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Azerbaijan: Post-War Life In Baku -- Affluence Rising

  • Jolyon Naegele

Baku, 27 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Baku is a much humbler place today than it was ten years ago when Nagorno-Karabakh's regional soviet declared the enclave was seceding from Azerbaijan and joining Armenia.

A war that left tens of thousands dead, nearly one million homeless and one fifth of the country under occupation did much to dissolve the widespread arrogance this correspondent encountered in Baku a decade ago.

Despite the lost war, the city's affluence continues to rise, bolstered by multi-national foreign investment in the oil industry and specifically Turkish investment in medium sized and small businesses.

Some 2,000 taxis vie for customers in Baku. Small restaurants proliferate, offering friendly service and tasty food ranging from Caucasian, Turkish and Russian specialties to the popular Azerbaijani breakfast dish "hash" -- boiled hoof served with garlic-vinegar and a shot of vodka.

Baku residents and officials all readily admit Azerbaijan lost the war to Armenia. But, in the words of the head of the journalists' union Arif Aliyev that seem to reflect prevailing opinions, there is a general feeling that Azerbaijan and Armenia are now like Germany and the Soviet Union after the Second World War -- one side was defeated but prospered while the other one won the war and stayed poor.

But not everything is well in Azerbaijan. Hopes that a peaceful resolution could be find enabling the refugees to return to their homes were dashed late last year, first by only marginal progress in OSCE sponsored talks in Copenhagen and then by the resignation of Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who had agreed to a step by step approach to resolving the Karabakh issue.

While a few politicians and refugees muse that if a peaceful solution can not be reached then Azerbaijan will have to resort to force, the country is unlikely to mount a serious military effort in the foreseeable future. The army has no airborne capability nor air to ground coordination. Only now it is beginning to develop basic soldiering skills. And more important still, western diplomats say that troops lack motivation and the population show little will to fight.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Karabakh and surrounding areas continue to live in the most primitive, inhumane conditions, passively waiting for someone to help rather than trying to help themselves. Foreign humanitarian aid has been far from sufficient. In Baku itself, some 1300 refugees have been crowded into a dormitory building for the last six years, five to a room, sewage leaking from pipes onto the floor, a common toilet/washroom covered in by some ten centimeters of black sludge. And nothing has been done to improve these conditions.

The news media occasionally report on the refugees. But inexperience, a lack of journalistic ethics and, what analysts say, generally poor quality news reporting have given the censors a field day.

Censorship is constitutionally outlawed. But there is a government agency, the "Main Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press," to which editors must submit their issues prior to publication. Even so, the censorship is relatively lax, largely because the censors appear overwhelmed by the large number of newspapers and periodicals being published. Last week, an article they barred from publication on Wednesday was printed in full three days later.

Despite a plethora of political parties, many led by articulate and experienced politicians, observers predict that the incumbent President Heydar Aliyev will be easily reelected in October.

Aliyev is widely respected. He remains untainted by corruption scandals, the most recent involving his Foreign Minister Hassan Hassanov who misappropriated a $10 million loan from Turkey. Aliyev has abolished the death penalty and has set deadlines for parliament to promulgate a variety of measures intended to protect human rights and satisfy demands by the Council of Europe.

But Western diplomats say Aliyev also continues to harass the country's top two opposition leaders, his predecessor Abulsaz Elchibey, who heads the Popular Front Party and former Speaker of Parliament Isa Gambar who heads the center-right Musavat party. And corruption remains visible at the grass roots level. Police patrols can be found every 100 meters along Baku's main thoroughfares, flagging down drivers for a payoff.