Of the countries formed after the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is considered one of the richest – all thanks to its oil and gas reserves. Its capital city Baku hosts the Formula One races and invites Lady Gaga to perform at the new stadium opening ceremony. It seems almost irrelevant that, for the third decade running, the country is ruled over by the Aliyev dynasty. And while Azerbaijan boasts some of the worst scores in international corruption and freedom of speech ratings, could it be that, similar to the Gulf States, civil liberties are a small price to pay for overall prosperity and generous welfare handouts? What lies behind the skyscrapers and fancy residentials? How much of the oil profits actually reach the population? And does all this prosperity benefit the refugees and displaced persons of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, 25 years since the violence subsided? Find out in this Hromadske special, reporting from Baku, Azerbaijan.
"I'll find you where you are: in the darkest depths, under land or water, in the Caspian deeps."
The mid-century Soviet oilman song pours from the speakers. A giant Azerbaijani flag waves over Azneft square in central Baku. This section of the waterfront is a real showcase: the view includes the Four Seasons Hotel, the pristine and vigilantly guarded Presidential Palace up the street, and is topped with the Flame Towers – three skyscrapers resembling three tongues of fire. At night, they light up in the colors of the Azeri flag, and serve to remind the world that Azerbaijan is home to history's first oil well, commercial oil production having been introduced here as early as the mid-eighteen hundreds. Upon regaining its independence in the 1990s, Azerbaijan set about signing billion-dollar contracts with Western oil companies. The subsequent decade was marked by vigorous construction work, courtesy of the newly acquired petrodollar.
Baku now hosts the Formula One races. Lady Gaga performs at the 2015 European Games opening ceremony. The Heydar Aliyev Center, dedicated to current leader Ilham Aliyev's father, ex-president and ex-First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan SSR Heydar Aliyev, was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, one of the world's most prominent architects. In 2014, it won the Design Museum's Design of the Year Award.
The Black and the White City
"There used to be an industrial park here, factories and refineries, too,"
comments Baku-based photographer Bashir Kitachayev as we stroll down the Black City. At least, that is the old name, the one commemorated by Georgian-born Russian writer Boris Akunin in his book
"The Black City"
. But this stretch of land, conveniently located both near the sea and the city centre, is the White City now. Gone are the old buildings, and in their stead, modern multi-storey residentials have been erected
"in the French style",
as they call it here. Construction works began in 2000, yet most of the flats remain uninhabited
property here is simply too expensive.
Standing right across the road is a rundown one-storey building reminiscent of a slum. In Baku, these districts are known as
Many of them sprouted up in the early 1990s, when the capital was flooded with refugees from Armenia, and also Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani region annexed by Armenia.
In another such settlement, referred to on the map of Baku as
(the Ukrainian word for hamlet), there are more people outside in a narrow sidestreet than on the sprawling boulevard of the White City.
Rosa, a local, is 75. She approaches us to lament over her meager pension, which is only enough to pay the bills, and that light and gas are prohibitively expensive. She shows us her room, where she lives cooped up with her daughter, two sons, and several grandsons. Thirty years ago, she worked as a kindergarten teacher in neighboring Armenia, but had to flee because of the war. The violent phase of the conflict ended 25 years ago, in 1994. She says she was never offered to move out of Khutor.
Khutor residents treat journalists with some caution, and ask us where we are from before agreeing to talk. According to Freedom House, Azerbaijan is among the most repressive countries in the world for freedom of speech. Independent media is nonexistent, while journalists always run the risk of landing behind bars.
We meet Nazim, a middle-aged man who once lived in Kherson, Ukraine, before returning to Baku to tend to his sick father. He welcomes us in and offers tea. The flat is tiny, with a small kitchen, his large family call it home. His wife occasionally enters to tell us how comfortably they live, and to praise President Ilham Aliyev. They, too, have not been offered alternative housing arrangements.
The authorities have been tearing down such districts since the mid-2000s, especially those in prime locations, by the sea or downtown. The inhabitants are relocated to the outskirts, and some find this to be a good thing. An example of this is the notorious Sovietsky district in central Baku. It was well known throughout the 1990s for its gangland showdowns, and "Sovietsky boys" made good enforcers for the local mafia. The district has since been leveled and replaced by a public park.
