For over a decade, Azerbaijan celebrated the birthday of former president Heydar Aliyev with a holiday called Flower Day. Elaborate floral displays were featured in public parks across the country, especially in Baku.
But the holiday was scaled back last year, as the date, May 10, coincided with the end of the 40-day mourning period after heavy fighting with Armenian forces in April, 2016, claimed the lives of nearly 100 Azerbaijanis. And this year, too, the holiday is being celebrated in a more modest fashion, with a variety of small events in which ordinary Azerbaijanis were encouraged to show off their own arrangements.
Officials have offered scant explanation for the new format this year. “In order to ensure more active participation, we decided to organize it in a different way,” was all that the Baku mayor’s office told local media outlets.
But it’s widely assumed that the country’s deepening economic troubles prompted the government to scale back. While officials had never fully accounted for Flower Day expenditures, it had become a touchstone for protests against extravagant government spending. Asked about the expense of the event in 2013, Baku’s mayor, Hajibala Abutalibov, told RFE/RL: “Don’t ask me about the cost because [the legacy of] our Heydar Aliyev’s value is priceless. That’s why I’m not thinking about finances when it comes to this day.”
An independent economist, Rovshan Agayev, estimated in 2014 that the government had spent about 150 million manats, or $117 million, on the holiday from 2004 to 2013. In 2014 alone, 6 million flowers were imported for the event, mainly from the Netherlands, Turkey, Ecuador, Italy, the United States, and Israel.
There was a time when Azerbaijan could have locally sourced its own flowers. During the Soviet era, the republic was a major flower producer and the leading supplier of flowers to Russia.
Today, though, Azerbaijan’s floriculture industry has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. The country’s main export markets are Georgia and Russia, and last year it earned a mere $13,700 on the export of 42,000 cut roses to Georgia, and $13,400 on the export of 268,000 carnations to Russia.
Rahim Habibov grew up in a flower-growing family on the collective farm of Mashtaga village, near Baku. According to him, the last time his father exported flowers to Russia was in 1993. “And with that profit he married off my sister and covered all the wedding expenses,” he said.
Now 35, Habibov is continuing in the family business, raising daisies and lilies as well as carnations and roses in his 7-by-16-meter greenhouse. But these days, he sells all his flowers in Baku. “It is not profitable to sell outside Azerbaijan,” he said.
The government has taken some steps to revive the industry. In 2011, the National Entrepreneurship Support Fund under the Ministry of Economic Development announced a tender for investment projects in floriculture development. “This is a traditional activity for Baku settlements,” President Ilham Aliyev explained. “We must bolster it.” The fund allocated 2.5 million manats in 2012 to local flower growers, about $2 million at the time. The fund did not respond to requests for more recent data.
Azerbaijani floriculture “is developing,” according to Eldar Guliyev, deputy chair of the Azerbaijani parliament’s committee on agriculture, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. “The agricultural sphere is in the spotlight of the government, and we have started to produce new types of flowers.”
The government’s efforts seem to hold out the greatest potential benefit for floriculture firms connected to the government. One beneficiary of the fund is AzAgro LLC, which operates two hectares of greenhouses in the Shamkir district. The company is owned by the Synergy Group, a conglomerate that includes banks, hotels, agricultural and Internet technology companies and is headed by Ashraf Kamilov, a long-time associate of the Aliyev family and former senior official in the Ministry of Taxation.
In addition to the state funds, the government has exempted the company from paying half its property and income taxes, as well as all customs duties on imported equipment for seven years. It has also improved the gas supply to AzAgro’s greenhouses, Kanan Karimov, the firm’s financial director, told EurasiaNet.org. “So we are fully supplied with everything,” he said.
Smaller farms continue to struggle, however. Abbas Majidov, a fourth-generation flower grower on a collective farm on the Absheron Peninsula called Shuvalan – at one time Soviet Azerbaijan’s largest flower producer – said that costs are increasing faster than profits. “The prices of gas and electricity are going up,” he said. “I’ve heard that the government supports some people who have big farms, but not small greenhouses,” Majidov told EurasiaNet.org.
Others remain skeptical about how serious the government is about reviving floriculture in Azerbaijan. “Floriculture requires complex measures – science needs to be developed, and genetics is not developed in Azerbaijan. There are interruptions in the gas supply to villages,” said Vahid Maharramov, the head of the NGO Support to Agricultural Reforms Public Union.
“Without solving other problems, the government’s efforts to improve floriculture are useless,” Maharramov continued.
Maharramov was one of the founders of Flower Day in 1997, when it was celebrated in March and was unconnected to Heydar Aliyev’s legacy. “The idea was to encourage local florists who grow flowers to bring what they grow and exhibit it. It would create networks and collaborations among local cultivators,” Maharramov said.
In 2004, the holiday was revamped to serve as a celebration of the former president. The new iteration of Flower Day failed to contribute to local floriculture, he said, adding, “on the contrary, it is waste of public money.”
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.