Small bookstore owner describes hostile takeover by powerful minister

Nigar Kocharli

Nigar Kocharli

Nigar Kocharli

Nigar Kocharli

Nigar Kocharli opened her first bookstore – a small space in a cafe in Baku – in 2001, with an initial capital investment of $600. Since then she's opened more than a dozen new stores and the chain, Ali and Nino, is the first bookstore chain in Azerbaijan.

Her business is now under threat, she says, from one of Azerbaijan's most powerful figures. In a Facebook post, she detailed how Kamaleddin Heydarov, the Minister of Emergency Situations in Azerbaijan, is attacking her small business.

In the post, an address to Heydarov and his son, Taleh Heydarov, she described how four years ago she was invited to the offices of Gilan Holding, a business controlled by Heydarov. During the meeting, a company official demanded she give up her business and hand it over to Gilan. “We are an elephant, and you are an ant – we will crush you,” Kocharli said she was told.

Subsequently, she said, she started having problems with customs and shipments of books were delayed. Her staff were harassed by police, and she suffered mysterious burglaries, she said in a later interview.

Meanwhile, Taleh Heydarov had started his own book business, a chain called Libraff. And recently, she was told by the administration of seven malls where Ali and Nino shops operate that they will have to close, and will be replaced by Libraff shops.

“Obviously, it's much more difficult to do good than to close the Ali and Nino chain and open your own bookstores in its place,” she wrote.

Libraff has denied the allegations, and issued a statement claiming that the company has no ties with the government. The statement further accused Kocharli of spreading misinformation about the company and its bookstores, adding that if the “attacks” have increased in the last four years, an ant should have been crushed long ago by an elephant.

Heydarov is a notorious figure in Azerbaijan; one memorable United States diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks described his sprawling business empire and cracked that his Ministry of Emergency Situations also was known as the Ministry of Everything Significant. It noted that the MES had a reputation for bullying out competitors. “MES staff have previously warned American and other foreign businessmen that their purview covers anything that is associated with temperature, pressure, or isotopes -- categories broadly interpreted to include just about everything under the sun,” the cable reported.

More recently, Heydarov has been at the center of a scandal in Malta involving shady financial deals with members of Azerbaijan's government.

Surely the bookstore business is insignificant for a business as large as Heydarov's, and opinions differ about what could be behind the apparent takeover. Some Azerbaijani commentators have said it seems to be a display of strength and power, and others argue that it is about gaining control over all sources and means of access to information.

Meanwhile, Kocharli has been put forth as a model for Azerbaijani small businesses and has has gotten investment from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's Small Business Support program. “It has become a very competitive award,” she said in a 2015 EBRD press release, referring to the grant. “Sometimes people hate me for it."

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