Middle-class Face Eviction

What is affected
Housing private
Type of violation Forced eviction
Date 15 August 2011
Region A [ Asia ]
Country Azerbaijan
Location Baku

Affected persons

Total 0
Men 0
Women 0
Children 0
Proposed solution

Forced eviction
Housing losses
- Number of homes
- Total value €

Duty holder(s) /responsible party(ies)

Brief narrative

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Before the notices started to arrive, Eldostu Elman had a pretty clear idea how his life would unfold, at least as far as the living arrangements. He would live in the apartment where he was raised, along with his parents, his sons and, when they eventually marry, their families. But then the eviction letters started coming, followed by police visits demanding that Mr. Elman and his neighbors clear out. If the government has its way, and it usually does, Mr. Elman’s apartment will soon be reduced to rubble. An extraordinary building boom is transforming Baku from a drab post-Soviet city into a shiny metropolis, replete with skyscrapers and marble parks. But the development comes at a cost. Families who have lived here for generations are being pushed out of their neighborhoods. Some who resisted have been forcibly removed by the police; in other cases, demolitions have begun while holdouts remained in their apartments, Human Rights Watch reported this summer.

“When I hear the sounds of construction, I am afraid,” Mr. Elman said. “They want to make me homeless.” Nestled between Iran and Russia, Azerbaijan was once one of the poorest republics in the Soviet Union. Thanks to the 2005 Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, money is flowing, and Azerbaijan is now one of the wealthiest. Over the last 10 years, the G.D.P. of this Caucasian country has tripled, to about $52 billion, according to the State Department. That rising wealth has prompted the government to embark on a citywide facelift. In place of low-rise concrete apartment buildings and corner stores, the government has recruited international companies to construct high-rise complexes, department stores and four-star hotels. There is even talk of a Dubai-style island in the Caspian Sea, accessible by a walkway decorated with works by Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor, with a Gehry-designed art museum for good measure.

In another part of town, three flame-shaped towers jab at the skyline like prongs on a trident. And on the shores of the Caspian Sea, a “Port Baku,” inspired by similar efforts in Dubai and Canary Wharf in London, will feature three apartment buildings, two business centers, a mall and parks. Three glass towers, each one taller than the next, will sit on artificial bedrock that will rise three stories above sea level. Already, the shopping center has Baku’s first Bentley dealer. “We want to be Baku’s most exclusive address,” explained a sales consultant, Sabina Bolshiyeva, as she walked through the project’s showroom, a high-tech wonder complete with a three-dimensional promotional video and a sample apartment with television screen “windows” that change from day to night. “We wanted to create something amazing for Azerbaijan.”

Excluded from these plans are families like Mr. Elman’s, who are seeing their way of life disappear. Though wealth flows through Baku, the salaries of many middle-class residents have lagged. With a teacher’s pay of less than $250 a month, Mr. Elman could not afford to live in the city if he did not own his apartment outright. He says the government has offered him about $100,000 for the property, but that is not nearly enough to buy another apartment here big enough for his nine-member family. “I need a house for my sons to get married,” he said. “How will I house their families?” His story is common. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of homeowners have lost their residences in central Baku in the past two years.

To date, the government has refused to respond to its critics, including Human Rights Watch, which sent a letter to the president, Ilham Aliyev, and the mayor of Baku documenting the cases in its report. In addition to the evictions, residents are not being fairly compensated for their homes. The government pays $1,900 a square yard, but independent appraisals have valued properties in the center of the city at about $5,000 a square yard, Human Rights Watch says. For homeowners facing eviction there is little recourse, according to a local housing rights advocate, Leyla Yunus, who runs the Institute for Peace and Democracy.

The country’s housing codes say the state can seize property only for roads, communication lines or defense installations. Instead, Ms. Yunus says, citizens are sent letters notifying them that they have two weeks to clear out. In return, they are offered apartments on the outskirts of the city or compensation at below-market values. Ms. Yunus has tried various means to stop the demolitions, but with little success. She has organized meetings with government officials and held small protests outside of some of the demolished buildings. In June, she painted a message on the wall outside her office that read: “This is private property and the destruction of this house violates the Constitution, and the European Convention on Human Rights.” But in this tightly controlled country, people have little or no means to fight the evictions, except to stay put and hope for the best. “The courts aren’t on their side,” she said. “People have no possibility to protect themselves.” That reality is slowly dawning on Afak Adil Qizi, 52, who has said she will not leave the apartment she shares with her husband and two daughters. Once, her windows looked out onto a neighborhood with dozens of homes like hers: small apartment buildings dotted with vegetable stands and convenience stores. Now, all she sees are three blocks of rubble. Every day, builders come to clear away some of the demolished homes, loading bricks and glass onto trucks. Occasionally, they will find a picture frame or a doll, remnants of what used to be. The land will be used for a park to honor the former president Heydar Aliyev. On each side, high-rise buildings are being built. It’s not that she is being obstinate; Ms. Qizi said she just had nowhere else to go, since the compensation offered by the government will not buy her a new place in Baku. “I will stay here until the end,” she said. “I will die here. The bulldozers will have to push me out.”


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