Azerbaijani law stipulates that the state is under an obligation to compensate any loss of property at market value. Yet according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report on the forceful eviction of Baku denizens, the compensations offered were often incommensurably small, no more than €2,000. Yet those who refused could be left with nothing at all.
The Three Comrades
The district of Darnagul is a nakhalstroy based on Khrushchev-era apartment blocks. Balconies of brick, wood, plastic, weatherboard, or rusty metal, the ground strewn with cotton left to sun-dry. The people inhabiting these houses are refugees. A young man offers to give us a tour, and we see a communal kitchen with leaking pipes, a sewage system in disrepair, a washroom with shards of glass scattered on the floor, moldy walls. One woman tells us that she has been on the waiting-list for 26 years, but should be receiving a new flat
"anytime soon now".
"This is a vulture, here is a golden eagle, two more eagles there, pheasants as well,"
Eldaniz Imanogly points each bird out to us. He is no refugee, but a Nagorno-Karabakh war veteran. Right outside of his home stands a memorial he has built in honor of his three fallen comrades. Next to it is a small zoo for children. The birds and landscape are intended to resemble the trees and mountains of Karabakh. Imanogly fought in the war from 1991 to 1996. He received three injuries from sniper fire, and now has a sever disability. He has been working on the Karabakh memorial for two decades now.
"I vowed: If any of you dies as a hero, I promise that – if I survive, if I do not die as a shaheed – I will build a monument for you. This I promise you. Then I saw them in a dream, and they said to me: 'Dear one, make it so that we are pleased'. So I planted all of this so that they have a nice view."
Eldaniz lives in a single-bedroom flat opposite his monument. He insists that he wants nothing from the state, not a house or a car, not even a better pension (he receives 400 Manat, or 200 Euro). What he does want is for the government to invest in state-of-the-art weaponry:
"For the Azerbaijanis of the world, the war is not yet over. We can forgive the Armenian who lives abroad, but those who laid hands on our homeland, on our children and our elderly, those we do not forgive. It says 'Death to Armenians' right here,"
he points to the monument.
Nearby residents admit they were annoyed at first. Over the years, though, most have grown to respect Eldaniz and his monument, taken in by the man's open and kind personality.
"He has a deep love for all of our national heroes. That's why he brought all of these stones. He didn't get help from a single organization. He brought them all by himself, on his own back"
says one of his neighbors.
Millionaire officials and the semifeudal provinces.
"No, we regular citizens of Azerbaijan do not see our country as very rich at all. Of course, we have the oil profits. Yes, roads and institutions are constructed. But if you imagine a pyramid, very little actually makes it down the walls to the common people,"
asserts political analyst Shahin Rzayev.
He illustrates with public healthcare, which is free in name only. For instance, when calling an ambulance,
"palms must always be greased, otherwise they might not come next time".
Indeed, as we drive past a state hospital, one of our companions quips:
"You get admitted with a cut or a nosebleed, you sign out with cancer".
Over the next few days in Baku, we hear the same joke in reference to a number of medical institutions.
Togrul Mashally, economist, explains the difference between Azerbaijan and oil majors such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia: with all of Baku's aspirations to resemble its Gulf counterparts, in Azerbaijan, the state prefers to finance the construction of parks, airports, and skyscrapers while turning a blind eye on social concerns.
When oil prices fell in 2014, living standards plummeted. The Azerbaijani economy is dependent on oil and gas, which make up 92% of all its export. Before September 2019, the average countrywide wage was $317. The minimum wage, raised recently, was less than in neighboring Armenia, which Azerbaijan is still at war with.
There are many Western consulting firms, such as McKinsey, operating in Azerbaijan. The government commissions architects from Europe for its building projects. And while such specialists are handsomely compensated for their work, their input is usually limited to planning or designing strategies, not actually investing in the country.
Construction similarly contributes little to economic development: the market is dominated by three or four large holding companies with ties to relevant state officials.
