leg started to fester and had to be amputated. The eye was also operated on,” Elkhan tells us about his pets. “And this is Jesse. She acts like a cat, and her favorite thing to do is to lie at people’s feet.”

'Pirate' at Mirzayev's home. Guneshli village, March 2020.

‘Pirate’ at Mirzayev’s home. Guneshli village, March 2020.

Source: Meydan TV

Under Azerbaijani legislation, torturing and killing stray animals are not regarded as a crime, and those who commit these kinds of acts simply get an administrative penalty – a fine of about 500 Manats (289 USD): “Regarding animal rights, there are only three articles in the Code of Administrative Offences: One of them is more about veterinary medicine, the second is about regulations regarding keeping pets, and the third is Article 274. The article says that if you kill or maim an animal, you will be fined 500 Manats,” Elkhan says. Previously, the fine was only 25-45 Manats (about 15-26 USD), but animal rights activists lobbied for the fine to be raised. Yet they say that is not enough. The activists have been fighting for animal rights for years, and believe that it is high time the state began to implement a programme to sterilize stray animals.

“Stop Toplan”

During the protest that took place in the center of Baku on 23 February, the animal rights activists raised a placard reading “Stop Toplan”. Toplan is the name of the care center for stray animals that the animal rights activists pinned great hopes on.

When Toplan (Toplan is the most common dog name in Azerbaijan – editor’s note) opened in February 2019, they first breathed easily, thinking it would be easier for stray dogs to live on the streets of Baku.

Leyla Aliyeva, vice-president of the foundation and daughter of the incumbent Azerbaijani president, took part in the opening of the center which was established within the framework of a joint project by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and the Baku executive authorities to improve work with stray dogs. She oversees the center.

Toplan operates on money provided by the state. On the location previously stood the sanitary engineering unit of the Housing and Utility Services Department of the Baku executive authorities. The animal rights activists argue that one of the jobs done by the department, which people commonly referred to as ‘the kennel’, was to collect stray dogs from the streets and shoot and kill them or burn them.

“It was previously called ‘Department to fight against stray animals’. In essence, its name shows what kind of work they did. They walked around in the streets and shot stray dogs in broad daylight. In 2013, journalist Nazakat Zeynalli filmed a video of officers from the department shooting street dogs. We used the video as a basis for a lawsuit that we filed against the department. The trial lasted three and a half years. The case reached the Supreme Court, then it was sent back to lower courts. They tried to persuade us to withdraw the lawsuit. We refused to withdraw it. We held protests outside the department, we blocked the roads, we went there every week to feed the dogs and we did not let the dogs be killed. We got the department shut down after all. Last year, Leyla Aliyeva opened a care center for stray animals called Toplan, which is located exactly where the department used to be located, and horror started there again,” Elkhan Mirzayev says.

Both the official website of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and Leyla Aliyeva in her speeches at conferences said that in accordance with the law the center was to collect dogs from the street, deliver them to the center, sterilize and vaccinate them and release them back into the streets.

All of the animals at Mirzayev's home are former strays. Guneshli village, March 2020.

All of the animals at Mirzayev’s home are former strays. Guneshli village, March 2020.

Source: Meydan TV

“The animals awakened humanity in my heart”

There are about 500 animal rights activists in Azerbaijan who collect maimed stray animals from the streets, nurse them back to health and keep them. There are three official and about 20 non-registered shelters.

Elkhan Mirzayev, however, is against shelters in principle.

“For example, do we want to be in jail? Even if they give us food and sometimes come to check on us, so what? A shelter is almost the same thing. Therefore, there should be not shelters, and every dog and every cat should have a family.”

Mirzayev believes that it is not that hard to resolve the problem of stray animals. It is just necessary to toughen the penalty for the killing of animals and cruelty toward them and to launch a program to sterilize and vaccinate animals. And it is also very important to teach people to love animals.

“If people keep dogs, they will find indispensable friends,” says Elkhan Mirzayev. “The more I communicate with dogs and cats, the more I understand that in reality we do not save them but they save us. The animals awakened humanity in my heart.”

/with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

All of the animals at Mirzayev's home are former strays. Guneshli village, March 2020.

All of the animals at Mirzayev’s home are former strays. Guneshli village, March 2020.

Source: Meydan TV

“The animals awakened humanity in my heart”

There are about 500 animal rights activists in Azerbaijan who collect maimed stray animals from the streets, nurse them back to health and keep them. There are three official and about 20 non-registered shelters.

