Rural property and economy in postsocialist Azerbaijan

The former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan declared its sovereignty in 1991. Since then, with the exception of Elçibey, who was elected president in relatively free elections and held office for one year, all heads of state have had their roots in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Heydar Aliyev, a former member of the Soviet Politburo, became president in 1993. His ruling party has kept a tight reign on the country ever since; local level functionaries either belong to this party or have access to politicians through patronage and corruption. Aliyev’s son Ilham succeeded him as president in October 2003. The political turmoil of the first years of independence has been exacerbated by unrest, ethnic cleansing and war as a result of the conflict with Armenia over the status of the Autonomous Region of Karabagh. By the time a ceasefire was declared in 1994, Armenia had annexed Karabagh and occupied parts of adjacent regions as well. Azerbaijan lost almost one fifth of its territory, and seven of its provinces (rayons) are still under occupation.
This project focused on privatisation policies in the countryside. Despite the gloomy economic and political background, by the time fieldwork began in 2000 a significant number of reforms were being rapidly implemented. While privatisation has proceeded with different degrees of success in different sectors of the economy, the implementation of both economic and legislative reforms has remained problematic. Azerbaijan’s economic development is dominated by the energy sector, which accounted for more than 30% of GDP in 2001. In comparison, agriculture is marginal at the national level.
The marginalisation of the rural economy despite radical privatisation of agricultural land has been one of the main themes of investigation in two field sites, one in the west of the country and the other a smaller settlement further north. In the first site, Täzäkänd, privatisation of former sovkhoz and kolkhoz lands had been completed by the time of my arrival and some residents had already received their deeds. According to the provisions of the land reforms, all residents of rural settlements were entitled to receive equal shares of land formerly owned and used by sovkhozy and kolkhozy. This meant 0.14 ha per person in the case of Täzäkänd. An effort was made to ensure that household members received land in the same locations, to enable its joint working. Entitlements to land depended primarily on where a person was registered as residing, and secondarily on family status; thus in-marrying women who failed for whatever reason to register in their new residence could not receive land. A comparison with the case in Ukraine (2003b) showed that Azerbaijani reforms were apparently the more radical in the extent to which they eliminated all traces of the Soviet agricultural infrastructure. Production and marketing are now sustained primarily by informal networks based on kinship and friendship. Closer inspection reveals that cooperation continues to play a key role in production in both countries.
Land reforms were designed to eradicate collective property and to give the individuals the opportunity to become owners and farmers. The former kolkhoz and sovkhoz workers were forced to become individualists, i.e. to become economically active without the state support. At a certain level the policies succeeded, since the old collective structures did indeed vanish and individuals were forced into more entrepreneurial roles. It was not, however, anticipated that individuals and households would focus their energies on household plots and/or migration. The privatised land remained under-cultivated, though one could observe shares – especially those of solitary elderly women - being accumulated in the hands of a few farmers who either had strong links to the local state authorities or were able to mobilise a large group of kin. More intensive cultivation of the household plot, an institution which persisted from the Soviet era, was the main response to the economics of smallholder cultivation, differentials in soil quality and access to water, the limited availability of markets and the withdrawal of almost all state support. Work on the plots suited households’ labour composition and could be lucrative through the production of cash crops such as herbs and vegetables for markets in Russia.
Migration to Russia was sometimes part of a coping strategy in which other household members concentrated on plot cultivation. My project paid particular attention to the links of kinship and friendship which facilitated the passage of goods to the urban markets of the north, notably Moscow itself. Unregistered migrants in Russia (and in other former Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan) have become a crucial source of income for Azerbaijani consumers. Nearly two million Azerbaijani citizens are estimated to earn their living abroad (out of a total population of some eight million). Their remittances have a direct impact in changing consumption habits and play a significant role in marriage negotiations and ceremonies (2002).

Go to Editor View