A sole truck trundles down the wide asphalt road in Araliq, a sleepy village in Naxcivan, an exclave not only largely cut off for decades from the rest of Azerbaijan but also from the outside world.
Araliq is the hometown of Vasif Talibov, who was appointed to run Naxcivan in 1995 by Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's third post-Soviet president and father of the current authoritarian leader. Talibov, a relative of the elder Aliyev, who was also born here, appears to have topped the two in instituting what human rights groups said was an even more repressive regime.
For years, most Western media outlets and rights groups were banned from Naxcivan. But with uncertainty and change following Talibov's recent shock resignation, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service has been allowed back to report from the isolated exclave, with some residents speaking freely about their lives in what has been dubbed Azerbaijan's North Korea.
Over his 27 years of rule, Talibov built what became, by most accounts, his personal fiefdom in Naxcivan, which is cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by a wide swathe of territory of rival Armenia. Naxcivan, whose eponymous capital is home to an estimated 94,500 people, is bordered not only by Armenia but Turkey, barely, and Iran. During the Soviet era, Naxcivan was an autonomous republic within the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.
Talibov's political fortunes were cemented by his marriage to Sevil Sultanova, whose mother's uncle was none other than Azerbaijan's longtime ruler, Heydar Aliyev.
During the waning days of the Soviet Union in 1991, Aliyev left Moscow for his home region of Naxcivan, where he is said to have lived temporarily with Talibov, who ruled the province from 1995 up until last month.
But on December 21, 2022, Talibov, 62, announced unexpectedly that he was stepping down as head of the Autonomous Republic of Naxcivan -- its official name -- for what he said were unspecified health reasons.
While his resignation was a surprise to many, it came amid moves by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev -- who took over from his father, Heydar, in 2003 and has ruled in much the same authoritarian manner -- to retake at least some control in Naxcivan. 'The Khan' Referred to by many as "the khan," Talibov routinely hounded his critics, targeting journalists and rights activists, and having some locked up in mental institutions. State employees were forced to work Saturdays -- a hated holdover from the Soviet era -- cleaning streets or harvesting crops. He had odd laws passed, including one forbidding washing to be hung from apartment-block balconies.
He and his two sons -- Rza and Seymur -- monopolized local business with their own stores, allegedly forcing competitors to shut down or dash plans to start businesses. The three are believed to have amassed a huge fortune, including millions in allegedly laundered funds from foreign banks. This despite -- officially at least -- their meager state salaries.
Talibov's two sons opened banks accounts with several foreign banks, including Credit Suisse and Barclays, a bank data dump in February 2022 found. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the two brothers' bank accounts were used for dozens of wire transfers -- amounting to more than $20 million -- from shell companies that were part of the so-called Azerbaijani and Troika Laundromats, two massive money-laundering schemes previously uncovered by OCCRP. Over the years, the brothers acquired properties in Dubai and Georgia worth an estimated $63 million. While their bank accounts apparently grew fatter, most people in Naxcivan were struggling. With few jobs and abundant repression, many in Naxcivan have slowly left, mostly for neighboring Turkey, which shares a sliver of a border with the exclave and a similar language.
Talibov's surprise announcement came after moves by Baku to rein in the renegade exclave, despite the family ties. With Talibov now out of the picture, Azer Zeynalov, the first deputy chairman of the local legislature -- nothing more than a rubber-stamp body under Talibov -- will step in at least temporarily.
In November 2022, Azerbaijan's State Security Service arrested a customs official in the region. That was followed a few days later by an order from President Aliyev to dissolve the local customs committee and transfer its authority to Azerbaijan's State Customs Committee. Earlier that same month, Baku also took control of Naxcivan's security services.
Fear And Loathing In Naxcivan
On the streets of Araliq, while many praise -- publicly at least -- Talibov for maintaining law and order, others are outspoken in their criticism of his often-brutal regime.