Elkhan Mirzayev, however, is against shelters in principle.

“For example, do we want to be in jail? Even if they give us food and sometimes come to check on us, so what? A shelter is almost the same thing. Therefore, there should be not shelters, and every dog and every cat should have a family.”

Mirzayev believes that it is not that hard to resolve the problem of stray animals. It is just necessary to toughen the penalty for the killing of animals and cruelty toward them and to launch a program to sterilize and vaccinate animals. And it is also very important to teach people to love animals.

“If people keep dogs, they will find indispensable friends,” says Elkhan Mirzayev. “The more I communicate with dogs and cats, the more I understand that in reality we do not save them but they save us. The animals awakened humanity in my heart.”

/with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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Baku: City of Millionaires and Slums

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Baku: City of Millionaires and Slums – A special report by hromadske

Of the countries formed after the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is considered one of the richest – all thanks to its oil and gas reserves. Its capital city Baku hosts the Formula One races and invites Lady Gaga to perform at the new stadium opening ceremony. It seems almost irrelevant that, for the third decade running, the country is ruled over by the Aliyev dynasty. And while Azerbaijan boasts some of the worst scores in international corruption and freedom of speech ratings, could it be that, similar to the Gulf States, civil liberties are a small price to pay for overall prosperity and generous welfare handouts? What lies behind the skyscrapers and fancy residentials? How much of the oil profits actually reach the population? And does all this prosperity benefit the refugees and displaced persons of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, 25 years since the violence subsided? Find out in this Hromadske special, reporting from Baku, Azerbaijan.

“I’ll find you where you are: in the darkest depths, under land or water, in the Caspian deeps.” The mid-century Soviet oilman song pours from the speakers. A giant Azerbaijani flag waves over Azneft square in central Baku. This section of the waterfront is a real showcase: the view includes the Four Seasons Hotel, the pristine and vigilantly guarded Presidential Palace up the street, and is topped with the Flame Towers – three skyscrapers resembling three tongues of fire. At night, they light up in the colors of the Azeri flag, and serve to remind the world that Azerbaijan is home to history’s first oil well, commercial oil production having been introduced here as early as the mid-eighteen hundreds. Upon regaining its independence in the 1990s, Azerbaijan set about signing billion-dollar contracts with Western oil companies. The subsequent decade was marked by vigorous construction work, courtesy of the newly acquired petrodollar.

A view of the seafront and Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan, on August 29, 2019.

A view of the seafront and Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan, on August 29, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Baku now hosts the Formula One races. Lady Gaga performs at the 2015 European Games opening ceremony. The Heydar Aliyev Center, dedicated to current leader Ilham Aliyev’s father, ex-president and ex-First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan SSR Heydar Aliyev, was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, one of the world’s most prominent architects. In 2014, it won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award.

This picture shows the Heydar Aliyev Center, which was designed by architect Zaha Hadid, in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 29.

This picture shows the Heydar Aliyev Center, which was designed by architect Zaha Hadid, in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 29.

Source: Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

The Black and the White City

“There used to be an industrial park here, factories and refineries, too,” comments Baku-based photographer Bashir Kitachayev as we stroll down the Black City. At least, that is the old name, the one commemorated by Georgian-born Russian writer Boris Akunin in his book “The Black City”. But this stretch of land, conveniently located both near the sea and the city centre, is the White City now. Gone are the old buildings, and in their stead, modern multi-storey residentials have been erected “in the French style”, as they call it here. Construction works began in 2000, yet most of the flats remain uninhabited  property here is simply too expensive.

Standing right across the road is a rundown one-storey building reminiscent of a slum. In Baku, these districts are known as “nakhalstroy”, or “insolent construction”. Many of them sprouted up in the early 1990s, when the capital was flooded with refugees from Armenia, and also Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani region annexed by Armenia.

In another such settlement, referred to on the map of Baku as “Khutor” (the Ukrainian word for hamlet), there are more people outside in a narrow sidestreet than on the sprawling boulevard of the White City.

A side street in the Khutor settlement in Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

A side street in the Khutor settlement in Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Rosa, a local, is 75. She approaches us to lament over her meager pension, which is only enough to pay the bills, and that light and gas are prohibitively expensive. She shows us her room, where she lives cooped up with her daughter, two sons, and several grandsons. Thirty years ago, she worked as a kindergarten teacher in neighboring Armenia, but had to flee because of the war. The violent phase of the conflict ended 25 years ago, in 1994. She says she was never offered to move out of Khutor.

