Baku & Back (November 2002)

I was in Baku, Azerbaijan a couple of weeks ago for a meeting of mine ban campaigners & researchers from the former Soviet Union, one of my favourite groups of people. This was my fourth visit to this region and while brief it was pretty intense. As I waited for my work colleagues at Heathrow, I read about the tragic outcome of the Moscow theatre siege and wondered what to expect…

In Baku we stayed in a huge Soviet-style hotel near the waterfront. Hotel Absheron overlooked a massive square and an ornate building that on closer inspection, had a plaque describing it as the “human rights commission” of Azerbaijan. Interesting given the Human Rights Watch materials I read on the plane featuring titles such as: “Azerbaijan Parliamentary Elections Manipulated,” “Impunity for Torture,” and “Investigate Police Shootings of Protesters.” President Heidar Aliyev has ruled the country since October 1992 when 96% of the electorate turned out to vote, and 98.8% voted for him. It ain’t exactly democracy. Aliyev was a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo and also served as Azerbaijan’s KGB chief during the Soviet era. He is now pushing ahead with plans to pass power to his son, Ilham.

Oil refining is the main industry in Baku and it shows. The town and harbour are surrounded by rusty oil rigs, many still pounding up and down spilling oil all over the ground. The landscape looks dusty and devastated. Oil was first ‘discovered’ in the region in the third century BC by Zoroastrian fire worshippers who built shrines around flames lit by methane gas. We spent an afternoon visiting a temple of fire worshippers, just north Baku. The temple consisted of an altar-like shrine with a fire in the center and fire coming off the four corners of its roof. The shrine sat in the center of a courtyard surrounded by small living quarters where the fire worshippers stayed, prayed and died. I knew nothing of this religion before I got there, but apparently there are still some 150,000 Zoroastrian fire worshippers left, mainly in Iran (where they have parliamentary representation), as well as India and Azerbaijan.

During the week we spent a lot of time meeting with representatives of the mine action community in Azerbaijan. The country is mine-affected as a result of the 1992-1994 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which saw the country lose 20 percent of its territory and resulted in one million internally displaced persons. It also suffers from explosive remnants of war leftover from Soviet times.

We traveled by an ancient Soviet-era overnight train to Horadiz in Fizuli region in the far west of the country, just ten kilometers north of the Iranian border. It was about as far as you can get from Washington DC, but my mobile phone still worked?! We met with the local administrator of the region, who I judged as quite important by the number of phones sitting on his desk (six in different colours, plus a gold bust of the President). We visited a mine clearance operation on a hillside by a village being rebuilt and flirted with the deminers, who acted as if they don’t get much entertainment often!

On a Saturday afternoon we met for two hours (?!) with the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. He agreed to act on some points we raised, but talked for over an hour non-stop on the lack of progress in the ongoing talks to negotiate a peace settlement. As in Armenia one year earlier, we were often asked if we thought the war would end (currently the two countries have only a ceasefire in place), but stayed well away from trying to answer that question. You have to feel sorry for them, it’s been a decade and next-to-no progress has been made in resolving the conflict. Our host, Hafiz, was himself displaced from his home village in Nagorno-Karabakh and spoke a number of commonly used terms, such as “liberation” and “aggression.”

It’s a miracle I got through customs unscathed, as I was loaded down with carpet and gifts including caviar, cake and vodka. When I got back I read a great book by Thomas Goltz: “Azerbaijan Diary” published in 1998. I highly recommend it for anyone wanted to get their head around this curious, chaotic region called the “Caucuses.”