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04/06/2012 03:56 PM

Anguish in Azerbaijan

Residents Forcibly Cleared to Make Way for Modernity

By  in Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku, set to host the Eurovision Song Contest in just over a month, is rapidly trying to become a modern city. To do so, it is forcibly removing residents from their homes to make way for slick new skyscrapers and other development projects. Those who try to stay bear the brunt of the government's wrath.

Shortly before midnight on March 17, Grandma Shirinbaji awoke suddenly from her sleep. Her heart was pounding -- a deafening crash had torn her from her slumber. She rushed to the room where her 11-year-old grandson and his mother were sleeping. "I couldn't believe my eyes," she says. "Somebody had hurled an enormous concrete block through the roof with a back hoe." Now there is a gaping five-square-meter (54-square-foot) hole in the ceiling.

It was a miracle no one was injured. For the seven residents in the 50-square-meter flat in Agamirsa Aliyev Street it was clear that this was an attack not only on the Rzayeva family's home but also on their integrity and pride.

"We called the fire department but all they did was ask us why we wouldn't sell our property," the pensioner says, breathing heavily as she speaks, her eyes glittering with anger. Since 2009 property owners in Baku have been forced to sell their homes -- many of which were built during the first oil boom of the 19th century -- at low prices in order to make room for modern buildings. "The president wants to build his new city at my expense," Rzayeva grumbles. "I refuse to be a part of that."

In February, a government representative came to the door and urged the family to finally sell their home. "They wanted to scare me. That's something I really don't like," Rzayeva says indignantly. The sum they offered was much lower than the value of a property in the city center and accounted for only 41 of the 54 square meters, leaving out the kitchen and bathroom.

Rzayeva refused to sell and went to court. An expert loyal to the government explained that the house would have to be sold because it was disrepair and dangerous. "Sure, my roof fell into my bedroom by accident," the owner says angrily.

Treacherous Methods

As the elderly woman laments her fate, laborers on a starvation wage are demolishing another house in the neighborhood, despite the presence of children playing in the building just next door. A group of angry residents has gathered around them, hurling abuse at the workers, who stubbornly carry on with their work, concealed in a cloud of dust.

"In Azerbaijan, anarchy rules," Rzayeva says. "Our president is incompetent, we are practically leaderless."

Article 13 of the Azerbaijani constitution guarantees the integrity of private property, declaring "it will be protected by the state." But ever since the capital city of Baku issued a decree on behalf of President Ilham Aliyev that privileged state interests over private property, prospects have been grim for homeowners.

The methods employed by the authorities to acquire valuable land are treacherous. Sometimes they rip apart the roof so that moisture ruins the structure of the building, then they let their henchmen throw garbage into the landings so that residents willingly flee from the rats and the stench. Still, many choose to remain in the life-threatening conditions of the unstable houses.

Not all residents have valid documentation for their homes, in part because the Soviet Union did not allow for individual property ownership. Larisa Mammadli has the documents but still stands before the ruins of her tiny house, in which she used to live with her three children and three grandchildren. Now she is homeless. "I live here and there," she says. "I've left the children with friends in the countryside. I'm going to fight until the end for my rights." But the refugees from the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, for whom the state has arranged lodging for here, lack the courage to take such action. They are being left completely in the dark about their future.

Symbols and Superlatives

The whole area around a planned park near Shamsi Badalbeyli Street looks like the aftermath of a bomb attack. Heaps of rubble and garbage surround a massive pit. At house number 38, a demolition crew has torn down the "Institute of Freedom and Democracy" office.

"I wanted to save furniture, computers and most of all, our archives," says Azat Isazade, a psychologist and employee of the non-governmental organization. "But it remained in the rubble." The affiliated women's crisis center was forced to stay closed for a long time.

The situation has intensified since 2009. According to the institute, at least 20,000 people have lost their homes through state intervention. "In some cases the properties were worth 10 times as much as the price they were bought for," says Leyla Yunus, head of the human rights organization, which has been looking after the property owners for years. The profits to be made are not difficult to calculate.

The Eurovision Song Contest, which will be held in Baku at the end of May, also plays a role in the evictions. "Light Your Fire" is the motto of the contest -- as if there was not enough burning and flickering everywhere in Baku. There are flames everywhere made of glass, concrete, papier-mâché and rhinestones. Some, like those on the oil fields at the edge of town, are even real.

Ninety percent of Azerbaijan's exports are in oil. But since even enormous reserves are finite, authoritarian President Aliyev is focusing increasingly on natural gas. He boasts that he can "supply Europe for the next 100 years." To this end, he is employing symbols and superlatives.

The Eurovision 'Smokescreen'

Three "flame towers" are perched on a hill near the Caspian Sea. They make up a huge complex of houses and offices in the shape of an "eternal fire." The highest tower reaches 235 meters (770 feet) into the sky, but this is not high enough. The Azerbaijani group Avesta plans to build a 1,050-meter business center south of the capital city in a bid to top the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the highest building in the world.

But for something new to exist, something old must give way. Apartment blocks were systematically demolished to make space for the "Crystal Hall," the convention center for the Eurovision Song Contest situated at the bay of Baku and near the highest flagpole in the world. Video footage shows how brutally the authorities carried out the evictions. The site is not yet finished and many doubt that it will be completed by mid-May.

"The Eurovision Song Contest is no more than a smokescreen behind which our government can increase its wealth at the cost of our citizens," says human rights activist Leyla Yunus. "A mafia-style system has established itself in Azerbaijan. That means that one can beat, torture, imprison and destroy homes and possessions with impunity."

Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It ranks 143rd out of 183 in Transparency International's index. Bribes are being paid in nearly all areas of public life.

"The people of Azerbaijan have only one weapon in the fight against the powerful authorities and that is the word. But when they make use of it, they are bitterly persecuted," says Yunus.

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