Azerbaijan, the host organisers of eurovision in May 2012, had a prepared itinerary for the European press cattle and it is not so keen on those who decide to deviate from the yellow brick road they have so carefully paved. Despite its status as a major oil exporter (one million barrels a day sold), Azerbaijan manages to escape the attention of most. Wedged between Russia and Iran and practically hanging from the side of Europe, it was never a traditional tourist destination. Ethnically Turkish with a Persian flavour, previously occupied by the soviets and currently the willing host of multinational companies, the Caspian state has been shaped by a multitude of contrasting influences.
Oil upon a time
Undoubtedly, oil has catalysed the city’s growth. It all started in Balakhani, a village of around 11, 000 on the edge of town. It was one of the first spots where oil came gushing out of the ground; that was hundreds of years ago and it seems that the village has gone even further back in time. Exiting the shiny metro station, we travel on a series of increasingly decrepit marshrutkas which slowly shudder off the motorway through settlements of dwellings with rusting tin roofs, over uneven paths which kick up clouds of dust, around a corner…and that’s when I see them. Rising in the distance like a black forest, the hundreds of ‘nodding donkey’ oil pumps greedily suck up the remaining dollars from the scorched earth. Here is where people live in the shadows of Azerbaijan’s considerable wealth. So close, yet so far.
‘Some people who have land where oil is discovered become rich.’ Zaka, a local resident and shoemaker, flashes a smile half full of gold. ‘But here it is sold to foreigners, and we live in the dirt.’ At a neighbour’s house we are immediately presented with tea and a triple layered tray of bright candied sweets. A four-month old baby sleeps on a bed in the corner and Zaka and his friends listlessly smoke, play nard (backgammon, the national obsession) and tell me what they think about contemporary Baku. ‘People like us are not allowed in the centre of town right now, because of this eurovision. They only want foreigners to see the well-dressed people and show off the money.’ Rumours swirl of villagers being taken off Baku-bound buses and sent back home.
Fruit, vegetables and chickens land
Tankers carrying water rumble past almost every five minutes; external delivery is essential due to the complete contamination of the land. A fresh batch is about 15 euros for 5000 ml but an average pension is 55. Zaka and his friends are internally displaced persons (IDP) who fled their land in 1993 following the war with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. They are from Agdam, formerly home to 150, 000 but now an eerie, rubble strewn ghost town overgrown by weeds. During the collapsing scenery of the soviet union in 1988, a skirmish in the region quickly metastasized into an ugly, protracted conflict which saw rapes, pogroms and massacres on both sides. After the dust settled in 1994, Azerbaijan had lost over 10% of its land, leaving the autonomous republic of Naxchivan marooned in a sea of what it deems ‘Armenian occupied territory’. Nearly a million Azeris were displaced and their plight is a frequent topic of discourse.
‘Before the war, Agdam was a vibrant, colourful place where we grew fruit and vegetables and kept chickens,’ says Mehman. ‘If we had any animals here, they would die. Every day the government talks about Armenia and the war. We all fought for our country but we get nothing in return. I’m waiting to go home. I don’t feel anything here.’ Mehman’s lament is interrupted by a black car pulling up. Some of Zaka’s friends go to investigate. While they talk, the sunglass wearing occupants of the car in peer out of the window into the room, scanning across before their gaze alights on us, the foreigners. Zaka’s friends return: ‘We don’t really know what they wanted. They said they were looking for a friend but I’ve never seen them before.’
There is ample reason to beware the chill of the security services breathing down one’s neck. In April, pioneering investigative journalist Idrak Abbasov was savagely beaten into a coma by security guards employed by SOCAR, the state oil company, as he filmed them demolishing houses in his neighbourhood. Nevertheless, we set out into the oil fields, meandering through the hypnotically oscillating pumps; some houses are situated right next to these machines. They afford no security at all and could be repossessed and destroyed at any point.
Wandering up a hill, surrounded by precariously towering settlements containing more Karabakh refugees, through an old cemetery with slightly disconcerting photos of the dead plastered onto the grave stones, we view a lake in the distance. When we arrive, a lagoon stretches out towards the horizon dotted with small shacks and by the shoreline, a vast black oil swamp littered with plastic bags, children’s shoes and near fossilised birds. The next day, at Crystal Hall, I open my eurovision media pack. Amongst the gaudy promotional leaflets and CDs promoting the various eurovision acts, there is a small, velvet-covered box. I open it up and pull out a plastic crystal, and sloshing around in the centre, a small droplet of pure crude oil. Courtesy of SOCAR, an official eurovision sponsor.
Read part II in the special Azerbaijan series, 'Glamorous construction boom: Baku’s sinister foundations', here