There's little hustle or bustle in Araliq along its wide boulevards lined with tidy homes and stores. For a town of only 1,000, Araliq is home to a hospital that dominates one expansive square, as well as other imposing edifices, including what looks like a newer-built school. During his rule, Talibov made sure his hometown was taken care of, apparently sparing little expense to build it up and keep it well maintained.
In the spring of 2022, resident Safi Abbasov said he had bought 90 kilograms of potatoes and onions in Turkey for his recently departed father's memorial service. When he tried to cross back into Naxcivan with the vegetables, customs officials stopped him.
"I protested. I said, 'I'm just carrying potatoes and onions.' They said, 'No, that's not allowed,'" Abbasov told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
"But [the local authorities] themselves were transporting [food products] by trucks. I just had 90 kilograms," he said, adding that his plight got even worse.
Abbasov said he was dragged away and detained in a jail cell for nine days, suffering what he described as torture, and denied food. He said he was finally released after he paid 3,000 manats ($1,764) to bribe a judge.
Such accounts of beatings at the hands of law enforcement in Naxcivan are not uncommon, with reporters and rights activists often the favored targets.
Idrak Abbasov, a journalist on a fact-finding mission for a human rights report, was hospitalized in February 2009 for injuries suffered during questioning by security forces in Naxcivan.
Igor Nasibov, a former freelance photographer for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, was brutally beaten by unknown assailants in Naxcivan in August 2014.
And in a case that made international headlines, Yafez Hasanov, a former RFE/RL correspondent, was deported in September 2011 from Naxcivan through Iran after investigating the death of a man reportedly accused of spying for Tehran.
No-Go Zone For NGOs
Such abuse in Naxcivan is believed to be widespread, but word of such cases rarely reaches the outside world, given the exclave has long been off limits for international human rights organizations.
Human Rights Watch said that while Naxcivan was "Talibov's private fiefdom," it could offer no comment on his human rights record since the watchdog has not been on the ground in years.
One of the last reports on the exclave by an outside organization was published in 2010 by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. "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," it said at the time.
Back in Naxcivan, Vuqar Babayev recounts bitterly how his teahouse in the village of Nehram, which cost him nearly $2 million, was demolished in 2007. Babayev told RFE/RL that the building was razed as part of what he claimed was a general order to shutter all similar establishments, as well as grocery stores, that were not run by the Talibovs.
"It was our teahouse. We still have the ownership documents. We paid 3,179,048 manats [for it]," he explained, giving the exact purchase price of some $1.8 million, including furnishings, land, and other facilities, including an indoor swimming pool. "They demolished it and did not give us any compensation. Wherever we went to complain, [the authorities] said 'We will put you in prison.' They just said it should be demolished, that's it."
Babayev said the teahouse dated to the Soviet era and served the workers on a collective farm. He said his father used to work there and he bought it after the collective collapsed shortly after Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991 in the waning days of the Soviet Union.
Yusif Rzayev, a retired teacher, said there were 10 teahouses in Nehram in the past, but only one remains today. The 77-year-old retiree laments he does not know where to go to spend his free time. "It was banned. The khan (Talibov) banned it," he told RFE/RL.
Jobseekers Head To Turkey
With the climate for business and job prospects grim in Naxcivan, many have left for Turkey to find work, although officially, up until November 2022, Talibov's government was claiming Naxcivan had no unemployment.
Pakiza Allahverdiyeva told RFE/RL that she has worked a range of jobs in Turkey for 20 years and had moved there with her husband and three children. The early days were stressful, Allahverdiyeva said, and her workday was often a long one, sometimes finishing at 1 a.m.
"We worked in textile production. I was not a machinist. I was just running here and there. They were speaking fast [in Turkish]; I couldn't understand them," she recounted. "I used to ask my children at home [about the meaning of the words in Turkish]. If there was work in my country, why would I leave my homeland?"
She saved up enough money to buy an apartment in her hometown of Calilkend, Naxcivan, but said that hasn't solved all her problems.
"I worked for so long in Turkey. I cleaned stairs. I worked in a textile factory. I worked day and night to furnish this home," Allahverdiyeva said. "I have a home -- yes -- but not food."
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