Azerbaijan: The pipeline that would fuel a dictator

Emma Hughes reports from Azerbaijan, where autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev is using the country’s fossil fuel wealth to fund his repressive regime and buy Europe’s silence
September 2013


A billboard of Heydar Aliyev, ‘Father of the Nation’, by the Heydar Aliyev Park. Photo: Emma Hughes

The government’s dash for gas has not only resulted in a raft of new gas-fired power stations in the UK; it is also supporting the drilling of 26 new gas wells in the BP-operated Shah Deniz gas field off the coast of Azerbaijan. Companies and decision-makers in London and Brussels are eagerly eyeing these wells and are currently assembling the agreements and finance for a mega‑pipeline from the Caspian to central Europe.

The proposed pipeline looks something like this: from the BP terminal at Sangachal the gas would be forced westwards through the South Caucasus Pipeline Expansion across Azerbaijan and Georgia. From there the Trans-Anatolian pipeline would pump the gas across the entire length of Turkey, to the border with Greece. Here a further final part of the pipeline: the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, will run across Greece, Albania and finally end in Italy. While each segment has a different name, in reality they are all part of one mega-pipeline. And the plans don’t end there. Pressure is building to extend it to Turkmenistan, Iraq and Iran, creating a significant resource grab as central Asian and Middle Eastern gas fields would be locked directly into the European grid.

Such a pipeline could be devastating for the environment, putting an extra 1,100 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere by 2048 – the equivalent of 2.5 years of total emissions from five of the countries it will run through: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece and Albania. And in the country of extraction, Azerbaijan, its construction would directly undermine the struggle to overthrow the country’s oil dictator Ilham Aliyev.

A fossil fuel dictator

‘BP is where the president got his power from. Where is his wealth, where are his police, without BP’s money?’

The ruling family, the Aliyevs, have held onto power in Azerbaijan for the past two decades through a combination of fraudulent elections, arresting opposition candidates, beating protesters and curtailing media freedom. Ilham’s father, Heydar Aliyev, became president in 1993, following a military coup; he had previously been the head of Soviet Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1982. In 2003 he was forced to withdraw from the presidential elections due to ill health and his son stood and won instead. The elections were widely recognised as fraudulent.

The Aliyevs’ rule has been facilitated by the signing of the ‘contract of the century’ in 1994, which brought 11 corporations, including BP, Amoco, Lukoil of Russia and the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, into a consortium to extract oil from the Caspian Sea. The money from that oil not only made these corporations huge profits, but also gave the Aliyev family vast wealth and important allies overseas. The oil revenue means the regime is not dependent on taxes, so there is little incentive to pay attention to citizens’ voices or interests.

Mirvari Gahramanli works at the Oil Workers Rights Protection Organisation union. She blames BP for the country’s autocratic president: ‘BP is where the president got his power from. What is he without the money? Where is his wealth, where are his police, without BP’s money? They [the Aliyevs] have grown rich from BP and now as a result they have much more power.’

The money from the oil industry was supposed to be controlled by the State Oil Fund for Azerbaijan (SOFAZ), which was intended to finance the transition of the Azeri economy away from oil and to ensure the wealth was kept for future generations. Instead much of it has been pumped into construction.

Permanently under construction

Arrive in Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, at night and it seems like one of the most opulent places on earth. The drive from the Heydar Aliyev international airport whizzes past in a blur of lights and colour. A daylight walk reveals a different side to the city. The opulence is still evident in the pristine shopping streets, filled with bright plazas and innumerable designer shops – most of which are empty. But walking down a side street is like stepping backstage on a film set. Dust and debris are everywhere; whole buildings are torn apart, spewing their dusty interiors onto the street. Baku is a city permanently under construction.


Baku’s highest skyscrapers, the Flame Towers. They were built at a cost of $350 million but appear mostly unused. Photo: Emma Hughes

Just who is benefiting from Baku’s continuous state of demolition has been made clear by the work of Azeri journalists. Khadija Ismayilova has linked many of the construction projects with the president and his family. These include the building of Crystal Hall, which staged the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, and the nearby State Flag Square, which cost $38 million and briefly held the Guinness world record for the tallest flagpole in the world until its 162-metre height was overshadowed a few months later by a rival pole in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Two-thirds of the cost of the square in Baku came from the reserve fund of the head of state and the other third from the 2011 state budget, yet it was companies connected with Aliyev that profited.

The list of enterprises the Aliyevs are linked to is extensive. It includes phone companies, gold mining and an energy infrastructure company. It is common for big infrastructure projects, financed by public money from oil revenues, to be distributed to companies that belong to high-ranking officials, including the president himself. New laws mean that ownership remains secret, and they are often registered offshore anyway, so that public accountability is impossible.

