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In 1954, when many borders within the Soviet Union were barely marked, an empty stretch of land was shifted from the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic to the Dagestan Soviet Socialist Republic. The Azerbaijan natives weren’t using it, and their Dagestan neighbors wanted to use it as winter pasture for their cows.
The original land agreement was for 50 years, and the Soviet Union had collapsed by the time it expired in 2004. Shepherd’s tents had been replaced by permanent homes, but little else had changed.
Now the land belongs to Azerbaijan again, along with, two villages located 60 km inside the country. One of the villages is nearly abandoned. The other village is a no-man’s land controlled by the chief of the State Border Service. Even local police say they do not enter.
After six years of discussion about border demarcation, then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev signed papers giving it back to Azerbaijan.
About 200 residents were given a choice — move over the border to Dagestan and become Russian citizens, or stay in what was once again Azerbaijan.
A majority were ethnic Lezgians with their own language and ancestral roots on both sides of the border. Arif Karimov, chairman of the Committee of Lezgian Federal National Cultural Authority (LFNCA), warned them they would face assimilation and loss of identity if they became Azerbaijan citizens.
About half of the people listened to him and moved, according to Elbrus Ganiyev, a lawyer who was one of them. Some families wanted to split and have members living in both countries, hoping to collect benefits from both. The Azerbaijan government wouldn’t allow it, but offered $US40,000-50,000 apiece for the houses they left behind.
Fewer than 10 ethnic Lezgian families stayed. Those who moved were offered Russian citizenship, land and financial help. They told an iFact.ge reporter they have never received land or money. Many live in the Maharramkend region.
According to the TASS news agency, Dagestan has allocated 200 million rubles (about $US3.2 million) for 377 people who have already moved. Local people say they have not heard about this money.
Ganiyev, the lawyer now living in Dagestan, says the real number of people who have moved is closer to 200, and says the larger number is an attempt by Karimov and his Lezgian organization to get more money.
Those who have remained in the two villages, Khrakhoba and Uryanoba, received Azerbaijan passports to replace their old Soviet passports.
The Azerbaijan government began demolishing the old houses of those who left and built some new ones. In 2013 Khrahkoba was renamed Palidli, the Azerbaijan word for the oak trees around the village.
Palidli also came under the control of Elchin Guliyev, who has been chief of the State Border Service since 2002. Guliyev also serves as rector of the Academy of State Border Troops and president of the the Azerbaijan Horseback Riding Sports Federation.
Guliyev is married to fashion designer/create brand developer Fakhriyya Khalafova, the cousin of President Ilham Aliyev.
His uncle Mahir Guliyev has been in charge of the Palidli local government since 2013. “Elchin Guliyev treats the area like it’s his own property,” said another local government official who asked not to be named. According to a district policeman, Elchin Guliyev had a landing pad for a helicopter built.
“New houses and a school were built not with the financial support of the (former president) Heydar Aliyev Fund, as the pro-government media writes, but with the money of Elchin Guliyev,” says a local education official who also asked not to be named. “At present 200 pupils study in the Palidli school, but most of them come from neighboring villages on buses provided by Guliyev.”
At least 26 new houses have been built in Palidli, but about half are empty. Since 2013, Guliyev has arranged for 18 Kurdish families to move from Nakchivan on Azerbaijan’s southern border with Armenia, Turkey and Iran. They were supposedly coming to work as shepherds, but according to a local policeman who spoke to iFact.ge, the goal was to get at least some Lezgins to move away so they were not a dominant majority in the village.
In addition to the new houses, the Kurds were told they might get four cattle or 20 sheep, a bonus of 1000 manat (about $US1,270) and 250-300 manat (about US$315-380) every month.
According to a local government worker, the Kurds never received the animals or the bonus. They did receive money monthly after their names were added to a government job list for cleaners and guards, even though they didn’t do those jobs.
Six of the Kurdish families left. According to a government worker, the Kurds said Guliyev made them work on his farms, take care of his animals, and didn’t pay them.
Palidli is closed to strangers. A district policeman told iFact.ge that he doesn’t remember the last time he was in the village.
iFact.ge tried to visit. Palidli is very beautiful from a distance, but there is a strange silence. Taxi drivers from about 70 km away in Khachmaz said they don’t drive to those villages and recommended nobody else visit.
“No one can go there out of fear of (local government leader) Mahir Guliyev,” says taxi driver Jalal Mammadov. “They warn everyone that the village is Elchin Guliyev’s property. We don’t need any problems; that’s why we don’t go there.”
Mahir Guliyev started yelling as soon as an iFact.ge reporter approached the village: “Who are you? Who sent you here? This village is not a resort where you can come and have a rest, or a walk! I tell everyone this is mine, and I don’t let anybody get in! Go away before I call the police!”
Nobody living along the road to the village wanted to talk. “You do not really know the situation here?” one man said. “We live here like we’re in prison. Only one person (pointing toward Mahir Guliyev) controls everything. We don’t have any rights.
“Do not be fooled by the view of this place. We live in bad conditions. They brought Kurds from Nakhchivan. Some of them got tired and fled. Some of the Lezgians went to Dagestan without selling their homes.”
The smaller village of Uryanoba village is mostly in ruins. There are only three-four families live; they are mainly old-aged people. Young generation have to move to Dagestan due to the lack of the school, infrastructure. In comparison with former Khrakh-oba, most of the residents of Uryanoba accepted the Azerbaijani citizenship, but unlike to Palidli, Azerbaijani government didn’t do any reconstruction work in here. Because of this inconvenience conditions half of the residents moved to Dagestan, half of to Khachmaz.
Dagestan resident Shakir Zahirov says nobody rebuilt Uryanoba: “It wasn’t on Guliyev’s land. We had no choice. There was no road, water or school. It was impossible to live there, so we fled to Dagestan.”