In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev's family takes on farming as a new lucrative business venture

Image by Abzas Media

This article was first published on Abzas Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement.

In 1993, following the occupation of Jabrayil during the first Nagorno-Karabakh War, Sattar Veysalov left his home and moved to Baku, where he tried to recreate the garden he had in Jabrayil. Following Azerbaijan's victory in the second war, Veysalov, now 86 years old, wants to return to his former home and restore the original garden he left 27 years ago, no matter the time or resources it may take him to do that. There are others like Veysalov who wish to return to their homes and work on the land that was once their home. That, however, depends on whether the state's interests will get in the way of internally displaced people like Veysalov.

While Veysalov and others are yet to see a plan for land re-distribution, several companies have been busy farming on the territories Azerbaijan regained following the second Karabakh war.

Speaking on Youth Day on February 2, 2023, President Ilham Aliyev mentioned the agricultural work carried out so far on the regained territories:

Now, various agricultural projects are being implemented in the liberated areas. I can say that this year it is planned to plant 40,000–50,000 hectares. It will ensure our food security. Most of the people working there are young people. That's why young people will certainly play a leading role in these affairs and they should show their own initiative.

Promised land

The Nagorno-Karabakh area has been under the control of its ethnic Armenian population as a self-declared state since a war fought in the early 1990s, which ended with a ceasefire and Armenian military victory in 1994. In the aftermath of the first war, a new, internationally unrecognized, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was established. Seven adjacent regions were occupied by the Armenian forces. As a result of that war, “more than a million people had been forced from their homes: Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the adjacent territories, while Armenians left homes in Azerbaijan,” according to the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent wars and shape policies.

Following the second Karabakh war in 2020, Azerbaijan regained control over much of the previously occupied seven regions. Azerbaijan also captured one-third of Karabakh itself during the war.

On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive into the formerly disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, with the aim “to restore constitutional order” and “force the dissolution of the government” in the capital Khankendi (Stepanakert in Armenian). As a result of the 24-hour operation termed by Azerbaijan's Military of Defense as a “local anti-terror operation,” the government of Stepanakert/Khankendi surrendered, accepting the truce agreement outlined by Azerbaijan and Russia on September 20. Azerbaijan hailed the offensive, declaring it a successful move to restore the country's sovereignty, assuring Karabakh Armenians their rights would be protected and preserved. On September 28, the government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced it would dissolve itself by 2024.

Following the First Karabakh War, the state pledged to redistribute the property and land of collective farms and state farms to villagers free of charge. This was reflected in the law On Land Reform adopted in 1996, specifically Article 24 of the law which indicated the transfer of lands to the internally displaced people, land reform, and restoration of the economy would be carried out once Azerbaijan regained the territories.

Yet, there is still no publicly available information on planned land reform or about the state program, even though investigations by Abzas Media indicate that work on some of the land has already begun.

In an attempt to find answers to these and other looming questions, Abzas Media reached out to Natig Hasanov, the first deputy chairman of the Board of Directors of the Small and Medium Business Development Agency. Although Hasanov told Abzas Media the agency received some 180 applications to begin agricultural work in territories regained during the second Karabakh war, he stopped short of clarifying which projects had been approved, their executors, and the investment needs of the projects.

Abzas Media's inquiry to the Economic Zones Development Agency, which provides state support for the creation of agroparks, was also left unanswered.

Similarly, the Ministry of Agriculture, which leases land for the production and processing of agricultural products in Karabakh, did not provide information about which companies the land in Karabakh was leased to and under what terms.

Further investigations into the companies that have been granted rights and permissions to farm led Abzas Media to the daughters of President Ilham Aliyev — Arzu and Leyla. According to available records, Agro Dairy LLC, engaged in planting and harvesting in Karabakh, is managed by the Pasha Holding group. Previous investigations into Azerbaijan's ruling family indicate that “the ultimate shareholders of Pasha Holding are: President Aliyev's daughters, Leyla and Arzu; and Arif Pashayev, the father of first lady Mehriban Aliyeva.”

In addition to companies linked to the ruling family, Abzas Media came across companies that belonged to the family of State Security Service chairman Ali Naghiyev and Baylar Ayyubov, the head of the security service of President Ilham Aliyev.

The fact that Agro Dairy and other state-affiliated companies have appeared in these investments is not coincidental. After all, President Ilham Aliyev himself said he personally “advised the persons from the management of Agro Dairy and the Azersun agro park to create similar farms in the liberated lands, in Karabakh,” during a visit last year, to another territory regained during the second war.

According to estimates, almost half of the arable land in the liberated territories was distributed among various companies with ties to the government. According to the calculations announced by the Ministry of Agriculture in October 2021, the total area of arable land in the liberated areas is about 127 thousand hectares. More than 2,000 hectares of it are orchards, vineyards, and perennial crops.

There is still no publicly available information on whether any of these and other projects have been approved or not. The companies that have transported the agricultural machinery to the territories regained after the war are also not eager to share their work with the media. Vugar Bakhtiyarli, director of Agro Fresh LLC, initially agreed to give an interview to “Abzas Media,” but later changed his mind.

Vahid Maharramov, an expert on agriculture and the chairman of the Public Association for Support of Agrarian Reforms, believes that by deciding in favor of large entrepreneurs and monopolists in the distribution of arable land, the government is laying the foundation for problems that will be difficult to solve in the future:

Arable, high-quality land is currently being acquired by Pasha Holding and Azersun. And I am sure that soon enough, these companies will completely seize the fertile lands that are close to water sources and are likely to be used and harvested in a better way. Thus when villagers, locals who lived there before occupation will see that fertile lands have been seized and will have to be offered only, let's say, uncultivable lands once they return there. And the result?  They will face problems there.

Meanwhile, former residents, like 86-year-old Sattar Veysalov, continue to wait for permission to visit the land that was once their homes.

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