When Azeri duo Ell & Nikki won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011, Azerbaijan was overjoyed. In a country where the Eurovision breaks popularity records, there is no end to the applause for these native artists. The historical victory was a breakthrough for everyone: the government saw an opportunity for the quicker modernisation of infrastructure in the capital as well as improving its image abroad, while the opposition saw a chance for its 15 minutes of fame, and human rights organisations jumped on the bandwagon with its “Sing for Democracy” campaign, hoping that the foreign limelight would expose the authoritarian tendencies of President Ilham Aliyev’s regime.
But as soon as the enthusiastic wave of preparations for the organisation of the Eurovision 2012 final in Baku got under way, it turned out that not everybody would be joining the celebrations.
Eurovision’s dark side
Tatyana Cherkessov, 42, and her family did not sit among the audience at Baku Crystal Hall, where the May crowning of the contest took place. At the turn of the decade the Cherkessov family were on cloud nine when they moved into a spacious flat with a view of the Caspian Sea. The building in the heart of the city was perfectly located and they invested their life savings into their new home. But 12 years later the attractiveness of the site proved a curse rather than a blessing.
First, the government decided to bring down the local hospital. Next, both a stadium and swimming pool were levelled to the ground. And finally, the bell tolled for residential buildings in the area. In the meantime, National Flag Square was created nearby, which boasted the biggest flag and the highest mast in the world at the time.
“It soon became clear that our nine-story apartment block near National Flag Square would be bulldozed. The municipal authorities were adamant that it had nothing to do with the Eurovision. Unofficially, it was said that a district for rich people was to be created there,” says Tatyana, an inhabitant of a building on Agil Guliyev Street.
Extending National Flag Square gathered momentum when Azerbaijan won the Eurovision. On the other side of the gigantic flag, construction of the most ambitious project in Baku started: a multifunctional crystal hall, where artists from all over Europe would perform in May 2012. This architectural wonder accommodates 25,000 spectators, and Radio Free Europe have estimated the cost to be over 130 million dollars, 40 times more than Ukraine, winner of Eurovision seven years ago, spent on its concert hall.
The Cherkessovs, a family of five, are one of 72 families who were evicted from the last residential building near National Flag Square after a long battle with the government. Although at first resistant, inhabitants were finally forced out when the government cut phone lines, stopped supplying electricity and cut off the water to the building. In February 2012, when Baku was struggling with freezing temperatures and the fiercest winter in decades, the gas was permanently shut off in the apartment block. In the same month workers started to dismantle the building. The roof was torn off and the top floor demolished.
On March 1st, the Cherkessov family had to carry their furniture down from the sixth floor as the lift had been out of order for weeks. The building, which was being demolished from the top down, could have collapsed at any moment. Today, no remnants of the building can be seen and the former inhabitants still can’t believe what has happened to them.
“First, as a form of compensation, a flat on the outskirts of the city was offered to us. It’s a new building but the problem is that it officially doesn’t exist. The developer didn’t fulfil the security standards so he couldn’t receive the approval of the Ministry of Emergencies. How could we accept an apartment which doesn’t have an address and is located in a dangerous building?” Tatyana asks. “We were ultimately informed that we had to move out. Compensation was calculated at 1,500 manats (1,900 dollars) per square metre. Non-negotiable! But for this money you can’t buy anything of a similar standard in Baku! We had three rooms with a view of the sea and now we can only afford two rooms, at most, on the outskirts of the city. I don’t understand why a country earning billions through selling oil and gas can’t afford to pay people decent compensation.”
Azeri law provides compensation for inhabitants expropriated by the state, stating that it should be based on the current price on the free market. What’s more, the state should also pay moral damages worth 20 per cent of the market value of the apartment to a person who is forced out, as well as covering the cost of moving and temporary accommodation, if necessary. None of these provisions were fulfilled by the authorities.
