BAKU/ On 16 February, more than 1,000 people gathered to protest outside School No. 173 in central Baku. The demonstration was unauthorized, but participants, waving pictures of President Ilham Aliev and his father and predecessor, Heydar, insisted it was not political. This protest was personal, and it hit very close to home.
The location of the rally, and its subject, was a part of the capital city’s Yasamal District informally known as Sovetski, after the name given its main street when Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union.
The name became ironic: while the rest of Baku adapted to Soviet customs, wearing modern clothes and abjuring religious observance, Sovetski remained a bastion of tradition, said Aytekin Imranova, one of the city’s leading preservationists.
According to city officials, this neighborhood just outside Baku’s historic core is home to 50,000 to 60,000 people – for now. The national government announced plans three years ago to level Sovetski and replace it with a public park.
The government is offering residents 1,500 manats ($1,911) per square meter in compensation for lost property, a figure homeowners here deride as far below market value in booming downtown Baku. They are seeking at least 4,000 manats per square meter, the minimum they say they need to afford new homes in the center, where most have lived all their lives.
Local officials say no one who declines the government’s offer will be forced to leave. But according to human rights groups, similar recent conflicts over big Baku developments like the Winter Garden park and shopping center and Eurovision venue Crystal Hall have been accompanied by mass evictions.
The park project is part of an urban renewal program being carried out in conjunction with the inaugural European Games, an Olympics-style event for European athletes to be held in Baku in the summer of 2015. Two streets in the neighborhood have already been demolished.
Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov has said the city needs to reduce population and expand green space in the center. Laura Peretti, the project’s Italian architect, told the Baku Post in March that the park would be like the “lungs” of the city, a large natural area akin to New York’s Central Park where Bakuvians can “flee from the hustle and bustle of everyday city life.”
Beyond that goal, officials defend the demolition by pointing to the poor condition of homes in Sovetski – clusters of small, low-ceilinged houses, built cheek-by-jowl and many in need of repair.
According to the Finance Ministry, the neighborhood’s mazelike streets are too narrow for construction equipment, making a full-scale restoration impossible. While Sovetski is in the center, its older houses cannot be compared in value to property in more modern parts of the capital, the ministry says in asserting the 1,500-manat ceiling.
Many homes in Sovetski are indeed tumbledown and tiny – 30 percent of the neighborhood’s population lives in houses of 25 to 30 square meters, Abid Sharifov, a deputy prime minister, told a Baku television station.
“When we started work there in the first stage [of demolitions], the specialists in charge had no idea that residents’ living spaces could be so small,” Sharifov said. “We saw 8, 10, 12, 15 square meters.”
Ramil Osmanli is the executive director of Property Market Participants, a Baku civic organization that tracks the real estate market. He said Sovetski residents have reason to fear being left unable to secure new lodging in the center.
“For old buildings, for example, the price of two- or three-bedroom apartments of 60 to 65 square meters is more than 120,000 manats” – in the neighborhood of 2,000 manats per square meter, he said. At 1,500 manats, he added, residents would have to move to new housing complexes in suburban districts on the far outskirts of Baku.
Osmanli said the government has not offered any economic or methodological justification for uniformly valuing all properties in Sovetski at 1,500 manats per square meter. Property Markets Participants made an informal recommendation to the government that residents receive 2,500 manats per square meter for residences smaller than 30 square meters, 2,000 for 30 to 60 square meters, and 1,800 for more than 60 square meters.
Many residents profess allegiance to Sovetski and a desire to stay, echoing the sentiments of one protester who said, “We like it as the way it is. This is our house, and we are happy living here.” But the demonstrations have focused on procedural and economic issues – the compensation amount and how the government went about setting it, and questions about the legality of the demolition. Preserving the neighborhood for historic or cultural reasons is not among the demands.
But Imranova, the preservation activist, views Sovetski as an integral part of historic Baku – part of a “second historical circle” surrounding the ancient, UNESCO-listed Old City that also needs protecting. “This is not even a case for discussion. We can’t even put the question, should it be destroyed or not,” she said.
Imranova said the neighborhood dates back some 200 years. It’s a jumble of architectural styles and social classes, containing both villas and hovels and housing “intellectuals, educated [people], uneducated, rich, workers, pensioners, officials,” she said. Dozens of Sovetski buildings are more than a century old, including a circa-1845 Russian Orthodox church and baths built in 1888. Some homes have wooden doors and ornamental features on their facades.
But the neighborhood’s cultural importance lies “not only in ornaments, history, and buildings,” Imranova said. “This is a folklore area, an ethnographic area. There are many museums devoted to popular people,” including the Azer composer Uzeir Hajibekov and Mstislav Rostropovich, the world-famous Russian conductor, who was born in Baku.
Residents, in the meantime, have continued to gather at School No. 173 – and unlike the initial 16 February protest, which police and local officials watched passively, subsequent demonstrations saw arrests and attempts to disperse the crowds.
Still, since the protests began officials have taken a conciliatory tone. While the government has not altered the compensation offer, Baku Mayor Abutalibov and Sharifov, the deputy prime minister, said after meeting with residents on 18 February that the terms would be reviewed and no one would be moved out of Sovetski against their will. “Each householder will be approached individually,” Abutalibov said.
In an impromptu interview last month with Radio Azadliq
, Ibrahim Mehdiev, chief executive of the Yasamal district that includes Sovetski, said more than 700 residents have “signed the protocol to get money for their homes” and some 70 houses have been demolished. “Whoever does not agree with the 1,500 manat compensation can stay in their home,” he said in response to reporters’ questions at an official event.
Asked how the government will build the park as planned if some homeowners refuse to leave, Mehdiev replied, “Time will tell.”
Time may not be on Sovetski residents’ side, according to Zohrab İsmayil, an economist who heads the nongovernmental Public Association for Assistance to the Free Economy.
He predicted the situation in Sovetski would end like that of Basin Street, an area of Baku that was razed to make room for the Winter Garden, a complex of shops and parkland that opened last year to much fanfare. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds if not thousands of families were thrown out during construction after refusing the government’s offer of 1,500 manats per square meter.
“[S]ome people are evicted without warning or in the middle of the night. The authorities often cut off services to houses slated for demolition, making them uninhabitable and compelling residents to leave. Then the homes are
demolished, sometimes with residents’ possessions inside,” the rights group said in a May 2013 report.
Ismayil contended the Winter Garden precedent is not the only reason to doubt that Sovetski holdouts will be left alone.
“If Hajibala Abutalibov’s statement that no one will be l be moved against his or her will is to be believed, he would cancel his order on [demolishing] Sovetski,” the economist said. “But he didn’t. This order, signed in December 2013, says all people will be moved from this area and all houses will be destroyed. The government established a commission for transferring people.
“If they are leaving the choice to the people, they shouldn’t have this commission. This commission is only for involuntary resettlement.”
Vusala Alibayli is a reporter for Radio Azadliq and a multimedia trainer at the Baku School of Journalism.
This article was originally published in the independent online magazine Transitions Online