A week after prolonged rioting shook the Azerbaijani provincial town of Ismayilli, one question lingers: why there?
The violent clash  between police and Ismayilli residents started after an apparently mundane car fender-bender, allegedly involving Vugar Alakbarov -- the son of Labor and Social Security Minister Fizuli Alakbarov, and nephew of Nizami Alakbarov, the governor of the Ismayilli region. The disturbance, which resulted in the torching of a hotel allegedly owned by Vugar Alakbarov, was followed by a demonstration calling for the governor’s resignation, an event stamped out by police. Scores of arrests followed and the town remains in an effective lockdown.
Set against the backdrop of a presidential election looming in October, government officials have blamed the unrest on a political provocation carried out by unnamed “foreign powers.” But some observers argue there’s an economic explanation for the outburst. Economist Kenan Aslanli contended that the anger of those, who, to quote Karl Marx, had “nothing to lose but their chains,” was the primary cause of the riots.
“Economically, Ismayilli is one of the most underdeveloped regions of the country,” explained Aslanli, an expert for the National Budget Group, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that monitor the state budget.
Average monthly salaries stand at a 221 manats ($281.74), compared with 517.2 manats ($659.38) in Baku. The number of registered unemployed persons, while officially less than 3 percent of the population between the ages of 15 and 65, is more than four times the number in the neighboring region of Gabala, a popular tourist destination. In 2011, for reasons that remain unclear, only nine of the Ismayilli region’s 788 registered jobless residents received unemployment compensation from the government.
For the unemployed, job prospects are bleak: in 2011, only 99 new jobs were created in the town, the State Statistics Committee reported. Capital investment in Ismayilli businesses fell by half from 2007-2011, Aslanli added, citing official statistics. The region’s manufacture of carpets, food products and construction materials is mostly in non-private hands.
Aslanli blamed the “monopolization, bureaucratic impediments, [and] corruption” as the main reasons for Ismayilli’s economic woes.
Opposition politician Natig Jafarly, an economist, concurred with Aslanli’s assessment. “The regions are divided between the oligarch-ministers,” Jafarly asserted. “Their relatives or friends are appointed as governors; they monopolize the local economy, enjoy all the opportunities.”
Regional officials dispute the economic argument. In a brief interview with EurasiaNet.org, Rafael Ahmadov, Ismayilli’s first deputy governor, angrily retorted that the unrest had nothing to do with social welfare or economic problems. “Who said that? The region is prospering. I disagree with whatever allegations that unemployment is higher than in other regions,” Ahmadov said, and hung up the phone.
Officials have tried to cast doubt on reports that Vugar Alakbarov was a catalyst for the trouble in Ismayilli. In particular, they dispute the notion that he, or any other member of the Alakbarov clan, has an ownership role in the Chirag Hotel that burned. To back this claim, authorities have circulated government registration documents that identify an entity named VAFI Tourism, rather than a member of the Alakbarov family, as the hotel’s license holder.
The hotel industry, however, does not seem to be unfamiliar to Vugar Alakbarov. On January 28, Ilgar Mammadov, who heads a watchdog organization called Real Citizens Union, published on his blog screenshots of Alakbarov’s Facebook page. On the screenshots, Alakbarov promotes the Chirag Hotel. The page was later deleted from the user’s account.
Another company of which Vugar Alakbarov is a director, Improtex Real Estate, LLC, has a contract with Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide to build a Sheraton hotel in Ismayilli, Radio Azadliq, the Azeri-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported on January 28. [Editor’s Note: This reporter works for Radio Azadliq as a freelancer].
An investigation into the ownership structure of VAFI Tourism appears to show a connection to Vugar Alakbarov. According to the official company registry, he is an official owner of two other companies with similar names: VAFI Construction and VAFI REGION. On January 30, the British Broadcasting Corp’s Azeri-language service reported that VAFI REGION owns the domain name for VAFI Tourism.
Meanwhile, the governor’s assurances that his family has no connection to the Chirag Hotel appear to be doing little to assuage frustrated town residents. “There is unemployment, injustice, people deprived of the opportunity to earn their living because of this family’s rule in the region,” fumed Heybat Balayev, head of Ismayilli’s council of elders, referring to the Alakbarovs. “And now they want to insult us and want us to keep silent.”
Many residents echo Balayev’s assessment, naming unemployment and corruption as the main reasons for their anger, and saying that the car accident was the last straw. They claim that Vugar Alakbarov is, indeed, the owner of the Chirag Hotel, and that he was present at the scene of the car accident.
So far, the government, which has opened criminal cases against detained protesters, does not appear inclined to entertain citizen grievances. Reports of arrests and the alleged abuse of imprisoned protesters continue to flow out of Ismayilli.
In a January 29 statement, the New-York-City-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch urged the Azerbaijani government “to make sure that no one held in relation to the riots and protests in Ismayilli is ill-treated,” and to respect their right to due process. The government has not commented on the criticism of its handling of the rioting.