Khadija Ismayilova’s part in exposing the personal profits made by the Aliyev family has led to her being blackmailed. In the middle of her investigation into the companies profiting from the flagpole square she was sent a tape of her and her boyfriend having sex that had been filmed from a camera hidden in her flat. The accompanying letter threatened to publish the tape if she didn’t stop her investigation. She continued and the tape was published on the internet. It was followed by a smear campaign and harassment by government officials at public events.

While the authorities attempted to label her a ‘loose woman’ for having sex outside of marriage, she says the plan backfired. ‘Society turned out to be more liberal than the government and I got support messages not just from the liberal parts of society but also from the Islamic parties because they are also in a struggle against the government, so they urged me to keep going,’ she says.

In Azerbaijan there are almost no independent media; most newspapers and nearly all TV channels are controlled by the government. Khadija Ismayilova’s experience is unusual only in that she didn’t find herself in prison or hospital – or the morgue. In 2005 the founder and editor of the critical opposition weekly news magazine Monitor, Elmar Huseynov, was gunned down in his apartment building. He had received threats because of his writing and many in Azerbaijan believe he was murdered because of it.

Expectant protesters

Azerbaijanis are furious at how their money has been squandered. Despite the opulence in the centre of Baku, citizens have to pay large sums to use basic services, including healthcare. Much of the county’s infrastructure is in need of repair.


Housing near Tibilisi Avenue in Baku. Photo: Emma Hughes

A new generation is finding new ways to organise through Facebook, blogs and flashmobs. The mood in Baku is expectant; people are talking about when Aliyev will go rather than if. With Baku hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, the rising protest movements had an opportunity to generate international attention, although it didn’t stop the government responding with continued repression. In October, 200 Muslim activists protesting against a ban on hijabs in secondary schools clashed with the police outside the education ministry. Seventy-two were arrested – the majority of whom were still being detained six months later.

In January, in the town of Ismayilli, west of Baku, the drunk son of the labour minister crashed his SUV into a taxi and then beat up the driver. In response, local residents set fire to his truck, as well as other vehicles and hotels belonging to the same family. Volleys of tear gas filled the streets as a militarised police force marched in. A state of emergency was declared in the town and neighbouring regions, cafes were closed down and the internet censored. The troops stayed for over a month in a show of force. With the regime afraid of change, it is resorting to ever-greater violence and repression. In the run up to presidential elections set for October there are increasing numbers of arrests.

Democracy will not be won easily. Pushing the Aliyev family out of power will be a difficult process. It is made even harder by the actions of the government’s allies in the west. On a recent trip to Brussels, Aliyev promised two trillion cubic metres of Azerbaijani gas for Europe. At the same meeting European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso spoke about the ‘very good exchange’ he had with Aliyev and praised the country for the progress it had made on democracy and human rights.

It was recently announced that the formal signing of the final part of the mega-pipeline agreement between the Shah Deniz consortium and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) looks likely to happen in mid-October. This means it will coincide with the Azerbaijan presidential elections and will effectively silence those in the EU Commission who wish to speak out about Azerbaijan’s political prisoners and fraudulent elections. Azerbaijani democracy activists accuse the country’s dictator, Ilham Aliyev, of manipulating the timing to ensure the EU is not critical of his regime’s appalling record on human rights and democracy.

Khadija Ismayilova is familiar with Aliyev’s tactics. ‘The TAP signing is perfect timing for Aliyev,’ she says. ‘We will hear hardly anything from the EU about human rights and election rigging until after that moment.’

Emma Hughes is a Red Pepper co-editor and a campaigner with Platform. She spent April in Baku meeting democracy activists. More on the planned mega-pipeline:

Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.


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Robert 16 September 2013, 19.36

Great article – although it didn’t mention the 500-phound gorilla in the (already crowded) room. Money is one part of Aliyev’s regime’s strategy to keep the situation the way it is – under their full control. Another vital part is the image of “evil Armenians” who “occupy 20% of the historic Azeri land” – they have been using for 20 years to distract the national attention from the real problems the country is facing. Indeed, every possible setback for the country – from wildfires to Western criticism – is blamed on Armenians. The regime is doing everything possible to keep the tensions high, to prevent any possible contacts by torpedoing even the most innocuous projects initiated by mediators or even their own people (imagine this: anybody regardless of their citizenship is barred from entering Azerbaijan is his/her last name resembles Armenian heritage).

Fortunately, some Azeris seem to be getting much more skeptical about the “Armenian straw man” – turning to legitimate questions about the corruption and the lack of basic democratic mechanisms in the country.

The fact that the Author decided not to mention this openly fascist state policy of the Aliyev regime is probably an attempt to not to appear biased – although I think it has to be mentioned to present the whole picture of the current Aliyev regime.

