Bukharian business mogul and BJCC President Leon Nektalov just returned from his third trip to Azerbaijan—and second this year. Not only did we travel together as part of a Bukharian delegation, invited by the State Committee on Work with the Diaspora of the Republic of Azerbaijan and organized by Rafael Nektalov, but our trip to Azerbaijan was largely shaped by his business interests and acumen. Now that we’re back, I caught up with Mr. Nektalov to hear his impressions.
Erin Levi: What is it about Azerbaijan that keeps you returning?
Leon Nektalov: People are good. The country is good. It’s good for business opportunities. And Baku is a beautiful city with a nice atmosphere.
Levi: When your first trip?
Nektalov: In 2019. I was traveling.
Levi: I guess it made an impression.
Nektalov: Oh yes.

Levi: You mentioned business opportunities. What makes Azerbaijan such an attractive market?
Nektalov: A lot of different things. The possibility to make new connections. I’m doing a joint venture with one of the country’s biggest manufacturers of wines and liquors, including whiskey and cognac.
Levi: You were accompanied by your Uzbek business partner.
Nektalov: Yes, Oybek. He came to see what I was doing in Azerbaijan.
Levi: Tell me: Why do you like Azerbaijan so much?
Nektalov: The culture is similar—familiar, in a way—to what I experienced growing up in Uzbekistan.
Levi: During the trip, we visited the new Alat Free Economic Zone on the outskirts of Baku. It’s modeled after free economic zones in Ireland and China, the Shannon Free Zone and Shenzhen Free Zone. While it’s still courting businesses, we learned that there’s already Israeli pharmaceutical company manufacturing vaccines and insulin there. What did you think of the visit and meeting there? Were you enticed at all?

Nektalov: The meeting was good, but at the same time, it’s more difficult than [typical free economic zones.] In fact, Uzbekistan has a similar program. The governments are working closely together, and I think they [trade tips and insights]. Azerbaijan is more successful because it’s separate from the ‘Stans [and has a stronger economy]. But still, it’s a good business opportunity in both countries.
Levi: And how did you find our meeting with the Ministry of the Economy?
Nektalov: It was very useful, and I hope in the future we will be able to do business with them.
Levi: Our trip wasn’t just about business. What did you think of our visit to Red Village, the last Mountain Jewish enclave, and the so-called last shtetl in the world outside of Israel?
Nektalov: It was very nice. I loved the museum. The museum is done the best way possible. It has a lot of explanations [and exhibits]. The community has done a wonderful job putting together this museum, which was very interesting. Plus, the Kavkazi Jews still live there and have their own community there, i.e. active synagogues.
In Uzbekistan, our community isn’t as active as what we witnessed in Red Village. Also, much fewer Jewish people living in Uzbekistan than in Azerbaijan (there are 3,200 residents in Red Village alone).
That said, on previous visits to the Red Village, we dined at a kosher restaurant with Mountain Jewish cuisine, but they closed it down.
Also, I should mention, in Red Village, they have a Bukharian Rabbi. This time he was away – he was in Israel. Usually, he’s there and he takes care of the community.
Levi: Are you close with the Mountain Jews in New York?
Nektalov: I know some but they’re mostly in Brooklyn.
Levi: We met with the Ilgar Mahmudov is the Mayor of Guba, the city that comprises Red Village and 19 other minority groups. I know that you’ve been to Red Village multiple times, but what was it like for you to meet the Mayor of Guba?

Nektalov: He was aware of our World Congress convening in Azerbaijan and was very happy to hear that we’ve already returned just a few months after. He also said he’s very close to Uzbekistan—that a delegation of 13 Uzbekistanis was going to be arriving just after us. The mayor said he’s seeking investments in agriculture and tourism. It’s something I’ll keep in mind.
Levi: After Guba, we visited the Guba Genocide Memorial Complex. It’s built by a mass grave claimed to be from 1918. How did you feel visiting it?

Nektalov: It was incredibly moving. Its triangular design and high level of detail chronicling the stories of individuals killed and overall history reminded me of Yad Vashem.
Levi: What’s it like visiting a Muslim country – or countries – after October 7th?
Nektalov: Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are not antisemitic countries. [In fact, both countries have a history of tolerance and coexistence with Jewish communities.] They want Jewish people to [return]. They’re very friendly and close to the Jewish people. It’s no surprise that among Muslim countries, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are considered to be very close friends.
After our trip, I spent two weeks in Uzbekistan and loved it. Also, I have a lot of close Muslim friends there. They host me—and wine and dine me.
Levi: When are you planning on going back to Azerbaijan?
Nektalov: When we finish drawing the contracts. Then I’ll go for the signing.

Erin Levi