At night, Baku’s dizzying skyline lights up like a pinball machine. The sandy walls that wrap around the old city fall cold in the shadow of gleaming monoliths such as the Flame Towers – three high rise glass tentacles curling up 600m into the sky, illuminated by over 10,000 LEDs. The twelfth century jug-shaped Maiden’s Tower is dwarfed by the myriad five star hotels and business centres that flash out into the murky Caspian sea like beacons of 21st century wealth.
Oh to be an Aliyev
However, some soviet clichés are impossible to avoid. One week before the eurovision song contest, I touch down at Baku's Heydar Aliyev international airport (named after the deeply revered late father of current president Ilham Aliyev). As we drive down pass the endless interchangeable brutalist apartment blocks of Heydar Aliyev Street, I am confronted with billboards featuring the stern visage of Heydar Aliyev, looking upon me disapprovingly. I arrive at a metro station, which features above the entrance a quotation from...I think you get the idea.
Read part one in the series: 'Glamorous oil fields: Baku’s crude reality' on cafebabel.com
Family ties are very tight in Azerbaijan, and there is no greater reflection of this fact than the ruling Aliyev family who seem to be some of the wealthiest people in the region - a proposition that sits awkwardly with the poverty of most of the nation. A large percentage of ramshackle homes in the capital suffer from regular electricity and water shortages. The average salary is said to be 400 dollars although with such exorbitant income inequality, that number ceases to function as a useful guide. In 2010, it was reported that an 11-year-old boy with the same name and birth date as the president’s son had become the new legal owner of a Dubai property portfolio estimated to be worth 44 million dollars.
Walking around Baku’s old city with prominent blogger Ali Novruzov, we stop outside a large, regal apartment block in the tsarist style that features a much smaller house stuck onto the side. ‘I call this ‘the monument to the rule of law’,’ says Ali. ‘One hundred years ago, a rich man wanted to buy up this whole block to build a massive house for himself but he was prevented by the owner of the small dwelling, who would not sell his land. Back then, nobody could evict you from your property. The reality today is very different.’
'I am not worried about the authorities – what more can they do to me?'
Leyla Yunas can testify to this fact. The diminutive but vociferous veteran human rights campaigner is railing to a crew of journalists assembled in Fountain Square. ‘One evening in August 2011, the police came with a bulldozer and destroyed my entire house, the house of my grandfather. All my possessions were destroyed, my books, my computer, my family archive…and all without any compensation from the government. But I am not worried about the authorities – what more can they do to me?’ The pre-eurovision excitement was soured by reports earlier in the year of illegal evictions and destruction of property situated near the Crystal Hall stadium. The squat, pointy concert hall was built next to Flag Square, featuring the largest flag pole in the world, until Tajikistan cruelly snatched the record in 2011.
Atop the hilly confines of west Baku, I am speaking with Seymur, a city lawyer. ‘Twenty years ago, you could see the Caspian from any point in this neighbourhood,' he explains. 'Now, it has been obscured by these skyscrapers and apartment blocks.’ The influx of petrodollars has seen hundreds of new buildings spring up like weeds even in the suburbs and Seymur is telling me, over a well lubricated dinner, about the invisible hands that built them. ‘During the construction of one particularly prominent exhibition centre, we became aware of hundreds of migrant workers from the Balkans being crammed into one house. Their passports were seized, they received barely any food or water and this was in the heat of the summer. Two workers died from exhaustion. If any company behaved by the books here, they would never survive. The judicial system is not fair so we have frequently settled workers’ cases out of court because at least a tiny percentage of compensation is better than nothing. Although by that time, most of them have been deported.’
As the hour becomes late, Seymur goes off topic and talks about how, despite the country’s newfound riches, morale has nosedived in the last decade. Seymur, a large jovial man in his fifties, successful in his own right, receives no money from the state but nevertheless he has seen his own political ambitions dashed, his family members threatened and his former friends turn against him. Still, he maintains that in the past, at least the press used to provide a critical voice and there was a semblance of democracy. ‘But they were different times. Back then, we knew what happiness was.’ Seymur stops talking for some time and stares into the middle distance, temporarily muted by memories. In a taxi on the way home as we speed along the shore, I point at yet another brashly lit apartment block shaped like a staircase. I ask the driver about Baku’s changing scenery, prepared for the usual tirade against the government, but he simply shrugs: ‘We know that money is not for us.’
Images: main 'One of thousands. Taken through a car window' by (cc) kvitlauk/; in-text by © Andrew Connelly