Baku, Azerbaijan

Ștefan Cândea
I made a short trip to Baku two years ago. The changes I’ve noticed this time around now are spectacular. Baku is a town which has had an incredible evolution: it has grown five times in the past 20 years and has an urban population estimated at three million people, almost half of the country’s population. From an image perspective, the funds from oil businesses (which are in the hands of the Alyiev clan) have worked wonders. The greater part of downtown Baku has been renovated, the building façades are lit up at night and works are still underway. Baku can safely compete with any capital in the West. Unfortunately, the monotony of renovations has melted away the local colour. Everything smells like new, but in a rather artificial way. The locals downtown have been evacuated and their place has been taken by members of the government. Besides, the renovations were done according to a strategy allowing the political clientele to keep cashing in public money. Just to give an example: the balconies of each building are being renovated in an identical manner. Regardless of the architecture of the building, they have been equipped with a wood cover, the same everywhere. It’s something similar to the useless street curbs which have swarmed Romania.

Although most of the country is struggling with poverty, a privileged class living in the capital have set up their own little Switzerland downtown. Luxury cars cram on crowded boulevards. A visit to any supermarket is a source of utter stupor: local products are practically non-existent while most goods are imported and cost a fortune. All the brands on the shelves are top notch. Local journalists explained the situation: this is caused by the great monopoly held by politicians. The import of several categories of good is strictly under government control and thus, there is no competition whatsoever. It is common knowledge who controls tropical fruits, coffee, chocolate, meat etc. The control and personal benefits are organized in a pyramid scheme with the President at the top.

Azerbaijan produces over one million oil barrels per day. Add a considerable gas production and everything is turned to cash. Officially, about five and a half billion Euros is annually cashed in by the State Oil Fund (an utterly hazy government structure) and then transferred to the country budget. Actually, this huge wealth is under the current president’s strict control, that is, Ilham Aliyev, the son of the Azeri nation’s father, Heydar Aliyev.

Seven years ago, on his deathbed, Heydar Aliyev appointed his son as the sole presidential candidate. Aliyev Sr. became a member of the NKVD in 1944 and the head of Azerbaijani KGB in the ‘60s. Since 1969 he was the leader of Soviet Azerbaijani for almost 20 years. He was forced to resign from his position amidst the alleged corruption charges by Gorbachev.

He kept a low profile for several years and became the leader of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic as the Soviet Union was collapsing. His rise to power in Azerbaijan came next, using the armed conflict in Karabakh to his advantage. He was elected president in 1993 and ran the country as a real dictator until his death in 2003 when he appointed his son as his sole successor. Posters and pictures bearing his face infested the country. We have seen his face on press credentials or used as a logo on public television. The election of his son, Ilham, virulently criticized by human rights activists generated protests which were quickly and violently repressed. Great powers, such as the U.S.A. or the U.K., promote rather oscillatory politics by financing projects to consolidate the democracy in Azerbaijan and supporting investors such as British Petroleum or Chevron in order to have their hands on the biggest oil businesses.

The common Azeri population does not benefit from the profit made by oil magnates. The American press has recently reported that Aliyev’s children own properties of almost 75 million dollars in Dubai. The youngest of the family (an 11-year-old boy) owns over half of these properties.