Zohrab Ismayilov, head of the non-governmental organisation PAAFE (Public Association for a Free Economy), which monitors the Azeri situation in property rights, has confirmed that 1,500 manats per square metre is well below the market value. “We have analysed the real estate market in this district. The market price is now 1,750 to 2,100 manats (2,230 to 2,675 dollars) per square metre. In other words, the inhabitants should have received at least 25 to 30 per cent more money. Of course, owners of small studio flats are in a worst situation. This compensation wouldn’t even buy them a tiny apartment in the capital.The international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch has published a report calling on the Azeri government to review the abuses of power carried out by evicting the inhabitants of the buildings near National Flag Square and pay them just compensation. Some inhabitants, however, have already decided to seek justice through the courts.
“Fifteen families have decided to sue the municipal authorities and are demanding 20,000 manats (25,500 dollars) in compensation. We are currently helping another three families to file law suits,” says Zohrab Ismayilov, whose organisation offers legal aid in matters connected with the real estate and other property belonging to the inhabitants. So far there haven’t been any similar cases in which the courts have ruled in favour of people who have lost their property.
According to information collected by PAAFE, the city of Baku has demolished nine residential buildings in the vicinity of National Flag Square, totalling 281 apartments.
Tatyana Cherkessov and her family now rent a place and they are intensely seeking a new apartment to buy; but with the compensation they have received, it’s not easy.
The former inhabitants of National Flag Square are not the only victims of the ambitious plans of modernising Baku. In the last two years, dozens of historical buildings in the city centre have been demolished, located alongside the Winter Boulevard, a promenade for strollers which is still under construction. Many old houses on attractive lots in the centre of Baku have also been bulldozed to the ground and replaced with elegant office buildings and luxury housing estates.
All the inhabitants were offered was new accommodation or compensations of up to 1,500 manats (1,900 dollars) per square metre.
PAAFE estimates that the modernisation of Baku is infringing on the property rights of 20,000 people in the city of 3.5 million. Many inhabitants have taken dramatic steps to defend their rights. There were protests and hunger strikes but all to no avail. The demolitions and evictions have not stopped. In March 2012, a house on Mirzag Aliyev Street in central Baku was torn down during the night with a tractor. The people sleeping inside miraculously managed to escape from the collapsing building. No one had warned them about the planned nightly demolition.
The Human Rights Watch report has documented 24 similar cases, in which the authorities have given approval to demolishing houses and flats with people still living in them. Walls were brought down and roofs, windows and stairs removed in order to force the inhabitants to move out. These are extreme cases, but many experts believe that the Baku authorities are breaking the law through the very fact that the aim of these projects is to make the city more attractive.
Ulviyya Asadzade, a journalist of Radio Free Europe in Baku and author of the PAAFE report on the property rights situation in Azerbaijan, points to Article 29 of the Azeri constitution, which protects private property and only allows the expropriation of real estate for specific reasons of the state (above all defence, the building of roads and transport infrastructure).
“The Baku authorities have no legal mandate to make decisions on demolishing buildings. Only the Council of Ministers may issue a decree allowing demolitions, and only for reasons of the state. And expropriations must be approved by a court,” says Asadzade. According to the Azeri Penal Code the intentional destruction or damage of property is a crime.
Many believe that the author of most of the ideas for modernising the capital come from Mehriban Aliyeva, the Azeri first lady. In a recent interview Aliyeva rejected accusations that attempts at modernising Baku were illegal and that the latest demolitions of houses were connected with the organisation of the Eurovision Song Contest final in Azerbaijan. “Rebuilding of the city had begun before we won the Eurovision,” Mehriban Aliyeva is quoted as saying. “Of course, when implementing projects on such a scale you need to take over the land and demolish buildings, especially antiquated ones which are not up to modern standards.”
The first lady is convinced that the problems with property rights as described by the media result from “the tactlessness of low rank officials, who do not always offer adequate help in organising the move”. Meanwhile many victims are demanding the creation of a special government commission, which would also set the level of adequate financial compensation for evicted inhabitants. So far, however, the authorities haven’t expressed the will to take up this matter.
In the eyes of many, the heart of the problem is not only violating the property rights of the inhabitants, but also the historic soul of the city which is buried under the rubble of old buildings.
“Baku is a city with a history. The authorities want to make a Dubai out of it,” says Tatyana Cherkessov.
Translated by Tomasz Bieroń
Anna Żamejć is a US-based, freelance correspondent with the Azerbaijani Service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. She is a member of the editorial staff of the monthly Liberté! specialising in politics of the South Caucasus and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.