Tuesday, August 23

The new Baku, demolishing and “beautifying”

This is an article I recently wrote for Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.

The women in a video recently posted on Rfe/Rl website are desperately screaming protesting violation of their rights; a man in the background shouts “şərəfsiz” [AZ] (without dignity); the building hosting the offices of the human rights organization “Institute for Peace and Democracy” and two other NGOs is being demolished. The whole scene resembles chaos. Young men start demolishing the building in front of desperate people that look helplessly at the scene, then cranes intervene.

This demolition is part of an urban development project- a new park known as the ‘Winter Boulevard’. Angered men and women in this video are residents of this old neighborhood of Baku that is being destroyed. They were not alone in protesting against the demolition of this building. The UN high commissioner for human rights expressed concern regarding this event, while the European Union representative in Baku and Human Rights Watch openly condemned the demolition. 
“Beautifying” the city comes at high costs 
The ‘Winter Boulevard’ project is said to be under the supervision of the first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva. Nonetheless, the authorities don't seem to care about answering to the questions and demands of the local residents forcefully evicted from their homes. The body in charge of the demolition is the Baku City Council, however, its officials remain silent about the issue. The area envisaged for the construction of this project is partially a historical district of an old Baku with some of the buildings dating as far as to the 19th century. Besides, the majority of destroyed buildings that carried historical significance were supposed to be protected according to a decision previously adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers.

And yet, neither demands by local resident nor history seem to matter for the local authorities. The demolition of this area situated between two main streets, Shamsi Badalbayli and Fuzuli, began in 2010. The residents were each offered 1500manat/ square meter (US1,900). However, unsatisfied with the offer  (the amount doesn’t meet the present day value of these properties) residents took the matters into their own hands and headed to the Presidential Administration office (February 2010). Unable to get any results there, they then decided to try to protest in the streets (February 2010) only to be dispersed by the local police. In March the frustrated residents decided to hold a conference at the Human Rights House. Their attempts continued with a hunger strike in the courtyard of one of the old buildings scheduled for its demolition. Nothing worked and according to the Rfe/Rl local service some of the evictions and relocations were carried out without an official paper except for a 2008 decision, which interestingly calls for an execution of 1987 plan issued by the Council of Ministers of Azerbaijan SSR on the construction of the Winter Boulevard.

Last year, Osservatorio published an article describing some of the most worrying features of the construction boom: Baku’s location on an active seismic zone; absence of a general urban and development plans for the city; demolition of Baku’s historically significant buildings and old residential districts; un-notified and forced evictions; unequal compensation packages and much more. In fact, little changed in year. 
New Baku with its slowly fading beauty
Little is left from a city that was once home to the likes of “Ali and Nino”, the oil barons and its pathways. Baku is now a booming capital of construction, pricey real estate, luxury cars and boutiques- at a glance a city of wealth and stature. Its future is guaranteed by the country’s “black gold” with no one questioning the sustainability of these developments and constant changes to the capital’s landscape as a result of new construction projects. Rapid growth in the real estate market brought to the development of some the most extravagant construction projects in the last decade. 
Some of these over-the-top projects include Baku White City project, which involved re-construction of the main downtown area, adding ten new districts and with a total development area of 221ha. Its partners include names like UK’s ATKINS, F&A Architects, and Foster and Partners. According to the developers the project includes 440,000 sq.m of office space, 230,000 sq.m of retail space, 3,600,000 sq.m of residential space and 530,000 sq.m of commercial space. 

In the meantime while the local authorities indulge themselves in these copious ideas, according to a Human Rights Watch report, residents are forced out of their homes in the middle of the night, and detained while their homes are being destroyed with most of their personal belongings, either damaged or missing. Interestingly, based on the country’s property code [AZ], the state can only seize or purchase property if it’s planning to build a new road, a railway, or military building. Also, according to the decision of the Cabinet of Ministers a legal contract must be signed with the property owner; the owner given 90 days notice; and provided with transportation during the re-location. Moreover, there is even a Presidential Decree from 2007 stating that the owner shall be paid 20% more of the market price in order for the landowner stay satisfied.
Time for real change? 
While some might say that coming first in the Eurovision song contest this year in Düsseldorf was a great success for Azerbaijan, it is yet to be seen how the country’s leadership will choose to improve its image abroad. Having lavish boutique shops that cater only for the country’s small percentage of nouveau riche certainly does not mean democracy or fair distribution of oil revenues. Nor does it stand for addressing the needs and demands of the public at large let alone those suffering from the loss of their homes. 
The transformation of this capital city into a glamorous metropolis no doubt means much for investment hungry contractors and companies, however, perhaps it is also time to look at the destruction caused by these up- scale developments especially as they seem to come at the cost of lives and homes of ordinary people.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva is completely incompetent in her job in Parliament. This type of cronyism hurts Azerbaijan and makes it impossible for the country to make advancements.