A new investigation has found that agricultural firms connected to powerful people, including the first family, were given non-transparent contracts to develop land in Karabakh.
by Heydar Isayev
Agricultural land in the territories Azerbaijan retook in the 2020 war with Armenia are being developed by companies connected to top government officials, a new investigation has found.
Abzas Media, an independent news outlet, on June 23 published a report detailing which companies have gotten government contracts to farm land in Karabakh. Many of the companies, several of them little-known, are connected to high-ranking officials, including the daughters of President Ilham Aliyev.
Abzas reported that the state Agency for Development of Small and Medium Businesses (KOBIA, in its Azerbaijani acronym) presented, at an October 2021 exhibition called “Rebuild Karabakh,” a short list of companies that had been awarded government deals to carry out agricultural work in various parts of Karabakh.
According to the agency’s figures, which hadn’t been publicly shared elsewhere, a total of 8,376.5 hectares of land had been leased in 2021 to five companies: Agroinkishaf-2017, Agro Fresh, Agro Diary, Azersun, and Kraun Ko.
It’s “no coincidence that these companies popped up in liberated lands in Karabakh,” Abzas said, given the close connections many of them have with the government.
While it wasn’t clear how those 8,000-plus hectares were allocated, KOBIA did identify a small number of specific, separate deals. Azersun, a giant Azerbaijani food monopoly, was awarded 9,000 square meters of land in the Gubadli district, in a project valued at 40 million manats [$23.5 million]. Azersun is owned by Turkish businessman Abdolbari Gozal, who is known to be close to the ruling family.
Agro Dairy was awarded a project worth 851,000 manats [$500,000] on 5.2 hectares in the Aghdam and Fuzuli districts. The company belongs to Pasha Holding, owned by members of the powerful Pashayev family of Aliyev’s wife, Mehriban Aliyeva.
Aliyev has mentioned the role of Azersun and Agro Dairy in Karabakh. In a visit to the Hajigabul district in April 2021, where he was visiting an “agropark,” a large-scale, state-backed agribusiness venture, Aliyev met the director of Agro Diary. Aliyev said that he had “recommended both those managing Agro Diary and Azersun to build agroparks in the liberated lands of Karabakh.”
A previous investigation by the independent news agency Turan found that the majority of the new agroparks established in Karabakh were connected to figures close to the government.
Kraun Ko-R was given a project worth 20 million manats [$12 million], on 2.3 hectares in the Zangilan district, Abzas reported, citing the KOBIA presentation. Kraun Ko-R’s ownership significantly overlaps with those of companies belonging to the family of Ali Naghiyev, the chief of the State Security Service, the Abzas investigation found. And its legal address happens to be the same as those of companies belonging to Baylar Ayyubov, the chief of the presidential security service.
And that is likely the tip of the iceberg, as the KOBIA presentation did not appear to cover all new government contracts for agricultural work in Karabakh. Kraun Ko-R’s director, Sabuhi Abdullayev, has said that his company planted wheat on 24,000 hectares in Gubadli, Zangilan, and Jabrayil districts in 2021 alone. “We plan to expand the land on which we are farming as soon as more territories are cleared of landmines,” he told Public Television.
Since the end of the war, Azerbaijan has undertaken a massive reconstruction campaign in the territories it retook, which were left largely destroyed after 30 years of Armenian occupation. The work so far has consisted mainly of landmine clearance, building infrastructure like airports and roads, and setting up several new, heavily promoted “smart villages” in the Zangilan district. The reconstruction work has focused heavily on the city of Shusha, which has been formally designated as Azerbaijan’s “cultural capital.”
The government hasn’t provided specific information on when the more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis displaced from those territories in the first war between the two sides in the 1990s might be able to return to live. But it appears to be moving ahead with allowing big businesses to start farming work there.
In a February speech, President Aliyev briefly touched upon the agricultural work being undertaken in Karabakh. “Various agricultural projects are now being implemented in the liberated areas. I can say that a sowing campaign is planned on 40,000-50,000 hectares this year. This will contribute to our food security,” he said.
According to an April 2021 presidential order, the Ministry of Agriculture “is temporarily entrusted with the implementation” of new agricultural work “in the the liberated territories of Azerbaijan,” including “leasing of agricultural lands for production and processing of agricultural products” and “exercising control over the use of leased lands.”
The Ministry of Agriculture did not respond to Abzas’s inquiry about to whom land in Karabakh had been leased and on which criteria they were selected.