BAKU, AZERBAIJAN -- This is it, I thought. I've found it. The Holy Post-Soviet Travel Grail. . .
I stood atop a massive concrete block, several feet off the ground deep in the Balakhani oil fields, just north of Baku, the seaside capital of Azerbaijan, just voted the world's most polluted city.
Before me the rolling hills of the city dump smoldered, churning enough fume across the horizon to erase the city skyline. Behind the shrouded Baku apartment blocs I knew spread an improbably blue Caspian Sea. But the Caspian felt like several planets away as I surveyed a deathscape of trash fires, abandoned oil derricks, ghost processing plants, and crumbling concrete structures with no obvious purpose. In every direction, garbage, oil pipes, and the decaying carcasses of Baku street dogs and other mammalian vermin who came here to scavenge and never left.
For connoisseurs of a distinctly Soviet desolation, Balakhani on a rainy day is a kind of travel delicacy, a place of aching and otherworldly Tarkovskyan beauty. Adding a wholly satisfying Azeri touch to the scene is a billboard on the road into this wasteland. Featuring the logo of the Heydar Aliyev Fund, named after Azerbaijan's former KGB chief and first post-communist dictator, the sign declares: "Come everyone plant a tree."
In Azerbaijan there's no reason to choose between laughter and tears. The cursed nation of eight million demands both. An ex-Soviet petro-state with a nominally Shia populaton, Azerbaijan sits on a small but strategically valuable isthmus between Russia and Iran. One-third of Azeris live in hard poverty. Transparency International's corruption index places the country between Belarus and Nigeria. If people know anything about Azerbaijan, it is likely one of three things: that it has a lot of offshore oil; that the 2003 power hand-off from Heydar Aliyev to his son Ilham was the first dynastic succession in the post-Soviet space; and that Baku is routinely ranked the most polluted city on earth.
This isn't exactly a dream troika for the national tourist bureau, and few foreigners outside the oil biz ever visit Azerbaijan. Even expats based in the South Caucuses avoid the country if they can. Every foreign press desk save AFP and most NGO's working in the region are based in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which has become the Prague of Transcaucasia. The foreigners in Baku are thus an almost uniformly oily lot, just as they were a century ago, before the Red Army showed up to nationalize the oil fields and scatter the oil barons to Europe, Turkey, and Iran.
Sit on a bench along the posh shopping boulevards in downtown Baku and you'll soon spot the only two species of western Baku expat: the well-heeled consultant talking oil jargon to his Blackberry, and the Cockney-accented offshore rig worker. Both gather in the same British pubs at night to drink ale, watch rugby, and trade stories about the Russified Shia whores who are as much a part of the oil economy as BP. It is arguably the most depressing expat scene in the world. Even the Riyadh compound rats have clear skies and breathable air.
* * * *
If there's one other thing people might know about Azerbaijan, it is the face of its president, Ilham Aliyev, the ultimate Borat president. He's also the actual Borat president. In the Sacha Ben Cohen film, it is Aliyev's portrait that appears during the credits as a stand-in for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the real president of Kazakhstan.
Ilham Aliyev is the shlubby only son of Heydar, a former KGB chief who consolidated power in the early 90s and handed it off to his son on his deathbed in 2003. Originally touted as a reformer, Illham has proven even more iron-fisted than his father. Since his ascension to power, all opposition parties not sanctioned by the government have lost their offices; all major forums for open public discussion have been shut down or harassed into submission. "Heydar, an ex-KGB chief, was strong enough to ignore the opposition mostly," says Khadija Ismayilova, an Azeri correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "People remembered his Soviet-era corruption and expected nothing less. But the son is insecure and more sensitive to criticism. He comes down harder."
At the time of his death, the Cult of Heydar was already approaching tin-can Mao proportions in Azerbaijan, and the son continues to feed the myth of the father. Statues depicting the "Father of Azerbaijan" are still being built in eponymous parks throughout the country. Every city and town has a Heydar Aliyev Prospekt. Signs and billboards line highways and announce entry into towns with Aliyev's chin-stroking aphorisms (or "wise admonitions" according to an official Azeri site). Among them, each funny for different reasons: One cannot relate great policy to tiny senses and little profits … All our natural riches belong to the people, and no one has the right to misuse them … It is impossible to hide truth … One's pulse should throb in accordance with one's Motherland … In general the mankind has been existing and developing by creating and building-constructing … We cannot use strength against nature.