"Any construction company needs to be licensed by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which is headed by Kamaleddin Heydarov, himself believed to be one of the country's most affluent developers,"
says Mashally, and goes on to clarify:
"According to the State Statistics Committee, there are no millionaires in Azerbaijan. It is no secret, however, that the holding companies belong to a number of officials – ministers and deputy ministers doubling as major stakeholders in these companies. Corruption is rooted in government tenders, not bribes, yet the corresponding information is closed to the public."
For Mashally, an over-regulated business environment and the corruption implicit are the reason why many Azerbaijanis choose to set up shop abroad despite the country's bountiful resources. Government agencies see their purpose as essentially punitive, fines are slapped preemptively, whereas proving one's case in court is expensive. Better to go into business elsewhere, say, Georgia or Russia.
According to official census data, Georgia and Russia are currently home to 280,000 and 600,000 Azerbaijani citizens respectively. The overall population of Azerbaijan is roughly 10 million.
"Around here, every other household has someone working in Russia,"
says a man who himself is only visiting from Moscow for his vacation.
His neighbor sports an LDPR (Russian party lead by Vladimir Zhirinovskiy) t-shirt.
The man's house is in the village of Qarasu, 145 kilometers from Baku. He tells us that there is little employment to be found outside the capital, which is why many choose to leave. Incidentally, it turns out that he and our driver worked together in Moscow. Our driver owned a store back then, but had to close it down and now mans a taxi.
The village lies close to Qaciqabul, the regional center. Located on the highway not far from the capital, the town can hardly be called remote. Yet there is nothing here to remind of Baku, with its luxurious and expensive residentials, boutiques, supermarkets, and shiny gas stations. In fact, there is an overall lack of notable infrastructure: all in all an entirely unremarkable post-Soviet town. Several men play backgammon in a square next to a time-worn railway station, the sign missing half of its letters. A faded portrait of Ilham Aliyev peers out at us from the local news-stand.
The locals are reluctant to talk on camera. In the capital, a journalist can mix with the crowd fairly easily: around here, strangers arouse suspicion. Those we talked to complain that jobs are scarce, the only work to be found being on the railway. Others stress that the president is not at fault, he is most likely ignorant of what goes on outside Baku. The blame, they say, is on the local authorities.
As we exit the town, we pass by a brand-new and completely empty park near the local Heydar Aliyev Center. Its gates are locked.
"Over the past ten years, the government has indeed built some 1,500 schools and hundreds of hospitals. Our schools may have been renovated, yet we are seriously lagging behind in terms of staff. Teachers and doctors receive the lowest salaries in all of Azerbaijan, 250 to 350 manat (125-275 euro). What's more, wages outside of Baku are usually half of what can be earned in the capital. Most regions don't have a single banking facility. By and large, life out there is semifeudal."
In Togrul's view, this is the reason for the increased influx of people to Baku over the past few years. Yet with the cost of living also on the rise, newcomers have to settle in nakhalstroys on the periphery.
Shahin Rzayev explains that there are no ideological distinctions in Azerbaijan, one either supports the republic or is loyal to the monarchy:
"Ilham Aliyev essentially inherited Azerbaijan from his father, yet his agenda is not to preserve this inheritance. He is only interested in consolidating the power of his own fold. Cosmetic changes aside, I do not expect to see any dramatic shifts in policy."
Only a few years ago, the first modern oil well (bored in 1846), located by the sea on the outskirts of Baku, was surrounded by suburbs. Today, it is surrounded by a fence, and a memorial plaque details the historic value of this location.
Around the fence is an empty park. Our guide is baffled – there is no trace or even mention of the old settlement where Baku's first "kachalka" (the local word for oil well) was drilled. We drive off. Several kilometers away, a fence runs alongside a row of shabby one-storey residences, the familiar nakhalstroy. The local boys perform an oriental dance for the camera. And just meters from their houses, oil pumps work to produce this country's most cherished treasure.
/Report by Nataliya Gumenyuk and Bohdan Kutiepov
/With support from the Russian Language News Exchange