Emma Hughes 17 September 2013, 11.23

Hello Robert,

Thanks for your comments – you’re completely right about Aliyev playing up nationalist tensions as another strategy of control – and yes Azerbaijani citizens are questioning this more – in particular during the protests about the non-combat deaths of soldiers. I’m afraid I had to leave it out in this article due to space constraints (the focus of the article was of course on energy). See this article: for comments on the double standards of The European Azerbaijan Society in relation to IDPs from Nagorno-Karabakh


Edward Lange 18 September 2013, 03.07

this reads like an opinion editorial one would write after spending “the month of april” with democracy activists in azerbaijan. some good reporting but a fair deal of bias. this is in essence an opinion editorial and should be labeled as such.

Turan 18 September 2013, 10.05

This is extremely weak article lacking comprehensive and in-depth look into developments taking place in Azerbaijan. The Armenian factor is not the one invented by the authorities, but the real and tangible one implanted by Russia in order to undermine democracy and independence in Azerbaijan. You might disagree with me. But the point is the red pepper will always look for financial support and will be always at the end of survival because of this type of analysis. The thing is the outsider entering in Azerbaijan wont benefit from your feedbacks as these dont reflect the true nature of the on-ground developments.

dennis 19 September 2013, 17.32

I didn’t learn anything new, but it was a well written article nonetheless.
Kudos to the author for tackling such a humanitarian cause and exposing Europe’s hypocrisy in “befriending” such a horrible dictator, simply because of petrol-dollars.

ps: Can you spot the Azeri government paid shills making comments? LMFAO

Pawel 19 September 2013, 21.58

I don’t find this article professional and honest. It is just like the propoganda of Aliyev yet a complete anti-propoganda. I have been in Azerbaijan a year ago and not only in Baku but in some other parts of the country too. Yes, it is not anything close to Poland or other EU countries but I have to admit it is changing tremendously in comparison to other CIS states I have been to. Concluding above-mentioned, I would note that this country lacks democracy but social and economical development is on a right track.

Lukas Lorenz 19 September 2013, 22.16

Dust and debris? I visited Baku and imo it is one of the nicest and cleanest cities I have ever been. Aliyev portraits were sometimes disturing though. Chok sagol :)

Arturo 20 September 2013, 04.55

from Freedom House 2013…..Google it

Among other Eurasian countries, Kazakhstan,
Tajikistan, and Ukraine were evaluated as less
free than in the previous year, while Azerbaijan,
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus
remained some of the world’s most repressive
states. This dismal record was partially offset by
peaceful, competitive elections in Armenia and

Arturo 20 September 2013, 05.32

you know what I looooooove…..when Azeri’s who are paid off by the DICTATOR choose ridiculous EURO names and make simplistically idiotic comments like “I visited Baku and imo it is one of the nicest and cleanest cities I have ever been”


hey everyone, let’s Google the following phrases:
azerbaijan freedom of speech
azerbaijan dictator
azerbaijan corruption
azerbaijan safarov national hero
azerbaijan porgroms

….and yet by these comments you would think it is the Cancun of the Caucasus LMFAO!!!!!!

Rob the cripple 24 September 2013, 20.27

Are these dictators not great mates with one Tony Blair, so they cannot all be bad then surely if our dearly beloved little pair of ears love them.

Turan 26 September 2013, 11.14

Arturo, is there assurance that you are not Gazprom, or Iran financed dealer whose task is to speculate on human rights issues and eventually cause disruption of relations between west and Azerbaijan, accordingly contribute to advancement of russia and iran into region. If you google carefully, then you will find out that the main adversaries of Azerbaijan`s current ruling party dont sit in western capitals, but in Iran and in Russia. If you are not Gazprom, or Iran financed dealer, then the only explanation is that you lack competency. If you had a competency, then you would know that Azerbaijan tops the former soviet republics not just because of oil related per capita direct investments, but also because of non-oil related per capita direct investments. Besides, in comparison to allegedly democratic but pro Russian armenia, azerbaijan – which is pro western- has a positive migration saldo, meaning that more people enter the country and less leave the country. These two factors – migration and per capita investment – should be enough to see that either u r Gazprom paid, or that you lack competency.

Turan 26 September 2013, 11.18

Arture, also when it comes to Ramil Safarov, then note that his emergence is the reflection of what Armenia has been doing. If you want I can share with you the names of at least five armenians who committed cruelties against civilians because of them being Azerbaijani and who got officially proclaimed to be herores of armenia because of what they did to Azerbaijani civilians. In comparison to them, Ramil Safarov killed an officer of the country with which Azerbaijan is still in a war. and Ramil S, has not been proclaimed to be a hero for what he did. so do you lack competency, or you are paid by Gazprom, or Armenian lobby?

Comments are now closed on this article.

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