In 1999, while still alive, Heydar built a museum in honor of himself. It will soon be joined by a futuristic Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in downtown Baku. Designed by trendy all-star London architect Zaha Hadid, the building is scheduled to open in 2009 featuring a concert hall, a library, an Aliyev family museum and -- in a classic Azeri touch -- underground parking for no less than 1,350 cars. (Traffic-choked Baku was a pioneer of car culture during the first oil boom; today Azeri kids drive around in mechanized toy cars in Baku's few open spaces.) The announcement of the tender for this Cult of Personality palace led architecture critic Hrag Vartanian to ask, "Is Zaha Hadid the new Leni Riefenstahl?" But more about Azerbaijan's human rights record in a minute.
Museums Azeris can choose to avoid. Not so the ubiquitous presidential billboards. They are everywhere in Azerbaijan, most of them faded by time and pollution to resemble the pages of a 1970s Intourist catalogue of Black Sea resorts. Dominating the country's roads are hundreds of massive signs displaying Heydar Aliyev in various poses. Sometimes he is alone, sometimes he is shown having a serious discussion with his son and successor, Ilham. The multi-generational billboards depict the duo wading into adoring crowds (Heydar first); discussing the glorious future of Azerbaijan in front of power plants; and contemplating unknown subjects requiring subtle and sensitive minds, possibly the mystery of the obvious cheapness of Ilham's gold watch. Despite their riches, both presidents seem to share an affinity for cheap suits. The son's sense of style especially appears to have been molded by his playboy years in Turkish casinos.
Recently a new billboard has begun to pop up outside the capital that has lit up the Azeri blogosphere and sent Azerbaijan's opposition into a deep depression. It shows not two Aliyevs, but three. Trailing behind Ilham is the little boy-dictator-in-waiting, Heydar Jr., a kind of Damien figure who may be the world's first non-Tibetan figurehead to warrant his own pre-pubescent secession propaganda. The text leaves little doubt about the message: "Independent Azerbaijan's yesterday, today and future!!!"
In clumsy, Borat-like public relations efforts, Ilham does his best to project a cosmopolitan image. Any meeting with visiting foreigners is heavily publicized in the state media. When a freelancer with Forbes interviewed Aliyev shortly after he assumed power, the leading pro-government daily plastered its front page with an image of the president being interviewed by the young journalist. And when Herbie Hancock headlined the 2006 Baku Jazz Festival, the following year's program opened with a two-page spread of Hancock and Aliyev sitting on couches with painfully forced smiles on their faces. The text beneath the photo read: "Herbie Hancock: 'Your president is a very nice guy!'"
* * * *
Someone else who thinks Aliyev is a very nice guy is Dick Cheney.
The U.S. Vice President's links to Azerbaijan date back to 1993, when the newly ensconced Heydar Aliyev made it a foreign policy priority to cultivate ties with politically connected world of Texas Oil. It was a natural alliance, one with a cultural element on top of the obvious political and economic logic. Houston and Baku are two of the world's greatest oil capitals, and two cities which deserve the "asshole of the [fill in large geographical location here]" moniker more than just about any place on earth. They are official "sister cities." A team from Houston is currently advising the Azeri government on a planned Museum of Oil in Baku, based on the one in Texas.
Fully aroused by rumors of Saudi-levels of crude in the Caspian, Texas Oil was eager to return Aliyev's embrace. A friendship was established in 1993 and cemented in 1994, the year Aliyev inaugurated Azerbaijan's post-Soviet oil boom by signing the so-called "Contract of the Century" with western majors. As Aliyev hoped, Houston was the key to unlocking to deeper cooperation with Washington. As David Case recounted in a 2004 Mother Jones article:
Amoco helped [Aliyev] score his first meeting with President Clinton, and oil companies pushed for a resumption of U.S. aid to his government (which Congress had cut off during the war with Armenia). A pantheon of U.S. policymakers-turned-consultants also chipped in on behalf of the regime—men such as Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as then-Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney and [Dick] Armitage, whose clients at the time included several Western companies looking to profit from the oil rush.
