The city centre of Baku, Azerbaijan's capital city, has seen plenty of resident evictions and demolitions of old buildings lately, as developers clear paths for luxury real estate projects and fancy new boulevards. Although the demolition of the premises of several local NGOs raised criticism from international observers, it does not appear city authorities have any will to change their approach to urban planning
Women in a video recently posted on the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) are shown screaming in protest that their rights have been violated. A man in the background shouts “şərəfsiz” (“without dignity”). They are protesting the demolition of the building housing the offices of the human rights organization “Institute for Peace and Democracy” and two other NGOs, and the whole scene is chaotic. Young men start demolishing the building and, as desperate people look on helplessly, the cranes begin their work.
This demolition is part of an urban development project to create a new area known as the ‘Winter Boulevard’, and the angry men and women in the video are residents of the old neighborhood that is being destroyed. They were not alone in protesting against the demolition of this building. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the demolition and European Union representative in Baku, as well as Human Rights Watch (HRW), openly condemned it.
“Beautifying” the city comes at high costs
Azerbaijan's first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, is rumored to be at the helm of the ‘Winter Boulevard’ project, and the body in charge of the demolition is the Baku City Council. Nonetheless, officials remain silent on the issue and authorities don't seem to care about answering to the questions and demands of the local residents forcefully evicted from their homes.
Winter Boulevard is being constructed in a part of the city that includes an old Baku historic district where some of the buildings date back as far as the 19th century. The majority of historic buildings already destroyed were supposed to have been protected under a plan previously adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers. Yet these plans – and residents' pleas to save the buildings – seem to matter little to local authorities. The demolition of this urban block, which is situated between the two main streets of Shamsi Badalbayli and Fuzuli, began in 2010. The residents were each offered 1,500 Manat per square meter (about $1,900 USD). Unsatisfied with the offer (the amount is less than present-day property valuations), residents took matters into their own hands and headed to the Presidential Administration office (February, 2010). Unable to get any results there, they then took their protest to the streets (February, 2010), only to be dispersed by local police. In March, frustrated residents decided to hold a conference at the Human Rights House. Their attempts continued with a hunger strike in the courtyard of one of the old buildings scheduled for its demolition. But the evictions and demolitions continued. In fact, according to the RFE/RL local service, some of the evictions and relocations were carried out without any official paperwork. The sole basis for these evictions has been a 1987 plan, issued by the Soviet Council of Ministers of Azerbaijan, for the construction of 'Winter Boulevard'.
Last year, Osservatorio published an article describing some of the most worrying features of the construction boom: Baku’s location on an active seismic zone; absence of a general urban and development plan for the city; demolition of Baku’s historically significant buildings and old residential districts; forced evictions without notification; unequal compensation packages, and much more. In fact, little has changed in a year.
The New Baku: A slowly fading beauty
Little is left of the alleys of the city that was once home to “Ali and Nino” and the oil barons. Baku is now a booming capital of construction, pricey real estate, luxury cars, and boutiques - at a glance, a city of wealth and stature. Baku's future is guaranteed by the country’s “black gold” and few question the sustainability of changes in the capital city's landscape as a result of new construction projects. Rapid growth in the real estate market has brought the development of some of the most extravagant construction projects in the last decade.
One such over-the-top project was the Baku White City project, which involved re-construction of the main downtown area and the addition of ten new districts with a total development area of 221 hectares. Big-name project partners include the UK firm ATKINS, F&A Architects, and Foster and Partners. According to the developers, the project includes 440 thousand square meters of office space, 230 thousand square meters of retail space, 3.6 million square meters of residential space and 530 thousand square meters of commercial space. While Baku's local authorities plan for big real estate projects, according to a Human Rights Watch report, residents are being forced out of their homes in the middle of the night and detained while their homes are being destroyed and their personal belongings are either damaged or are lost. Despite these occurrences, the country’s property code clearly states that the State can only seize or purchase property if it is planning to build a new road, railway, or military building. Also, according to a decision of the Cabinet of Ministers, a legal contract must be signed with the property owner and the owner must be given 90 days notice and provided with transportation during the re-location. Moreover, there is even a Presidential Decree from 2007 stating that the owner shall be paid 20 percent more than the market price for his or her property.
Time for real change?
While some might say that placing first in the Eurovision song contest this year in Düsseldorf was a great success for Azerbaijan, it is yet to be seen how the country’s leadership will choose to improve its image abroad. Lavish boutique shops that cater only to the country’s small percentage of nouveau riche – increasingly popping up around the city along with high-end real estate projects - certainly do not make good symbols of democracy or fair distribution of oil revenues. Neither do they meet the needs and demands of a public upset that people continue to lose their homes.
The transformation of this capital city into a glamorous metropolis no doubt means much for investment-hungry contractors and companies, but perhaps it is also time to look at the destruction caused by these up-scale developments and whether they are worth the cost: the lives and homes of ordinary people.