75-year old Rosa lives in Khutor, and complains that her pension is only enough to pay the bills, Azerbaijan, 30 August 2019

75-year old Rosa lives in Khutor, and complains that her pension is only enough to pay the bills, Azerbaijan, 30 August 2019

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Khutor residents treat journalists with some caution, and ask us where we are from before agreeing to talk. According to Freedom House, Azerbaijan is among the most repressive countries in the world for freedom of speech. Independent media is nonexistent, while journalists always run the risk of landing behind bars.

We meet Nazim, a middle-aged man who once lived in Kherson, Ukraine, before returning to Baku to tend to his sick father. He welcomes us in and offers tea. The flat is tiny, with a small kitchen, his large family call it home. His wife occasionally enters to tell us how comfortably they live, and to praise President Ilham Aliyev. They, too, have not been offered alternative housing arrangements.

Nazim and his wife invited us in for a cup of tea in Khutor, Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Nazim and his wife invited us in for a cup of tea in Khutor, Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

The authorities have been tearing down such districts since the mid-2000s, especially those in prime locations, by the sea or downtown. The inhabitants are relocated to the outskirts, and some find this to be a good thing. An example of this is the notorious Sovietsky district in central Baku. It was well known throughout the 1990s for its gangland showdowns, and “Sovietsky boys” made good enforcers for the local mafia. The district has since been leveled and replaced by a public park.

Azerbaijani law stipulates that the state is under an obligation to compensate any loss of property at market value. Yet according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report on the forceful eviction of Baku denizens, the compensations offered were often incommensurably small, no more than €2,000. Yet those who refused could be left with nothing at all.

A sidestreet in Khutor village, Azerbaijan on August 30 2019.

A sidestreet in Khutor village, Azerbaijan on August 30 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

The Three Comrades

The district of Darnagul is a nakhalstroy based on Khrushchev-era apartment blocks. Balconies of brick, wood, plastic, weatherboard, or rusty metal, the ground strewn with cotton left to sun-dry. The people inhabiting these houses are refugees. A young man offers to give us a tour, and we see a communal kitchen with leaking pipes, a sewage system in disrepair, a washroom with shards of glass scattered on the floor, moldy walls. One woman tells us that she has been on the waiting-list for 26 years, but should be receiving a new flat “anytime soon now”.

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

“This is a vulture, here is a golden eagle, two more eagles there, pheasants as well,” Eldaniz Imanogly points each bird out to us. He is no refugee, but a Nagorno-Karabakh war veteran. Right outside of his home stands a memorial he has built in honor of his three fallen comrades. Next to it is a small zoo for children. The birds and landscape are intended to resemble the trees and mountains of Karabakh. Imanogly fought in the war from 1991 to 1996. He received three injuries from sniper fire, and now has a sever disability. He has been working on the Karabakh memorial for two decades now.

“I vowed: If any of you dies as a hero, I promise that – if I survive, if I do not die as a shaheed – I will build a monument for you. This I promise you. Then I saw them in a dream, and they said to me: ‘Dear one, make it so that we are pleased’. So I planted all of this so that they have a nice view.”

Karabakh war veteran Eldaniz Imanogly constructed a memorial outside his house in honor of his three fallen comrades, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Karabakh war veteran Eldaniz Imanogly constructed a memorial outside his house in honor of his three fallen comrades, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Karabakh war veteran Eldaniz Imanogly constructed a memorial outside his house in honor of his three fallen comrades, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Karabakh war veteran Eldaniz Imanogly constructed a memorial outside his house in honor of his three fallen comrades, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Eldaniz lives in a single-bedroom flat opposite his monument. He insists that he wants nothing from the state, not a house or a car, not even a better pension (he receives 400 Manat, or 200 Euro). What he does want is for the government to invest in state-of-the-art weaponry: “For the Azerbaijanis of the world, the war is not yet over. We can forgive the Armenian who lives abroad, but those who laid hands on our homeland, on our children and our elderly, those we do not forgive. It says ‘Death to Armenians’ right here,” he points to the monument.

A small children's zoo next to the memorial, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

A small children’s zoo next to the memorial, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Nearby residents admit they were annoyed at first. Over the years, though, most have grown to respect Eldaniz and his monument, taken in by the man’s open and kind personality. “He has a deep love for all of our national heroes. That’s why he brought all of these stones. He didn’t get help from a single organization. He brought them all by himself, on his own back” says one of his neighbors.