Texas Oil did end up profiting from this oil rush, but it wasn't a U.S. company that won the lion's share. After the dust settled on the Azeri Caspian carve-up, BP emerged the biggest foreign player in Baku. They got there with a lobbying effort famous in the annals of oil for its bottomless entertainment expense account. According to a 2007 Daily Mail expose (which the paper pulled from its site the next day under pressure from Downing Street) the company, under the direction of Lord Brown and MI6, spent 45 million pounds sterling over a whore-and-caviar fueled four-month period to sweeten up Aliyev and his poorly tailored cronies. BP's "make big party time with you" approach to Baku's Power Borats paid off. There is now a chippy on the city's main shopping boulevard, just around the corner from O'Malley's Irish pub and its locally famous Yorkshire pudding. "The government doesn't deal with countries," an Iranian café owner told me. "It deals with oil companies. And BP has the biggest embassy."
At the time of BP and Texas Oil's slobbering courting of Baku, Caspian oil deposits were said to be large enough to shake the world, or at least OPEC. As CEO of Halliburton 1998, Dick Cheney articulated the conventional wisdom when he said, "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian."
That was then, anyway. These days the only place you'll find the region at the center of world events is in the new Xbox game "Frontline: Fuel of War" where American teenagers battle Russian and Chinese troops for control of Caspian oil in 2024. According to gaming critics, the game sucks, and not just because the makers missed a golden pun opportunity by not calling it "The New Great Game."
What happened to all those hundreds of billions of promised barrels? As a Hungarian oil analyst explained to me during an Aeroflot delay at Heydar Aliyev airport, everyone understood the Caspian was being hyped from the beginning. "There was [utility] in making the world think there was more oil than there was," he said. The Caspian nation regimes wanted to make the West drool so much it forgot all about human rights and corruption; the oil companies wanted inflated proven-reserves numbers in order to jack up their stock prices. Win-win.
At its height, the Caspian hype-machine was a thing to behold. There was a time when you couldn't open a newspaper or magazine without reading an article about how the Caspian basin was a second Saudi Arabia with 200-plus billion recoverable barrels. But the reality turned out to be closer to North Sea Junior. To the extent estimates can be trusted, Azerbaijan's share of the Caspian booty is now estimated at between seven and 13 billion barrels. Hardly an OPEC-busting number, even when you figure in Kazakhstan's Kashagan field, the largest Caspian field with nine to 16 billion barrels. "Azerbaijan and the rest of them are incremental suppliers, that's all," explained the Hungarian analyst. "They aren't going to swing things or significantly relax growing tightness in supply."
Among other things, all the 90s hype resulted in excess pipeline capacity, of which the heralded (and expensive) Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is a major part. The Clinton administration's high-priority accomplishment will, when all's said and done, wind up vastly underused, even when the Caspian fields are pumping at full speed in 15 years or so. But so much rhetoric was spewed for so long that when the day came in 2005 to smash the ceremonial bottle against Baku-Ceyhan, U.S. energy secretary Samuel Bodman felt obligated to continue the farce, declaring it "a day that will change the world."
The "deep state" links developed between Houston, Washington, and Baku during the heady early 90s are kept alive today through the Council of Advisors to the U.S.–Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, since 1996 the central forum for conducting serious U.S.-Azeri business. Past and present USACC board members include the above names, plus Henry Kissinger, John Sununu, and Richard Perle.
Most of the USACC's business is low-key and conducted in private. But occasionally the group will bring out the black ties and notify the media. In December of 2006, the group hosted a lavish dinner at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington for Mehriban Aliyeva, the First Lady of Azerbaijan. The evening was co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, with a keynote address delivered by Senator Richard Lugar, who was present to receive the USACC Freedom Support Award.
To understand why the existence of a USACC Freedom Support Award is a sick joke on par with the "plant a tree" sign in the Balakhani oil fields, you have to zoom way in from the bird's eye view of the Grand Chessboard and leave the executive suites of the oil majors. You have to talk to an Azeri who is tired of being robbed by the country's bloodthirsty Borats to pay for ugly steel-and-glass monuments to the memory of Heydar Aliyev.
* * * *
There is no shortage of examples to illustrate the sad state of freedom and human rights in Azerbaijan. There is Heydar Aliyev's one-time rival, Rasul Guliyev, forced into exile in 1996. There are the opposition party activists who have had their offices shut down and are routinely beaten, jailed, and, according to Human Rights Watch, tortured. Increasingly, there are the journalists who are jailed and assaulted for doing their job.
In the run-up to the presidential election this October that Aliyev is certain to win, an already appalling human rights situation is getting worse for Azeri journalists. The parties allowed to participate (besides the ruling New Azerbaijan Party) are, as in Russia, assigned by the government.
