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Azerbaijan: Poverty Prevails In A Potential Boomtown

Baku, 16 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Upon landing in Baku, there is no mistaking the presence of Heydar Aliyev. The president's face looks down from posters at airport customs. Quotes from his speeches grace buildings on the drive into town.

Aliyev's likeness also makes thematic appearances. At the entrance to the Ministry of Communications, for example, Aliyev is pictured with telephone in hand. Flip on the TV and there is President Aliyev again, receiving gifts from foreign emissaries or reviewing a military parade.

In Azerbaijan, it seems, Soviet traditions have given way to the trappings of a Middle Eastern potentate. But some old habits die hard. On the eve of the Silk Road conference, Aliyev is at the airport, along with a bus-load of journalists, who have been brought to witness the arrival of the eight presidents attending the conference.

In the airport parking lot, security men are beating stray cats out of the bushes with sticks. On the tarmac, the red carpet is rolled out and lined with a honor guard. As each presidential jet lands, it taxies over to the waiting soldiers.

Aliyev, flower-bearing children in tow, greets each arriving head of state with a triple kiss. Proclamations of brotherhood are exchanged. Then the Azerbaijani leader goes back into the terminal and waits another hour. A battalion of babushki sweeps the ground clean, and the whole performance is repeated again.

The terminal where Aliyev waits sparkles with newness. The red carpet where the presidents walk leads from the tarmac straight into its shiny glass entrance. Just 10 meters away, journalists wait in a small shack where the doors are vandalized and the tables are broken. It's just a detail on this day, but one that says much about appearances and how things really work here.

In the competition for who came to town in the fanciest jet, Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, in his sky-blue Boeing 757, wins hands down. Turkey's Suleyman Demirel, representing the richest and largest nation in the region, arrives in a modest 8-seater Lear jet. Another paradox. It just goes to show you can't always judge a leader by his mode of transport.

The decrepitude of Baku is what stuns most of all. Set in a half-moon bay on the Caspian shore, graced with olive and cypress trees, and sprinkled with 19th century and art nouveau mansions, the city could rival many a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern metropolis. But the mansions are crumbling, the roads are rutted and the bay is littered with rusting ships and derelict oil rigs.

Locals, ensconced in the tea houses or shashlik stalls on the waterfront, complain. But most throw up their hands fatalistically. "What can we do?" says one pensioner, "I have seen it all in my day and it has always been like this. They are the masters and we are their slaves. In this country, it will always be so."

Many people spend their days hanging out on the sidewalks. There is not much to do in a place where locals say the economy is so choked with cronyism that you can't even open a grocery store without paying off the right government contacts. But the men and boys, in their double-breasted blazers, keep up appearances with dignity. The Armani look is in, and Baku may be one of the few world capitals where even street urchins wear suits.

Foreigners often refer to Baku as a new boomtown. But that depends on your definition. New restaurants abound and the markets are full of cheap Turkish and Iranian goods -- most past their sell date.

Says one shopper, "Do you want to know what Iranian goods are all about? They are like the socks I just bought for my husband. I washed them once and they turned green and lost their shape. I had to throw them out."

Sit in the lobby of the downtown Absheron hotel, where a lone lightbulb flickers on and off and the carpet smells of cat urine, and you'll understand that despite the hype, Baku is still a long way from feeling like a boomtown.

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan's capital does have its pleasures. Every evening, young couples stroll along the waterfront as the aroma of grilled lamb tickles the nostrils. Turkish disco music drifts out to sea. For a few hours, the day's troubles are forgotten. Unquestionably, Baku's greatest reward are its people: kind, gentle and generous to a fault. If the wealth of a nation could be measured in its kindness to strangers, then Azerbaijan would indeed be a prosperous place.