Rich on oil, the Caspian nation said it had escaped global downturn until the evidence was irrefutable. Now dissent is rising—and the call of Islam is growing
Although it is just the beginning of June, the sun has instantly warmed the old Soviet buildings of Patamdart, a quarter of Baku located in the city's southern hills. Around noon staying inside becomes unbearable, and there has been no running water for the last few days. On some evenings the flat is lit only by the light of a cheap candle. The warm, dusty wind blowing from Iran rattles the windows and stirs up piles of rubbish. Dawn brings the crowing of cocks and the noises of cows and sheep that are being slaughtered and flayed in the street.
Jaga, a taxi driver, roams the streets of Baku every night, fighting for every fare with other self-appointed cabbies. In his spare time he visits his friend Ludmila in a neighboring block of flats or drinks vodka with his buddies, smoking marijuana and cheap cigarettes under the portraits of the ancient Shia imams Ali and Hussein that hang on the walls. They chat about the good old Soviet times, recalling their past Armenian neighbors, and mocking the TV news in which President Ilham Aliev once again promises to recapture Karabakh from the Armenians.
"They lie and deceive us every day," said Ramiz, who along with Jaga's two other friends helps build mobile phone towers. "It's all about money. You have to pay the doctors, clerks, police. Where am I supposed to get the money for all the bribes? Prices keep rising, but our salaries don't."
Economic data published by the government and international organizations are marvelous. In 2006, the country's GDP rose by 30.5 percent, in 2007, by 23.3 percent, according to the IMF. At that time Azerbaijan was the world's fastest growing economy. The country remains financially stable, its budget is balanced, and unemployment does not exceed several percent.
Baku flaunts its oil money. It's in the good road from the new airport, the skyscrapers springing up in the center, the lavish dachas by the seaside, villas belonging to government officials surrounded by several-meter-high fences with black Hummers parked in front. The fountains on Neftchilar Avenue, continually watered lawns surrounding the Old Town, and thousands of billboards showing old Baku that have recently been erected all around the city. The expensive perfume shops, the restaurants and air-conditioned hotels for foreigners.
Most of those foreigners will never come to Patamdart, nor to the villages of the Apsheron peninsula a few kilometers from Baku, where time stopped over a hundred years ago. Here, people live next to oil wells, children play in puddles of oil, and rivers look like a mixture of sewage and petrol.
In the wake of the global financial crisis the government remained silent about the effects on Azerbaijan and its economy.
"The whole world was already struggling with the crisis, but our government still claimed that it had miraculously bypassed Azerbaijan thanks to the weak integration of the Azerbaijani economy with the global market," said Hikmet Hajizade, director of the FAR Center for Political and Economic Research in Baku. "It wasn't until oil prices dramatically fell and Baku's construction sites came to a standstill that the government officially admitted that there was something to it."
The crisis is hitting ordinary people increasingly hard. Many factories have stopped production, the construction industry is plagued with enormous problems, wages are paid only after long delays, and, although down from about 20 percent in 2008, inflation is expected to remain troublesome this year, according to the IMF.
Compared with Georgia and Armenia, where opposition demonstrations and other destabilizing events happen relatively often, Azerbaijan seems stable. The country saw the last turbulent moments in 2003, when the authorities put down opposition protests staged after rigged presidential elections. But the lack of visible signs of potential destabilization in Azerbaijan is misleading.
Beliefs about Azerbaijan's internal stability are based on the common conviction that Aliev's position is strong and that he sets the rules and makes most important decisions independently, especially those on foreign policy and the oil industry. That he is like his father, Heidar, president from 1993 to 2003, a cunning and experienced player whom officials simply feared.
But when speaking privately, Azerbaijani experts question the position of Aliev Jr.
"Ilham is an indecisive man who fears contacts with journalists, avoids speaking in public, and has a weakness for risk," commented a well-known Azerbaijani political scientist speaking on condition of anonymity. "He has proved during his first term in office that he is a gifted and clever politician, but cannot equal his father as far as political games are concerned."
Indeed, Ilham differs from his father in almost everything. He has a different character, personal and political experience. Heidar was a product of the KGB and the leader of a strong clan from Nakhichevan, an Azeri exclave sandwiched between Iran and Armenia. By contrast, Ilham studied at the prestigious Moscow University and has much closer ties to Baku's intellectual elite and the community of his Baku-born wife, Mehriban, than to the people of Nakhichevan.
Perhaps the best measure of an autocrat's power is his ability to conduct political purges, to remove his predecessor's people and nominate his own. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's purge of the state administration following his rise to power after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov is one example. Ilham has come close only once: in November 2005, when he imprisoned two cabinet ministers, Farhad Aliev and Ali Insanov. Nevertheless, most members of the old guard kept their offices. Many commentators on the Azerbaijani political scene claim that it is they, especially the chief of the president's administration, Ramiz Mekhtiev, and Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, not the president, who rule from behind the scenes.
