By Afgan Mukhtarli*
A fourfold rise in the number of suicides in Azerbaijan has alarmed experts who warn that this cannot be blamed on the recent economic crisis alone.
A total of 535 suicides were recorded last year, up from 138 in 2008, according to Kamala Talibova, head of the department of emergency psychological assistance at the ministry of health´s mental health centre.
During the first quarter of 2016, another 94 people committed suicide, while 16 made failed attempts, according to the website of the ministry of internal affairs.
Not all suicides committed in Baku and particularly in the regions of Azerbaijan are actually included in the statistics, as some families tend to disguise them as natural deaths.
“Despite the fact that the number of suicides has increased so much, there is no specific structure that seriously researches this problem,” said Samira Gasimli, a political psychologist from the civil movement REAL.
She said that Azeris were experiencing a whole host of social problems, including high unemployment and meagre salaries.
Ordinary people were hit hard by the central bank´s devaluation of the national manat currency in February and December last year, which took place against the backdrop of Russia´s economic problems and falling prices of oil, of which Azerbaijan is a major exporter.
But Gasimli also argued that it had been the pressures of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian society that had the greatest impact.
“In general, the root of the problem is political and connected with the system,” she said. “The injustice of the judiciary, the lawlessness of the police, the destruction of civil institutions and the free media, the lack of strong opposition organisations have made people vulnerable before the power of the authorities.”
Civil and political rights are severely restricted and violated in Azerbaijan, which has dozens of political prisoners. Its judicial system is corrupt and its human rights record poor, according to international human rights organisations.
“On this basis the loss of people´s confidence, no confidence in what tomorrow will bring, along with all this the inability to freely express their opinion and the absence of an environment for self-fulfillment creates serious psychological problems,” Gasimli concluded.
The media is full of almost daily reports of suicides. On April 11, for example, there were five cases reported in the capital Baku and surroundings.
Talibova also said the suicides committed by children were of particular concern. According to her information, six children killed themselves in the first quarter of this year. In 2013, 18 children committed suicide, a figure that had risen to 29 by 2015.
Turgut Gambar, member of the board of the civil movement Nida, warned that there was a new group of people at risk – those with large outstanding debts.
The devaluation has made it exceedingly difficult for people to keep up with repayments. Many banks issued loans fixed in dollars that have to be paid back in manats.
“People cannot repay their high-interest loans, have no hope of finding work, and cannot engage in business without interference,” Gambar told IWPR. “People, who are unable to support themselves and their families under these circumstances, unfortunately see suicide as the only way out.
“The crisis has generated total hopelessness and the feeling that everything will become even worse causing people to give up.”
Yadigar Sadigov, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat party and a former political prisoner, agreed that suicides were “increasing in parallel with the deepening social and economic crisis in which the country finds itself”.
“After two devaluations, a significant part of the population has reached the level of bankruptcy,” he continued. “It has become impossible for individuals to repay debts to banks. There is no hope for tomorrow, which leads to extreme measures.”
Dayanat Rzayev, psychologist at the Centre for Psychology and Psychotherapy, stressed that the economic crisis is only the tip of the iceberg. The reasons for the increase of suicides goes much deeper, he said.
“If you compare it to the end of the 1980s and 1990s, the economic crisis today is not so bad. In those years, people could literally not find a piece of bread. But suicides were rare. Therefore, it is not the difficult social conditions, but the total social injustice,” he told IWPR.
“It is one thing if there is a crisis in the country and all live badly. It is another, when there is such a deep stratification of society that some mercilessly rob others. When officials act lawlessly, treat citizens roughly, when the common man is not left with any route to restore justice,” he continued. “In such circumstances, society falls into depression and individual members often see suicide as their last way out to protest.”
*Afgan Mukhtarli is an Azerbaijani journalist living abroad. This article was published at IWPR’s CRS 817