A vulture adorns Eldaniz Imanogly's memorial, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

A vulture adorns Eldaniz Imanogly’s memorial, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Millionaire officials and the semifeudal provinces.

“No, we regular citizens of Azerbaijan do not see our country as very rich at all. Of course, we have the oil profits. Yes, roads and institutions are constructed. But if you imagine a pyramid, very little actually makes it down the walls to the common people,” asserts political analyst Shahin Rzayev.

He illustrates with public healthcare, which is free in name only. For instance, when calling an ambulance, “palms must always be greased, otherwise they might not come next time”.

Indeed, as we drive past a state hospital, one of our companions quips: “You get admitted with a cut or a nosebleed, you sign out with cancer”. Over the next few days in Baku, we hear the same joke in reference to a number of medical institutions.

Political expert Shahin Rzayev in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 31, 2019.

Political expert Shahin Rzayev in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 31, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Togrul Mashally, economist, explains the difference between Azerbaijan and oil majors such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia: with all of Baku’s aspirations to resemble its Gulf counterparts, in Azerbaijan, the state prefers to finance the construction of parks, airports, and skyscrapers while turning a blind eye on social concerns.

When oil prices fell in 2014, living standards plummeted. The Azerbaijani economy is dependent on oil and gas, which make up 92% of all its export. Before September 2019, the average countrywide wage was $317. The minimum wage, raised recently, was less than in neighboring Armenia, which Azerbaijan is still at war with.

There are many Western consulting firms, such as McKinsey, operating in Azerbaijan. The government commissions architects from Europe for its building projects. And while such specialists are handsomely compensated for their work, their input is usually limited to planning or designing strategies, not actually investing in the country.

Economist Togrul Mashally speaks to Hromadske in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 31, 2019.

Economist Togrul Mashally speaks to Hromadske in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 31, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Construction similarly contributes little to economic development: the market is dominated by three or four large holding companies with ties to relevant state officials.

“Any construction company needs to be licensed by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which is headed by Kamaleddin Heydarov, himself believed to be one of the country’s most affluent developers,” says Mashally, and goes on to clarify: “According to the State Statistics Committee, there are no millionaires in Azerbaijan. It is no secret, however, that the holding companies belong to a number of officials – ministers and deputy ministers doubling as major stakeholders in these companies. Corruption is rooted in government tenders, not bribes, yet the corresponding information is closed to the public.”

Oil derricks near public beach in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Oil derricks near public beach in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

For Mashally, an over-regulated business environment and the corruption implicit are the reason why many Azerbaijanis choose to set up shop abroad despite the country’s bountiful resources. Government agencies see their purpose as essentially punitive, fines are slapped preemptively, whereas proving one’s case in court is expensive. Better to go into business elsewhere, say, Georgia or Russia.

According to official census data, Georgia and Russia are currently home to 280,000 and 600,000 Azerbaijani citizens respectively. The overall population of Azerbaijan is roughly 10 million.

“Around here, every other household has someone working in Russia,” says a man who himself is only visiting from Moscow for his vacation.

His neighbor sports an LDPR (Russian party lead by Vladimir Zhirinovskiy) t-shirt.

The man’s house is in the village of Qarasu, 145 kilometers from Baku. He tells us that there is little employment to be found outside the capital, which is why many choose to leave. Incidentally, it turns out that he and our driver worked together in Moscow. Our driver owned a store back then, but had to close it down and now mans a taxi.

Qarasu village in Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Qarasu village in Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

The village lies close to Qaciqabul, the regional center. Located on the highway not far from the capital, the town can hardly be called remote. Yet there is nothing here to remind of Baku, with its luxurious and expensive residentials, boutiques, supermarkets, and shiny gas stations. In fact, there is an overall lack of notable infrastructure: all in all an entirely unremarkable post-Soviet town. Several men play backgammon in a square next to a time-worn railway station, the sign missing half of its letters. A faded portrait of Ilham Aliyev peers out at us from the local news-stand.

The locals are reluctant to talk on camera. In the capital, a journalist can mix with the crowd fairly easily: around here, strangers arouse suspicion. Those we talked to complain that jobs are scarce, the only work to be found being on the railway. Others stress that the president is not at fault, he is most likely ignorant of what goes on outside Baku. The blame, they say, is on the local authorities.

Regional centre Qacikabul, time-worn railway station, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Regional centre Qacikabul, time-worn railway station, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Nataliya Gumenyuk / hromadske

As we exit the town, we pass by a brand-new and completely empty park near the local Heydar Aliyev Center. Its gates are locked.

