Requiem for Azerbaijan’s Book Industry
On February 12th, 2018, Nigar Kocharli, the owner of Ali and Nino, the first, biggest and the most famous bookstore chain in Azerbaijan, said in a Facebook post that the Heydarov family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Azerbaijan, threatened her numerous times, trying to bully Kocharli out of business. “You are an ant and we are an elephant – we will crush you,” Kocharli was told. The post was accompanied by a video that was watched more than 100,000 times in just a few days. Interestingly, the story was not covered by most well-known Azerbaijan news agencies.
Kemaleddin Heydarov is the Minister of Emergency Situations of Azerbaijan. The Heydarov family is known for owning more businesses than any other Azerbaijani family, having practically monopolized some of them. The minister’s son, Tale Heydarov, founded his own bookstore chain, Libraff, last year. According to Nigar Kocharli, Heydarovs are planning to devour Ali and Nino by ousting her stores from shopping malls and replacing them with Libraff.
This will be the first step to the monopolization of the book business in Azerbaijan. Since this is not a very profitable industry, the motives are not financial, but purely political. In fact, the Azerbaijani government has been trying to take over the book business for quite a long time.
Qanun publishing house, one of the country’s oldest, was under pressure since the early 2000s, when it started publishing articles and printing newspapers for opposition political parties. Shahbaz Khuduoglu, the director of Qanun, was jailed for 6 months under false charges. In 2003, ahead of the presidential elections, authorities cut the electricity in the district where Qanun’s office was located in an effort to limit the freedom of press.
In 2013, Qanun underwent a tax inspection by Azerbaijan Ministry of Taxes and was fined $90,000 for alleged tax evasion.
Qanun constantly translates and publishes world’s classics as well as contemporary works in the Azerbaijani language. It is difficult to overstate its incredible contribution to Azerbaijani society. “They are trying to choke the only publishing house that revived books,” said Shahbaz Khuduoghlu, the director of Qanun.
In 2016, police unexpectedly raided Qanun’s office, claiming there had been an anonymous phone call that there was a bomb in the building. As it turned out later, “the bomb” was printing flyers in support for opposition politician Ilqar Mammadov. Police unlawfully confiscated the flyers and some of the publishing house’s equipment.
The pattern suggests that Azerbaijan’s media censorship is now spreading to the book industry, and the government, having already tried to “teach a lesson” to publishers, is finally taking control of what its people can and cannot read, along with what publishers can and cannot print.
Although Kocharli’s business has not been the most transparent and honest with its clients, nonetheless, it represented a successful independent enterprise, not limiting competition. Closing Ali and Nino, a highly influential bookstore, will result in a vacuum in Azerbaijan’s book industry that will be filled by government-friendly Libraff. And if a government official does take over the book business he will be the only one in the book business.