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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 22.1-2 (2002) 127-139

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Azerbaijan Descending into the Third World After a Decade of Independence

Travelers to Baku are struck almost immediately by the pervasive bitterness and growing sense of deprivation that most citizens feel about their deteriorating lives. The short-lived euphoria of independence has been replaced by the somber realization that the so-called "transition period" could extend well beyond most people's lifetimes. The promise of peace, freedom and prosperity, which seemed to come with the end of communism, has disappeared into the distance a mere ten years later. After the demise of the USSR, Azerbaijan has been relegated to the category of a third-world nation. Capitalism has won and the class struggle for power and wealth relapsed here as the driving force of history. The quintessence of profound popular wrath is that the country has moved backward rather than forward since the beginning of reforms. This is the principal outcome of the first decade of Azeri independence.

The Social Brutality of Azeri Capitalism

As academic and intelligence circles are still preoccupied with lofty strategic and energy topics, there are also less visible consequences of the end of communism, those mundane, non-petroleum anxieties of downtrodden masses. Whereas the international financial institutions focus on macroeconomic reforms, the people who live in Azerbaijan are more concerned with keeping jobs and getting salaries that let them keep up with the rising cost of living.

Most Azeris live below the poverty line as graft infects the nation, from the traffic cops who demand bribes to relatives of the president widely believed to be fleecing the state to government officials who have built themselves palaces with fountains while ostensibly living on paltry civil service wages. These popular grievances are the universal driving force of history, generally disregarded by our foreign policy planning pundits until another upheaval goads them to inquire: "Who lost Azerbaijan?"

Perhaps the keenest measure of impoverishment in Azerbaijan can be taken from the scenes at places like Jafar Jabbarly Square across the railway terminal in central Baku. The square, like similar sites in all Azeri cities, has been transformed into a vast flea market. Here, the sellers of household bric-a-brac, of plumbing fixtures, of old books and music records, of plastic sandals, of anything with even vestigial monetary value, are not the illiterate underclass so much as the newly destitute middle class: engineers, teachers, lawyers, writers, musicians, artists, academics, war veterans and white-collar pensioners, some of them jobless, others seeking a few extra dollars to augment salaries and pensions rendered virtually worthless by the inception of free market reforms.

One of them, a Karabakh war veteran with a pension equivalent to about twenty-five US dollars a month, said he was trying to support a family of seven; another, a gray-haired academic salaried at fifty dollars a month at the National Academy of Sciences, dispensed to me the usual praise of President Heydar Aliev, whose beaming portrait looked down from a concrete plinth as he spoke. But even taken on the evidence visible to all Azeris and the foreigners, what has developed under his presidency is a pitiable society of social and economic extremes, contrasting the record of Soviet equity in free health care, education, housing, sanitation, and guaranteed employment.

Today, in the teeming outskirts of the capital that is now home to almost half of the entire population of the country displaced by the Armenian occupation of Karabakh and the economic plague elsewhere, small children can be seen clambering amid mountains of refuse at garbage dumps looking for scraps of food or other salvageable items for barter. Begging is common, everywhere, among tousled street urchins, mothers with infants clutched to their breast, widows in black cloaks and scarves, and toothless old men.

But another, new Azerbaijan, also exists conspicuously, unimaginable in the old Soviet times. Cruising the seafront boulevard at night are expensively groomed men and women in...


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