“Over the past ten years, the government has indeed built some 1,500 schools and hundreds of hospitals. Our schools may have been renovated, yet we are seriously lagging behind in terms of staff. Teachers and doctors receive the lowest salaries in all of Azerbaijan, 250 to 350 manat (125-275 euro). What’s more, wages outside of Baku are usually half of what can be earned in the capital. Most regions don’t have a single banking facility. By and large, life out there is semifeudal.” In Togrul’s view, this is the reason for the increased influx of people to Baku over the past few years. Yet with the cost of living also on the rise, newcomers have to settle in nakhalstroys on the periphery.

Shahin Rzayev explains that there are no ideological distinctions in Azerbaijan, one either supports the republic or is loyal to the monarchy: “Ilham Aliyev essentially inherited Azerbaijan from his father, yet his agenda is not to preserve this inheritance. He is only interested in consolidating the power of his own fold. Cosmetic changes aside, I do not expect to see any dramatic shifts in policy.”

Unregulated roadside trade, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Unregulated roadside trade, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Only a few years ago, the first modern oil well (bored in 1846), located by the sea on the outskirts of Baku, was surrounded by suburbs. Today, it is surrounded by a fence, and a memorial plaque details the historic value of this location.

Oil pump, Baku, Azerbaijan, August 30, 2019.

Oil pump, Baku, Azerbaijan, August 30, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Around the fence is an empty park. Our guide is baffled – there is no trace or even mention of the old settlement where Baku’s first “kachalka” (the local word for oil well) was drilled. We drive off. Several kilometers away, a fence runs alongside a row of shabby one-storey residences, the familiar nakhalstroy. The local boys perform an oriental dance for the camera. And just meters from their houses, oil pumps work to produce this country’s most cherished treasure.

/Report by Nataliya Gumenyuk and Bohdan Kutiepov

/With support from the Russian Language News Exchange

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Powerful Women in Azerbaijan: Guarantors of women’s rights or just lip service?

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Parliament speaker, first vice-president, and human rights ombudsman – these positions in Azerbaijan are held by women, but will this help resolve gender-related problems in the country?

The early parliamentary election held in Azerbaijan on 9 February 2020 will be remembered not only as a great example of voter fraud which many international observation missions highlighted, but also by the fact that a woman was appointed speaker for the first time in the history of an independent Azerbaijani parliament.

Guarantors of women’s rights or just lip service?

Who is Sahiba Gafarova?

Sahiba Gafarova, a member of Azerbaijan’s ruling party, has been an MP since 2010. This is her third term as member of parliament. Gafarova, who holds a PhD in philology, previously also held the post of vice-rector of Baku Slavic University. She was a deputy chair of the parliamentary committee on family, women and children.

Acording to pro-government media published after she was appointed speaker, in 2015-17 Gafarova was elected “PACE’s main rapporteur on the fight against violence against women and political coordinator and head of the network ‘No to violence against women!’, and that she led the PACE Sub-Committee on Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination”.

Despite the impressive list of positions she has held, nothing is known about any initiatives or practical work by Gafarova regarding women. She has turned out to be a “dark horse” for many people in the country. “I just heard on the radio on my way to work that someone called Sahiba Gafarova has been nominated for the post of parliament speaker. Who is that, does anyone know her?” social media users wrote after Gafarova was elected.

A total of 22 women are in the current Azerbaijani parliament. There were 21 women in the previous parliament. There are 99 male MPs in the new parliament.

Women at the helm

Women also currently lead two parliamentary committees: the committee on family, women and children, and the committee on culture.

Moreover, a woman holds the post of first vice-president. The post was created in 2017 and Mehriban Aliyeva, the country’s first lady, was appointed to it.

Previously, Mehriban Aliyeva was a member of parliament for many years.

In addition, women in Azerbaijan have held the posts of chair of the state committee on family, women and children, and human rights plenipotentiary – ombudsman for many years. In addition, under orders issued by Ilham Aliyev, there should be at least one woman among deputy heads of all executive bodies in the country.

It all looks great on paper. However, what real effect does it have on the resolution of a large number of “women’s problems” in the country?

Violence, murders, child marriage

Azerbaijan joined the convention “On the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” back in 1995, but gender-based discrimination and gender-related problems in the country manifest themselves at the economic, social and domestic levels. This country ranked 70th among 162 countries on last year’s Gender Inequality Index.

