Travels in the Former Soviet Union

The World's Worst Spies
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 22 2008 11:40 AM

Travels in the Former Soviet Union

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Click here to launch a slide show on day 4: the world's worst spies.

NAKHCIVAN, Azerbaijan—When I told people in Azerbaijan that I was going to Nakhcivan, I heard the same three things over and over: Nakhcivan is unbearably hot, it is bleak and poor, and it is a dictatorship. People especially relished telling me about the last point. "You don't need to go to Turkmenistan. You can just go to Nakhcivan; it's the same thing," one opposition politician told me, referring to the most famously repressive place in the former Soviet Union. "You know, if you don't tell the government beforehand that you are going, they might arrest you at the airport," a Western diplomat warned me.

Nakhcivan is an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan separated from the "mainland" by a caprice of Soviet border-drawing. Wedged between Iran and Armenia, with a sliver of a connection to Turkey—the only land border with Azerbaijan's closest ally—it is a sensitive and important part of Azerbaijan. It's also a place of political significance—Heydar Aliyev, the president for 10 years, was from Nakhcivan, as was Abulfaz Elchibey, the president who preceded him. These days, the "Nakhcivani clan" boasts several members in President Ilham Aliyev's inner circle.

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My initial impression of Nakhcivan was that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Nakhcivan, said to be the least-developed part of Azerbaijan, has brand-new roads, construction going up all around the small capital (also called Nakhcivan), and a generally pleasant air. Even the weather confounded my expectations—my visit coincided with a rare cool spell.

I took the train to Culfa, a historic town on the border with Iran. The Lonely Planet travel guide, published in 2004, claims that Culfa is "plagued by bureaucrats who like nothing better than interviewing foreigners at great length and pontificating about the town's enormous strategic importance." But the authorities there seemed to be completely uninterested in me. Similarly, I took photos all around Nakhcivan—something that had caused great consternation in South Ossetia—and the police never bothered me.

But it didn't take long to realize that while the government may have refined its tactics somewhat, it still tries to keep a tight lid on things. I was greeted at the airport by Asiman, a young English-speaking assistant in the protocol office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Whenever I met him, he asked what I was doing around town and whom I was meeting with. At first, I chalked it up to simple curiosity—very few foreigners (other than Iranians or Turks) come to Nakhcivan. The waiter at the cafeteria where I ate most of my meals even asked for my autograph.

But Asiman's curiosity came to have a bit of an edge. "So, who did you meet with today?" he would ask me every time I saw him. Oh, a politician, some journalists. "Which journalists? Which politician? What did they tell you?" he asked.

The last afternoon I was in Nakhcivan, I met with Asiman and Ali Alizade, the head of his office. I asked Alizade about Nakhcivan's reputation as a police state and where he thought this reputation had come from.

"I was told you met with Vagif Mahmudov and Malakhat Nasibova. I think they told you about this. They are from the opposition, and they don't like the government," he said. All this was true. Mahmudov is an opposition politician, and Nasibova is the local correspondent for Turan, the opposition news agency. And they had in fact told me that Nakhcivan was a repressive place.

But I told him that diplomats in Baku, several other Azerbaijani sources, and my travel guides—in short, virtually every source of information I had about Nakhcivan—had said it was an oppressive place. Asiman piped up, "Which diplomats?" I pointed out that his habit of asking that kind of question didn't help the perception.

I admitted that thus far I'd had no real problems with the government, but I asked if the government watched opposition figures like, for example, Mahmudov and Nasibova. "Ah—so they did tell you about this!" Alizade said, triumphantly. I gave up, said my goodbyes, and went back to my hotel to pack for the flight back to Baku.

Waiting in the lobby was a young journalist who said she wanted to interview me about Nakhcivan and Azerbaijan. She spoke good but oddly formal English.

"What do you think about the democratic processes of Azerbaijan and the Nakhcivan Autonomous Republic?" she asked me. I told her that three days in Nakhcivan weren't enough to make me an expert on its democratic processes, but I gave a boilerplate answer about international criticism of the Azerbaijani elections of 2003 and 2005, suppression of the media, and so on. I also mentioned that the government took an inordinate interest in where I was going and whom I was talking to, which didn't speak well of its democratic processes. That was the only statement she wrote down in her notebook.

Then her questions began to center on Nasibova.

"So, I understand you met with Malakhat Nasibova. What did she say to you?" she asked. "What does she think about the democratic processes of the Nakhcivan Autonomous Republic?" I said Nasibova was a friendly and open woman and would certainly answer these questions herself. "Yes, I am going to call her," she said. "But what did she tell you about the elections of 2005?"

During the "interview," I got a phone call from a friend. "Was that Malakhat?" my interrogator asked when I hung up.

Heydar Aliyev rose from obscurity in Nakhcivan to become a top KGB operator and eventually the head of the agency. I think he would be appalled at the shoddy skills of today's generation of Nakhcivan spies.

Ironically, I had barely spoken with Nasibova. I spent more time with Mahmudov. "The situation in Nakhcivan is very difficult, much more anti-democratic than the rest of Azerbaijan," he told me. Whenever he said the name of Nakhcivan's leader, Vasif Talibov, he lowered his voice.

The handful of independent journalists and civil-society officials in Nakhcivan report regular harassment. Just days after my visit, opposition activist Ilham Sadigov was kidnapped by masked men, and Nasibova was told she would be killed if she wrote about it. (He was later released.)

During my short time in Nakhcivan, I heard other stories. One young man who lived for a time in Istanbul said he received regular anonymous phone calls in Azeri—he believes from Nakhcivan—asking him whom he was meeting with and why he was learning Turkish. A pair of Korean missionaries was arrested when they went to Culfa, their translator told me. Some Iranians were arrested when they tried to visit the Alinca Castle, one of Nakhcivan's few tourist attractions, according to a taxi driver who took them there.

Of course, it could be worse. After I flew back to Baku, I shared a taxi from the airport with two ethnic Azeri men from Tabriz, Iran—or as they called it, South Azerbaijan. I mentioned that I had seen a lot of Iranians in Nakhcivan and asked why they liked it there. "In Iran, it's illegal to read or write in our language, and if you speak it, the police will suspect you of being a separatist," one of them said.

For what it's worth, he was a separatist. He argued that Iran should either become a federal state with each of its five major ethnic groups getting its own territory, or failing that, Azeris should split off, join with Azerbaijan, and form a new state with Tabriz as the capital. "There are 30 million Azeris living in Iran, and we can't use our own language," he said.

"In Iran, there are so many restrictions, and people are so unhappy," he told me. "We go to Azerbaijan so we can feel free."

Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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