Wed, Apr 10, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Poverty, repression remain under Baku’s new skyline

AFP, BAKU

In a crowded Baku street, Gyulya Akparova talks proudly about the major transformation of Azerbaijan and its thousand-year-old capital dotted with glittering skyscrapers on the Caspian Sea.

Two decades ago, “there were not many parks, nor new buildings,” the 56-year-old housewife said.

Since then, the government “has created normal living conditions so that people can lead a good life,” she said, adding: “There used to be very few tourists, now there are lots of them.”

Another Baku resident, 46-year-old Elsa Jafarova, shared her enthusiasm, saying she was proud to show her city to visitors, who explore it “with pleasure.”

However, behind Azerbaijan’s glitzy facades, financed by petrodollars, lie widespread poverty and political repression, government critics say.

“Petrodollars got spent on infrastructure projects — the engines of the country’s development,” prominent economist Natig Jafarli said.

“The spending mostly benefitted central Baku, which has changed dramatically, but this is not the case for the rest of the country,” said Jafarli, who is executive secretary of the opposition Republican Alternative Party.

Under the Aliyev dynasty which has ruled the oil-rich, ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist for a quarter of a century, Azerbaijan has emerged from post-Soviet political and economic chaos to enjoy an oil production boom.

This brought years of two-digit economic growth, peaking at more than 20 percent a year between 2004 and 2008 when oil prices were high.

The oil revenues have helped fund the construction, particularly in Baku, where Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has built the Flame Tower skyscrapers, a cultural center designed by the famed British architect Zaha Hadid, as well as new roads and an airport.

The capital’s Old City quarter — a UNESCO world heritage site — has also been renovated and attracts crowds of foreign tourists.

Baku has also hosted international events such as the Eurovision Song Contest and Formula 1 Grand Prix motor race.

However, poor neighborhoods outside central Baku are a sorry sight, with decrepit buildings and dismal wastelands.

Official data show that about 5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, but the real figure is much higher, according to Jafarli, who often appears in independent media in the Caucasus region.

“The indicators used to calculate poverty are wrong. Some date back to the Soviet Union. The reality is different,” he said.

Azerbaijan’s per capita GDP is only half of that of Russia and one-tenth of France’s, the IMF says.

Jafarli said that the government had taken measures to improve living standards, about a month ago increasing the minimum wage from 130 manats to 180 manats (about US$76 to US$106) per month.

“Since late 2018, the dynamic has been positive, but the country’s economy is suffering from chronic problems,” he said, highlighting a “dependence on oil” among other things.

Azerbaijan’s economic fortunes are closely linked to the price of crude — the energy sector represents 90 percent of exports and finances half of the national budget.

The 2014 global oil price slump led to a 50 percent devaluation of the manat, double-digit inflation and an economic downturn.

As oil prices have since risen, the economy has modestly picked up and is now stagnant at about 1 or 2 percent.

International observers said that Aliyev’s re-election last year for a fourth consecutive term was marred by “serious irregularities.”

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