Adding to the president's weakness is the growing dissatisfaction of the elites with the rule of two clans: the Nakhichevan clan and one that groups Azerbaijanis originally from Armenia (the so-called Eraz – from the Russian phrase erevanskie azerbaidjantsy meaning Yerevan Azerbaijanis), who have dominated the political life of Azerbaijan and whose members hold almost all offices in the central and regional administrations.
"The conflicts and tensions within the ruling elites, including those between the Nakhichevanis and the Eraz, are another threat," said Leyla Aliyeva of the Center for National and International Studies, a pro-democracy think tank in Baku. "They are fueled by the rivalry over the division of oil money."
The assassination of Deputy Defense Minister Rail Rzayev in February could have been a signal that the rivalry is getting fierce, according to many commentators. In early October General Prosecutor Zakir Garalov said the general was probably killed by his subordinates.
NOT THE WEST, BUT ISLAM
Among the major threats to Azerbaijan's internal stability are massive corruption, nepotism, and the dependence of the economy on energy resources. No country struggling with such problems can be considered securely stable.
Few seem to notice the growing discontent in Azerbaijani society. But based on dozens of conversations I had with political analysts and ordinary people, I would say that many Azerbaijanis have lost their belief in a better future. Common people often stress that they no longer believe that they will share the profits from oil and gas sales. They do not trust the government, perceiving its members as "parasites" who care only for their own interest.
Tofiq, who has lived in Patamdart since 1993, when his family fled the now-Armenian-occupied Zangilan region, is typical. "How can I trust the government, which promises to recapture Karabakh from the Armenians every year, but has so far done nothing to fulfill these promises? Why are they lying? All they care about are their own pockets, not ordinary people."
Azerbaijani society has been passive for years and has represented no threat for the regime. But signs of change are there for those who look.
"Unrest among young people is on the rise: they discuss, set up their organizations, opposition websites, and blogs," said Hajizade, of the FAR Center. "Baku's walls are splattered with hundreds of belligerent graffiti: from 'F**k Bush' to 'Allah Akbar.' Leftist movements are also gaining popularity."
The events that took place in Baku after a gunman killed between 13 and 30 people (the actual number remains undisclosed) at the State Oil Academy on 30 April were another measure of the growing dissatisfaction. After the attack people expected the government to announce national mourning and disclose detailed information about the results of the investigation. Meanwhile, the government tried to cover up the incident and did not even call off the Holiday of Flowers on 10 May, Heidar Aliev's birthday. In response, students organized a street march that attracted more than 2,000 people and was dispersed by the police. Possibly fearing that protests might continue, the authorities called off all events planned to celebrate the end of the academic year.
The growing influence of Islam, including its radical versions, could also help destabilize the internal situation. As recently as a few years ago everyone would stare at a woman dressed in a hijab, whereas today there are so many that nobody seems to pay attention. On Fridays, the Baku mosques fill up, unthinkable only a few years ago in this strongly secular society. And the city was the site of demonstrations in support of the Palestinians during the recent conflict in the Gaza Strip.
"Only Islam can save Azerbaijan from the influence of the rotten West," said Mukhtar, a student at the State Oil Academy. "The role of Islam in Azerbaijan's public life should be stronger, and the government should cooperate not only with the U.S., but also with Muslim countries."
That disillusionment with the West is a new phenomenon in Azerbaijan, and it is getting stronger. Many Azerbaijanis perceive the West as a cynical player that calls for democratization but values Azerbaijani oil more. The West is also commonly perceived as supporting Aliev's authoritarian regime. Azerbaijani opposition politicians, advocacy groups, and pro-Western elites criticize international organizations and Western governments who they say are not sufficiently critical of the government and who try not to let authoritarian practices and human rights abuses impede relations with Baku. They often recall the government's violent suppression of the demonstrations against the rigged presidential election of 2003. Although the West criticized the government at the time, opposition and civil society activists had hoped for a "color revolution" and looked on bitterly as Western officials continued to do business with Aliev.
"The strongest criticism is directed toward the U.S., on whose support everyone relied and counted only a few years ago," said Arif Yunusov from the Institute for Peace and Democracy. "The Azerbaijanis do not like the materialism and high-spending lifestyle of Western diplomats and NGO workers living in Baku, who isolate themselves from the local people, often even despise them. The policy of the West toward the world of Islam and its insufficiently active stance in the Karabakh conflict is also regarded with common disapproval."
In view of such an attitude toward the West and the common disillusionment with Western values, assurances made by politicians about the pro-Western course of the government sound barely credible.
"We'll get by," said Jaga, opening another bottle of Xirdalan beer, "if only things don't get worse." But what if they do?