The government is promising to resettle residents displaced in the 1990s into “smart villages.” But the timeline for that resettlement keeps slipping as reports of worker mistreatment have emerged.
Reconstructed villages need to be smart, says President Ilham Aliyev. (Azerishig)
Former residents of the villages of Aghali, in Azerbaijan’s Zangilan district, have been waiting to return to their homes for nearly 30 years. But they are going to have to wait some months longer, as reconstruction of the villages – over which Azerbaijan regained control following the war with Armenia in 2020 – is lagging amid reports of labor disputes among construction workers.
At the end of 2021, Azerbaijani opposition social media pages posted a 4-minute video in which two men, claiming to be construction workers in Aghali, complain that they had not been paid for three months. One of them said that “200 to 300” workers were in the same situation. “We came here to feed our families, not for show,” the other said.
The two, without disclosing their names or the company they work for, also expressed discontent with the accommodation they were provided. “If you tie an animal up there, even the animal would speak up and say it cannot stay there,” one complained. (The video did not depict their living quarters.) They also reported that the company did not offer labor contracts with its workers.
Aghali is a group of three villages, known as Birinci (First) Aghali, Ikinci (Second) Aghali, and Uchuncu (Third) Aghali. Following the war, the government identified Aghali as the first site for its much-touted “smart villages” concept, a new global development trend that seeks to use technologies like digital connectivity, automation, and renewable energy to build thriving rural communities. The government intends to apply the concept widely to reconstruction efforts in the territories recaptured during the war, which had mostly lay looted and abandoned since the end of the first war between the two sides in the 1990s.
In February 2021, President Ilham Aliyev announced that the first smart village project would be implemented in Uchuncu Aghali, and subsequently in Birinci and Ikinci Aghali. In September, speaking to Turkish media, Aliyev said that the first displaced people would return to a pilot smart village in Zangilan “by the end of this year or early next year.”
But the timeline is slipping. Aliyev’s most recent projection came on February 2, during a forum dedicated to national Youth Day, when he said the government plans to resettle the former residents of Aghali “approximately in the spring or summer months … The return is beginning not later than two years [after the war]. It has a huge symbolic meaning.”
Eurasianet was able to reach one laborer who had been working in Aghali and had not been paid, to discuss the conditions there. The worker, Sakhavat Ismayilov, said that after the video went viral on Azerbaijani social media, the company paid workers their salaries they were owed, and the workers left for the new year holidays.
Ismayilov said that he had earlier worked for a different company in the same area but did not have problems with payment. He told Eurasianet that both companies were Turkish, but declined to disclose the names of either.
Ismayilov said that he and several other workers did not return to continue to work in the village after the new year’s vacation. Based on the amount of work that remained to be completed when he left, Ismayilov estimated that Aghali would be ready for resettlement only after seven to eight months.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture, Vugar Huseynov, told Eurasianet that while he was not able to provide an exact date of resettlement, he was confident that construction in Aghali would finish soon, as “it is in the final stage.”
Amid the labor controversy, the Azerbaijani government has not publicly identified the companies that won state tenders to carry out the reconstruction work in Karabakh. Only a handful of organizations involved in the work, such as the State Committee for City Building and Architecture and the state electricity utility Azerishig, out of dozens of state and private entities involved in rebuilding, regularly publish updates on their activities. The government was planning to spend $1.3 billion in 2021 alone on building smart cities and villages, Aliyev said in September.
Huseynov told Eurasianet that the names of companies involved in the construction were available on a report about the president’s meeting with company heads in April 2021. He also said that he was unaware of the video of disgruntled construction workers.
In the report published on the official presidential website on April 26, 2021, from Aliyev’s visit to Aghali, several foreign company representatives reported to the president on upcoming works, but neither their names nor the names of their companies are revealed, except for one: Chinese giant Huawei. (The countries of origin of some of the other companies were named, including Turkey, Israel, Italy, and South Korea.)
One Azerbaijani company, AS Group, had reported on its website that it was the prime contractor for the “smart villages” construction, but the information was later deleted from the website, local independent news agency Turan reported. The company did not respond to Turan’s requests for comment.
The government is obligated by law to provide information about companies that win public construction tenders, and “not doing so creates a conducive environment for corruption as authorities can easily avoid public scrutiny,” lawyer Ruslan Aliyev told Eurasianet.
The lack of disclosure also goes against the principles of smart villages, one of which is transparency, said economist Toghrul Valiyev. From the very beginning of the post-war construction process, there has been “no accountability over who builds the villages, how much money is allocated, and more,” he told Eurasianet.
Shortly before the construction workers’ video was released, a pro-government member of Azerbaijan’s parliament made a proposal to speed up the process of construction in Karabakh. On December 27, 2021, Agil Abbas said during a parliamentary session that “student construction forces” should be formed in Azerbaijan, to be sent to work in Karabakh.
“Azerbaijani youth can give up their lives in Karabakh. So why not go there now and work voluntarily? They can also get a salary,” Abbas suggested. He even recommended the approximate term and salary for every student who would join, proposing that each could work for two months and receive from 300 to 500 manats ($175 to $300) per month. “This means a workforce of up to 10,000 people. It is difficult to find workers to send to Karabakh. But students would agree to go even without payment,” Abbas said.
Some government critics said the two labor issues appeared to be connected.
“The ‘Iron Fist’ [a metaphor Aliyev frequently uses to symbolize the military victory over Armenia] now has hit the head of construction workers,” wrote opposition activist Mehman Huseynov on Facebook. “Now it is clear why Agil Abbas said we should send students to work in Karabakh for cheap.”
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.