Problems such as selective abortion, child marriage, and femicide continue to be hot-button problems in the country. Per 100 newborn girls there are currently 117 boys in Azerbaijan, with the global norm being 105 girls per 107 boys. https://www.meydan.tv/ru/article/ya-skazala-muzhu-ya-mat-a-ne-palach/?ref=search

Numbers associated with femicide – gender-based killings of women – are equally discouraging. According to official statistics alone, women constituted 74.9 per cent of victims of crimes related to domestic violence in Azerbaijan in 2018.

In October 2019, 12 women were murdered in the country, with six of them killed in front of their own children.

Azerbaijan has not yet signed the “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence”, better known as the Istanbul convention. However, the country is supposed to sign the convention in accordance with its commitments as a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the CEDAW committee). Of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, only Azerbaijan and Russia have not signed the document.

During their latest protests in Baku on 20 October and8 March, feminists advocated the signing of the convention and tackling of many gender-related problems, such as numerous killings of women, selective abortion, gender-motivated violence, child marriage, girls being deprived of education, and forced marriage. The protesters, however, received a harsh rebuff from police officers, and dozens of women, including journalists, were injured.

No reaction came from women in positions of power in Azerbaijan to the cruel treatment demonstrated by police. The women protesters never received support for their demands from them either.

“When was the last time that we had heard from the lips of any woman in a senior position about what kinds of cases of domestic violence there are in this country and what action will be taken about them? When 12 women were killed in October 2019 alone, did any of the women in positions of power put this issue on the agenda, did they address the public with any statement? What specific action was taken? Was psychological assistance provided to the families of those people?” asks civil activist Gunel Safarova, a former parliamentary candidate.

Women MPs have a hard time in parliament as well

Female candidates who ran in the February parliamentary election in Azerbaijan either did not address issues such as gender equality, women’s problems or domestic violence in their election manifestos or highlighted problems that appear insignificant amid violations of fundamental rights.

Only some of the female candidates’ manifestos highlighted things such as enhancement of women’s activity in society, employment, etc.

Albeit in this context, too, we can become a role model for the West.

“We have already resolved many of the issues that the West is trying to resolve in the field of gender policy,” says Sahiba Gafarova in one of her rare interviews, referring to problems with inequality regarding pay that women receive for their work and women’s employment. However, her statement contradicts data published by the State Statistics Committee.

True, some of the more active women MPs themselves have had to face discrimination in parliament. Ganira Pashayeva, who has been elected MP several times, Hijran Huseynova, the former chair of the state committee on family, women and children, and Elmira Akhundova, a former MP, currently Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Ukraine, in their speeches at different times addressed issues related to women’s rights in Azerbaijan but receive a harsh response.

In 2006, during a speech she delivered in parliament, Elmira Akhundova, who was then a member of the Milli Majlis, protested against child marriage, the fact that 80 per cent of women in the country faced domestic violence, and that even after contacting the police, women eventually had to return to their families. Back then, her speech was met with a protest from mostly male members of parliament.

Then, in a speech she delivered at the meeting, MP Ganira Pashayeva called the harsh reaction to Akhundova’s speech psychological violence against a woman.

“Men are speaking more here, but it would be better if women spoke. I strongly urge our men not to react to women’s speeches so harshly… In fact, this is psychological violence. Because we are talking not only about physical violence, but also about moral and psychological violence,” she said back then.

After a woman was elected speaker of parliament, many started talking even more actively about the fact that women in positions of power are only symbolic figures, lip service that the government uses as a counter-argument to statements that there is gender inequality in the country. “The election was done based on the principles that she speaks English, is more or less well-mannered, has no ambitions and is obedient,” says yet another social media comment following Sahiba Gafarova’s election.

Gunel Safarova

Gunel Safarova

Source: Personal archive

“I am in favor of women holding senior positions. We have long advocated the idea that women should hold leadership positions and be given authority. I think it is a very good thing that a woman is speaker,” says former parliamentary candidate Gunel Safarova, adding that she would like to see them be more active, including in the field of protection of women’s rights.

However, she believes, election or appointment should be carried out on the basis of experience, knowledge and skills of the person being appointed, and not based on the principle -“one woman holding a senior position is a must”.

“But it is a good thing that they at least hold senior positions,” said Gunel Safarova. “This way, people will get used to the fact that women hold leadership positions in Azerbaijan. And then, maybe, they will be able to start defending women’s rights in a more active manner.”

/with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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