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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 16, 2013
9 min read


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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azer1A 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.azer4Baku’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.

azer3Housing 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: www.platformlondon.org


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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