In a province of Azerbaijan, workers give up their free time to beautify public spaces, sometimes unwillingly. From IWPR.by Elman Abbasov 20 August 2012
A casual visitor to the Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan would be impressed to see the squads of people who turn out every Saturday to clean the streets – and even more to hear that they are volunteers giving up their free time.
The volunteers are continuing a tradition from the Soviet period and still known as the subbotnik (from the Russian word for Saturday) – but many say they are not volunteers and are pressured into taking part.
The scheme operates only in Nakhichevan, a region of Azerbaijan that is separated from the rest of the country by Armenian territory and often makes its own rules.
The subbotniks are the brainchild of Vasif Talibov, the speaker of the local assembly, and are arranged so that every public-sector organization has its own allotted tasks.
In urban areas, every green space is marked with a sign saying which institution is responsible for its upkeep, and all employees are duly required to turn out on Saturdays. Only top officials are exempt, and play a supervisory role instead.
Subbotniks begin at eight in the morning and work goes on until the evening, rain or shine, in an area where the summer heat can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and winter temperatures can plunge to minus 30 (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit). A halt is called only when snowstorms or torrential rain makes it impossible to go on.
The subbotniks are advertised on local television and Sharq Gapisi, the official newspaper in Nakhichevan, devotes several pages to them every week.
In a recent issue, the paper said nearly 24,000 of Nakhichevan’s population of 414,000 had taken part in the latest subbotnik, planting 15,000 trees and 400 flowerbeds.
Few participants are willing to come out and publicly criticize the government-backed programmed, for fear of the consequences.
Some, like Emin Mammadov, vote with their feet. Mammadov simply resigned and moved away from Nakhichevan to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
Schoolteacher Allahverdi Askerov said subbotnik work was now extending even beyond Saturdays.
“Subbotniks used to be held at the weekend only, but now they call you out to clean the streets on working days as well,” he said. “How much more can they humiliate us teachers? We aren’t slaves who must work for our masters from morning until night. Everywhere you look, there are women, children, teachers, and doctors cleaning and tidying the roads. … Don’t these people have their own work to do?”
Other public-sector institutions are given farmland to tend. The secondary school where Musa Tagiyev teaches, for example, has a quota for growing potatoes, sugar beets, and cereal crops.
“There are particular fields assigned to schools, and teachers are forced to work there, or else risk losing their jobs if they refuse to do so,” Tagiyev said.
There are penalties, too. If the school fails to “fulfill the plan” the teachers either have to buy enough produce to make up the shortfall, or the money is deducted from their salaries.
Hakimeldostu Mehdiyev of the Nakhichevan-based Human Rights and Press Monitoring group said it was unacceptable to force people to work for nothing – particularly when it kept them from doing their real jobs.
“Suppose someone comes to hospital in poor shape and the doctor isn’t there – a life is put in danger because the doctor is out picking potatoes,” he said. “And if a village administration officials isn’t at his desk, people needing to get hold of documents will have to wait for him to come back from the subbotnik. It’s a violation of their rights.”
An education official in Nakhichevan, who asked not to be named, insisted no one was forced into doing supposedly voluntary work.
“They take part in the subbotniks of their own free will. No one forces teachers to go on subbotniks,” he said.
Hasan Hajiyev, Nakhichevan’s official representative in Baku, said volunteering had positive social effects.
“Subbotniks are events that unite diverse types of people, who come together in shared work. What’s wrong with that?” he asked. “These people aren’t forced to do it. They go on subbotniks entirely voluntarily.”
Askerov, the schoolteacher, disagrees.
“We aren’t treated like human beings,” he said. “In Azerbaijan, and Nakhichevan in particular, they treat intellectuals the way slaves were treated in ancient Egypt.”