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Azerbaijan's Extravagant Olive Trees

Azerbaijan’s native olive trees, oaks, and firs are being crowded out after around 3,000 bushes and 300 trees were brought to Baku last week to be planted in Baku's National Park.

The flora invasion has many Baku residents asking why import the trees at all, when Azerbaijan has such a good crop of its own?

Officials have defended the purchases by saying that the foreign trees grow in more extravagant ways. Nazim Majidov, deputy director of the Baku Boulevard where the park is situated, says that two of the olive trees are 150 years old and an Italian specialist would monitor the trees' adaptation to the climes of Azerbaijan.

Baku experts, however, have cast doubt on government claims that some of the trees are older than 100 years. They also have poured scorn on the idea that only foreign trees are capable of growing into extravagant forms.

National Park managers haven't revealed the prices of the foreign trees, which are thought to cost several hundred dollars, but have said that costs also include travel expenses and customs duties. (Agronomists say a local olive tree would cost the government 30-40 manats, or around $50.)

Azerbaijanis are all-to-familiar with their government's "white elephant" projects -- and this isn't the first time they've involved imported flora.

Every year on May 10, the Baku City Executive Office organizes a spectacular flower show to mark former President Heydar Aliyev’s birthday.

Flowers are also brought to Baku on the eve of jubilee ceremonies -- and then promptly thrown away the next day.

The exact cost isn't known, but according to local media reports, some 20 million manats was spent on flowers in 2009, a sum contested by the Baku City Executive Office.

Gular Ahmadova from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party has said that the yearly expenditure on "flower holidays" is around 14-15 million manats.

Such spending has become a bone of contention for independent NGOs concerned about the lack of transparency in the budget.

Qubad Ibadoglu, head of the Economic Studies Center, says “the expenses include not only the purchase but also 'adaptation costs'. However, there is no access to such information for the press and specialists. We have applied for information, but couldn't get anything.”

Natik Jafarov, the head of the Economic Bloggers Association, calculated that for the money spent on "flower holidays" in 2009, the authorities could have doubled the salaries of all the doctors in Baku.

-- Arifa Kazimova

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