Azerbaijan dramatically defies the mental image the first-time visitor might have harboured of the country. You land in Baku, the Azeri capital, expecting it to look and feel like a dour, Soviet-era city with ramshackle buildings, and rickety old Ladas plying grimy, pot-holed roads. What you find, instead, is a city that is more Dubai than Dushanbe, more Venice than Vladivostok.
Baku is full to the brim with buildings new and old that would not be out of place in the UAE or France. Three skyscrapers shaped like flames share the skyline with minarets of centuries-old mosques built by long-forgotten Muslim kings. Azerbaijan’s road infrastructure is on par with that of Europe, and is matched by the newness of the vehicles that traverse the streets.
But as they say, looks can be deceiving. As a few residents told me, the shiny veneer shrouds serious concerns about where the country is headed, and the toll declining or depressed oil prices are taking on government spending which in turn has a bearing on jobs. Grandiose projects appear to lie dormant; the once brightly-lit promenades are much duller.
Baku is the original city of oil. It’s oil wells have been sprouting copious amounts of the fluid since the early 1900s, so much so that it accounted for more than a third of the Soviet Union’s supplies during the Second World War. Such was Baku’s position in the world of oil in the early 20th century that the Nobel brothers and international financiers like the Rothschilds built their mansions in the city.
Baku doesn’t feel like a boomtown at the moment. Until a few years ago, its five-star hotels used to echo with the inane banter of boorish Western oil-men celebrating the latest deals. There are fewer of them them days, and the hotels are catering instead to the increasing number of tourists visiting Azerbaijan as a result of streamlined visa procedures. The government’s aim is to attract more visitors, especially from the Middle East and other regions surrounding Azerbaijan. The fact that the government feels the need to open up what was a once a relatively closed country is an indicator that it feels there is an urgent need to diversify sources of income.
Freedom of expression is not something Azerbaijan is known for. However, I was expecting people to be willing to speak to journalists without apprehension, at least on issues that do not directly concern the leadership. Surprisingly, they were willing to do so only on the condition that their full identity not be revealed.
One such person, Nuray, is a smart and well educated young woman, who has studied in America. Despite her skills and fluent English — a rarity in Azerbaijan — she is stuck in a “dreary” government job. She said: “The oil economy has brought a generally acceptable standard of living, especially when compared to the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. But, there is a sense that things are stagnating. I have a government job for which I think I am over qualified. The pay is very average, and there is a feeling of being stuck in the same position. But even my situation is seen as being enviable. People say, ‘At least you have a job for life. You should consider yourself lucky’. But I don’t feel ‘lucky’ at all, and get depressed when I realise that this is really the best I can get here. My parents and family would be scandalised if I were to quit.”
Zurm T., a 28-year-old with a degree in hotel management, was slightly more optimistic. “I think the best thing that has happened of late is the government’s opening up of the country to foreign visitors. There is so much that Azerbaijan has to offer. Our land is beautiful and our people warm and friendly. We should have done this much earlier. Personally, I believe our country has enough to rival even Turkey when it comes to tourist attractions and natural beauty. However, the tourist infrastructure is not nearly enough. Things were built with the oil industry-linked visitors in mind. This mindset has to change. We cannot rely only on oil.”
One of the outcomes of the oil revenue was the extreme building frenzy of the past decade, which spectacularly changed the city’s physical composition. Along its seafront, Baku has almost installed a ‘Venice’, complete with aquamarine canals and white marble. The aforementioned Flame Towers are designed to represent, well, flames, and seem to be a nod to the country’s ancient Zoroastrian past.
Across town, the Zaha Hadid-designed Haider Aliyev Centre — a tribute to the ruling Aliyev dynasty — awaits your astonished gaze. The 57,500 square metre building is intended to resemble the signature of Haider Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s first president, and the father of present leader Ilham Aliyev. It is a great example of cutting-edge design; it was reportedly built at the site of an old Soviet munitions factory, and could not have been more different from the awful Soviet-era buildings that still dot the cityscape. The centre was also built at a massive cost. The late Hadid said about her masterpiece: “This was an incredibly ambitious project for me. It was always my dream to design and build the theoretical project and that was the closest thing to achieving that.”
Haider was a former KGB officer and member of the Soviet politburo; after the fall of the Soviet Union and emergence of free Azerbaijan, he immediately became president and ruled with an iron fist until his death in 2003. In 1994, Azerbaijan discovered new sources of oil in the Caspian Sea and Haider offered foreign companies the ‘contract of the century’ — the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline. Throughout the 2000s, Azerbaijan witnessed a record boom, and pulled hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. This was overseen by Ilham, who has continued with his father’s policies since taking office.
Like Turkey, Azerbaijan — the ‘land of fire’ — is also a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and has a similar feel. It borders Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran. And incorporates cultural influences from all states. An average Azeri will speak or understand Russian, Farsi, and Turkish languages. But it is to Europe that Azerbaijan looks for identity and inspiration, branding itself a European country. It even decided to call the F1 race in Baku the “European Grand Prix” instead of “Baku Grand Prix”. In 2012, it held the hugely popular Eurovision song contest.
The level of mutual hatred between Azerbaijan and its neighbour Armenia is similar to that between Pakistan and India, or South Korea and North Korea. This is primarily due to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked region in the South Caucasus. It is internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan, and lies in Azeri territory. But, on the ground, it is held by ethnic Armenian separatists with the full backing of Armenia.
Origins of the conflict lie in the early 20th century, when predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh was incorporated into Soviet Azerbaijan by Soviet dictator Josep Stalin. The conflict began in 1988 over demands by some in Karabakh that the region be transferred to Soviet Armenia. After the collapse of the USSR, there was a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Sporadic skirmishes have continued despite a ceasefire signed in 1994. Upto 30,000 people are said to have died in the war, which left the de facto independent state in the hands of ethnic Armenians, something that Azerbaijan finds unacceptable, and has sought ever since to bring the region back under its sovereignty. The separatists occupied Azerbaijani territory outside Karabakh, thereby establishing a safe zone linking Karabakh and Armenia.
Tensions flared as recently as last April, when about 350 people died in a week of clashes. Keeping the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in mind, Azerbaijan has been on a weapons-buying spree, helped by its oil billions. For a Muslim country, it has unusually cosy relations with Israel, and recently signed a deal to buy weapons worth a whopping $5 billion (Dh18.34 billion) over the long term from Israel, during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to mark 25 years of relations with Baku. In comparison, Armenia’s entire defence budget in 2015 was a paltry $447 million.
Azerbaijan’s tilt towards the West, and western allied states such as Israel, has been plain to see for a while now. Since gaining independence in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has attempted to free itself from Russia’s tight embrace. It helped the West overcome Russia’s oil monopoly in the region by agreeing to the oil and gas pipelines to Turkey; it opened its airspace to US jets on their way to bomb Iraq during the American invasion of the country in 2003; it also helped the Nato alliance in its war efforts in Afghanistan by becoming a transhipment point. What Azerbaijan wants in return is support on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh region and support for the regime of Ilham Aliyev.
It also remains true that Azerbaijan is only interested in leaning towards the West insofar as this enables it to achieve its goals without constituting a threat to the existing Azeri political and economic order.
Omar Shariff is a freelance writer based in Abu Dhabi.