‘Nothing works, it’s all for show’

In this extract from their new book, All That Glitters, Emma Hughes and James Marriott describe how Azerbaijan’s oil wealth has created a country of chaos and contrasts

August 1, 2015 · 7 min read

It’s summer in Baku, 2014. We are standing outside the brilliant white curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. Designed by Zaha Hadid, it has just won the London Design Museum’s Design of the Year award with the judges declaring it: ‘An intoxicatingly beautiful building by the most brilliant architect at the height of her office’s powers. It is as pure and sexy as Marilyn’s blown skirt.’

It draws us into its white folds as we walk around this calm space. Seen from a helicopter above, the curves resolve into the shape of Heydar Aliyev’s signature. It’s an unconscious echo of Baku’s Tofiq Bahramov football stadium. Built in 1951 and originally named after Joseph Stalin, it resembles from above the letter C, the first letter in the Cyrillic spelling of his name, in his honour.

There have been remarkably few exhibitions held at the Heydar Aliyev Centre since it opened in 2012. That year it hosted an Andy Warhol retrospective; an exhibition of Tahir Salakhov’s work took place in 2013; and, most recently, Love Me, Love Me Not featured contemporary art from Azerbaijan and its neighbours. Notable by omission was Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan is still locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region in the south west of the country.

The Heydar Aliyev Centre is not a cultural institution for the people of Baku. On our visit it was all shut up. It is only opened for temporary exhibitions, when the target audiences are foreign journalists, wealthy art collectors, celebrities and politicians. It also provides the backdrop to political events. In 2014 it hosted the 20th anniversary celebration of the signing of the ‘Contract of the Century’, the oil deal struck by BP, with the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, BP CEO Bob Dudley and many heads of state in attendance.

Some 250 homes were destroyed to make way for the centre. Giorgi Gogia of Human Rights Watch explained how people were forced out of their homes: ‘The government squeezed people out by cutting off their supply of electricity, gas and water. Sometimes residents would be detained and when they came back, their homes were simply gone. Other buildings were demolished with people still in them.’

Sharp divisions

Opposite the centre is a spaghetti junction of roads where Heydar Aliyev Prospekti (avenue) meets the heart of Baku. Sitting on the white curves of the building we can see traffic stacked up, horns honking, people jumping out of vehicles and walking in the midday sun. Such an intensity of chaos and noise, the contrast with the centre is jarring.

Baku is full of such sharp divisions. While dazzling architecture studs the city like jewels, the metropolis itself is poorly designed. Roads are jammed to breaking point; the noise of blaring horns is constant. The drainage system is inadequate. Heavy storms leave cars battling through muddy rivers. 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 interiors onto the street. Baku is a city permanently under construction. Sometimes it appears like the only working part of the city’s infrastructure is the metro system, opened in 1967 and since upgraded. It moves people around with relative speed in comparison to the choked streets above.

Often this Caspian city feels like one giant vanity project, designed to amaze but not to function. While architects have been given licence to realise the grandest of visions, town planning has been brushed aside. Most of the residents live in tower blocks built in the Soviet era. They are spartan but have electricity and water – unless the continual cycle of demolition and reconstruction cuts off such necessities.

Further away from the city centre, the housing is more basic. Corrugated iron roof sheets sit on walls of concrete breezeblocks, tarmacked roads give out to dirt tracks along which wander goats and chickens. Even from here the famous Flame Towers are visible, illuminating the night sky. People in Baku feel this disparity; they despair at how a city so glamorous fails to provide even basic infrastructure. We spoke to a young man at the Baku airport. Desperate to escape, he had saved to go university in Ukraine. ‘Nothing here works,’ he said. ‘It’s all for show’.

Low spending

Despite Azerbaijan’s oil and gas income, spending on basic services like education and healthcare is low. Emerging from Soviet rule, Azerbaijan had a strong tradition of universal education with adult literacy levels sitting at 99.9 per cent. Since that time literacy rates have fallen; the number of students who drop out has increased; curricula, textbooks and teaching methods have become outmoded; and school buildings have fallen into disrepair.

Since the dire levels of the 1990s, just after the end of the USSR, public spending on education has slowly increased – in 2006 it reached 2.7 per cent of GDP – but this is still well below the 6 per cent average for the region. The teaching profession has lost the status it once had and salaries have deteriorated. In 2008 they were just half of the average national wage. As a result there is a lack of qualified teaching staff. Classrooms are crowded and staff are required to teach subjects they have little knowledge of. The low wages have led teachers to start unofficially charging fees or imposing private tutoring on students. There is evidence that an increasing number of poor families cannot afford the cost of education.

The curriculum, an area over which the government exerts tight control, focuses on the history and geography of Azerbaijan and the organisation of the political system. Students are encouraged to learn by rote, passive consumers of the facts they receive. As education expert Iveta Silova notes, children are taught in a ‘very undemocratic way’. The purpose of such an education is not to create an active engaged citizenry but passive, supplicant subjects.

Healthcare presents a similar story. Low levels of government expenditure, both as a share of GDP and in absolute terms, have left Azeris paying for most of their own medical treatment. Individual payments covered 62 per cent of total health spending in 2007. Many people are left with catastrophic healthcare costs when they face serious illness and poorer people cannot access care at all. Some Azeris travel abroad for healthcare, often to Iran.

While oil and gas has prospered in Azerbaijan, other sectors have not. The energy industry is responsible for just over 1 per cent of employment, whereas nearly half the population works in agriculture. The privatisation of collective farms in the 1990s resulted in a huge increase in poverty in rural areas. Today 42 per cent of people live below the poverty line and the gap between the richest in the city and poorest on the land is immense. Outside Baku it is common to find people without a gas supply in their homes even as gas pipelines heading for other countries run under their fields.

Absolute poverty levels across the country have fallen since the 1990s as minimum salaries and pensions increased. But the benefits of these wage increases have been dampened by a rise in prices of basic necessities. Higher wages are dependent on strong state budgets; however, 84 per cent of government expenditure comes from oil and gas revenues. While absolute poverty has decreased there has been a dramatic increase in the disparity between rich and poor. Oil dependency and inequality have gone hand in hand.

This is an extract from All that Glitters – Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan, a new book from Platform. Available on their website www.platformlondon.org

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