It used to be public devotion to Shi’a Islam that made the Azerbaijani village of Nardaran seem to residents like their own “small homeland.” But now, two years after a security operation against suspected Islamic radicals, the government has tried to turn the village into a regular suburb of Baku, the Azerbaijani capital. Yet doubts persist about the changes.
"It was an authentic village,” one 26-year-old university lecturer with a relative in Nardaran recollects nostalgically. “The walls and fences were covered with religious inscriptions and appeals. Everywhere were the flags of Islam. Now, after all these changes, Nardaran has turned into an ordinary settlement . . .”
The flags and inscriptions are gone, but other differences have arrived. Police at the village’s entrance will only admit travelers registered to live in Nardaran, a hamlet of just over 9,000 people located about 34 kilometers northeast of Baku. They refuse all others. Any outsiders who do get into the village use back roads, according to locals.
The reason for the checkpoint dates to November 26, 2015, when security-service troops entered Nardaran for a raid on those the government charged were armed, Islamist radicals planning “acts of provocation, terrorist attacks and mass riots.” Those accused denied the charges.
Six people died in the clashes that ensued, while dozens were arrested, including the head of Nardaran’s council of elders, Natig Karimov, and theologian Taleh Bagirzade,leader of the Movement for Muslim Unity, an activist group.
Nardaran’s strict observance of Shi’a Islam long had fostered speculation that it was a stronghold of neighboring Iran, and a place alien from largely secular Azerbaijan.
Yet many locals object to those characterizations. Islam plays an important role in Nardaran, they say, but the village is as much a part of Azerbaijan as any other.
"There [always] were a lot of educated people here,” underlines one 66-year-old homemaker. “Many people think that once a woman is Muslim, she must stay at home and not go anywhere. This is not true. We have women teachers, doctors.”
In a bid to integrate Nardaran still further, the central authorities have changed some aspects of village life after the violence of 2015.
They have paved and expanded its main road, installed street lights, upgraded power lines and opened a facility for managing supplies of water and electricity. To highlight these changes, President Ilham Aliyev visited Nardaran in the summer of 2016.
"Before . . . the roads were very narrow, it was hard to cross them," comments the homemaker, who, like other local sources, requested anonymity out of security concerns.
"Now, thank God, it's not dark,” she continues. “The street lights are on, people go out without being afraid. The roads are normal. The electricity is not cut off . . . ”
After the 2015 crackdown, erratic payment of power bills caused Nardaran to lose its electricity. Now, electricity meters have been installed.
Some Azerbaijanis, though, saw the blackout as a way to discipline the village. The government also has reopened a long-closed police station and set up a local branch of the Ministry of National Security.
The interviewed homemaker, born in Soviet times, has no objections to these measures. The police checkpoints, she says, give villagers “a quiet life.”
Yalchin Imanov, the attorney representing Taleh Bagirzade, however, believes that life in the village has deteriorated since 2015, with locals more isolated from the rest of Azerbaijan.
"Because of the posts at the entrances, people are constantly tense, anxious,” comments Yalchin Imanov. “There are families who have had two or three people arrested, father and sons. The authorities say that they allegedly brought here civilization, infrastructure, but they only created the appearance of that.”
The homemaker asserts, though, that those arrested in 2015 “opposed the state” and must bear the consequences.
“You cannot mix religion with state affairs. And they mixed it all up. In a republic, everything is separate,” she says of Islam and Azerbaijan’s secular government.
After the 2015 crackdown, the government closed Nardaran mosques without a state registration. It has since authorized the construction of an Islamic school for the village.
In Nardaran, as in other villages near the capital, female students continue to wear hijab, though Baku’s public schools discourage wearing the coverings.
Few women or men, however, are on the streets. While the woman cited above mentioned people bustling around to “new shops everywhere,” none of these stores or eager shoppers could be seen. Only small street markets selling staples like soap, matches, bread and pasta have increased.
That could have to do with the economic situation. Nardaran once supplied flowers throughout the Soviet Union, but earning a decent living here today is not easy. Many villagers still work in greenhouses, yet some residents complain that unemployment runs high.
Exact data does not exist, but economist Natig Jafarli, an opposition leader, counters, though, that the government’s development projects “have created a certain quantity of jobs.
Overall, conditions have "softened" a little compared with 2015, the earlier cited university lecturer believes -- police, rather than the military, now run the village checkpoint, he notes.
Some locals, though, believe that what they call their "siege" situation may continue for another year or two.
So long as it does, the invisible border between Nardaran and the rest of Azerbaijan will likely remain.