At the end of 2007, nine reporters and editors were sitting in jails, mostly for the "crime" of satire or alleged libel. Five were recently released, but four remain behind bars on what are widely believed to be false or trumped-up charges. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan is "the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia." That's quite an accomplishment considering the neighborhood, one that suggests the thought experiment of imagining Dick Cheney co-emceeing a black-tie dinner in honor of Ludmila Putin, with U.S. Senator Sam Brownback on hand to accept a U.S.-Russia Chamber of Commerce Freedom Support Award.
The last few months have seen an acceleration of unsavory incidents that are beginning to raise the profile of Azerbaijan in human rights circles. Most prominent among them, a reporter for the Azadlyq newspaper, Agil Khalil, was stabbed in the chest and left in serious condition while reporting on a shady land deal involving government officials. As with a similar case last year in which the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Gyundelik Azerbaijan barely escaped an assassination attempt, no police investigation has been opened.
Accoring to Baku-based journalist Rovshan Ismayilov, the attempted murder was "most probably" carried out by "some forces within the government," possibly in contemptuous response to a recent State Department human rights report critical of Azerbaijan.
"The stabbing of Agil Khalil is part of campaign of repression about the Azerbaijani press," says Emin Huseynov, Chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety in Baku. "Every March before an election there is an attack on the press. Before the 2005 parliamentary elections, the editor of the Monitor Journal was murdered. The government wants to instill fear and prevent dissident thinking."
Huseynov also does not discount the possibility that the attack on Khalil was intended as a message to the West. "It is interesting that just two days before [the stabbing] the U.S. released is annual report on human rights practices," he said. "There is something to the theory that after such reports are released, attacks like this take place as retribution, to make the point that such reports [accomplish] nothing, and that our government has no obligation to listen to other countries."
Along with direct violence, the Alieyv regime is fond of other methods familiar to watchers of post-Soviet petro-states. Fitting a pattern, earlier this month a Baku Court sentenced the editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Azadlyq ("Freedom") to four years imprisonment for "hooliganism and causing damage to the health of a person" after he allegedly insulted a woman in the street. The judgment was read in a closed session. The case echoed the punishment handed to two journalists from the independent newspaper Nota Bene, who were found guilty of defamation in February and sentenced to two-year imprisonment and 18-months corrective labor, respectively, after they published articles relating to corruption within the Interior Ministry.
According to local activists, the state also targets businesses associated with opposition media outlets. In January 2008, the printing house Chap Evi, which prints media critical of the Azerbaijani government, was subjected to an unscheduled tax inspection without explanation.
The West is not deaf to the growing calls by Azeri activists for global condemnation. When Kahlil was stabbed, the U.S. ambassador in Baku visited him in the hospital and called for an investigation. But opposition activists are beginning to plead for more than just words.
"The Western embassies here have been increasingly vocal about problems in the areas of press freedom and freedom of expression, but it would be more effective if they took more concrete steps like sanctions," says Huseynov. Last year a group of civil society figures appealed without success to the EU to get them to enact targeted sanctions of the sort they approved against Belarus, such as limiting the travel of certain corrupt officials and freezing their foreign bank accounts.
As Huseynov and most Azeri opposition activists would admit, this is unlikely to happen so long as Azerbaijan remains a friendly oil supplier sandwiched between Russia and Iran. There is also the question of the West's ability to influence local politics here. When Western governments increased the human rights heat on Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov after the 2005 massacre of protesters in Andijan, he fought back. Tashkent threw the Americans out of a key airbase, withdrew from a regional NATO-mentored military alliance, and joined the Moscow-led SCTO. To top it off, Karimov only tightened the human rights abuse screws.
"The oil has an impact on the political situation. Western countries have been very vocal in their criticism of Belarus and Russia, but very careful about Azerbaijan," says Khadija Ismayilova, the Azeri correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "The government is also adept at playing the West and Russia off each other."
Whether or not the West decides to make more noise about human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, as it has elsewhere in the ex-USSR, there are signs that the Aliyev regime may not care about foreign cash or opinion the way he and his father used to. In 2006 the Turkish Electricity Company Barmek had its investment in Baku's electric grid nationalized by the Azeri government. That same year, the Dutch metal company Fondel was kicked out of the country. Foreigners have also been stripped of their shares in AzPetrol.
"Slowly, the power of Azerbaijan's oligarchs is increasing," says Huseynov. "Soon they will fear no one."