The night train pulls in as dawn breaks over Baku. Warm days, cold nights, the city jutting out into the Caspian Sea like the pier of the continent.
Baku’s carpet museum, I think, is an excellent place to start looking into Azerbaijan’s role in Silk Road, the historical trade route that delivered us, in the 21st century, the eponymous online international drug bazaar.
Superfluously shaped like a carpet, the design is unfortunately the most entertaining aspect of the museum, which I guess equates to reading an entire book and, when asked, saying “yeah, I liked the cover.”
Not my scene, evidently, though it’s not as if I expected them to allude to how drugs sewn into the fabric of rugs and carpets was vital to their Silk Road transportation back in the day, even obliquely. I already understood a few things, like that there was sometimes less police scrutiny through other drug trade lynchpins like Afghanistan and Iran, even Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. But here in Azerbaijan, Europe looms, their demand and more stringent patrols both beckoning, as true historically as it is now. Of course, with greater risk came greater reward, forcing those in Azerbaijan particularly to invent shrewder methods of concealment, new forms of deception.
And it’s inspired modern attempts of major drug transportation too. Over the last couple of years, rugs with millions of pounds worth of heroin hidden within were discovered in Manchester and Leipzig airports. Imagine the amount that breezed through unnoticed before that.
Though the drug references amount to the square root of zero, one thing sticks with me from the museum. In the introductory passage, the same name, Heydar Aliyev, is mentioned three times in the first three paragraphs. It’s overwrought in the same way the loudest people tend to be so as a means of hiding the character beneath the noise.
The overkill arouses some intrigue, but for now, the name is just sounds and syllables without meaning. I let it drift away from me as I wander around the city making largely erroneous insights. Escalators that speed up when triggered by movement. A nifty touch. The jarring amount of ordinary looking people who smile or laugh to reveal a full mouth of gold teeth. The museum of miniature books, record-breaking, apparently, in spite of the fact they missed the joke in failing to include a miniature guidance book on ‘Dealing With Small Man Syndrome’.
I walk the cobblestoned courtyards and the fountain-laden gardens, passing down the sea front and over the bridges that cross the shallow, turquoise waters of Little Venice, a couple moving beneath me on a gondola. And further up now, the terraces and marble-floored piazzas lined with antique lampposts evoking Romeo and Juliet further.
And then it finds me. I’m walking down a steady incline when I retrieve my map to try and find another place that might be relevant to the Silk Road investigation. Before I get far, my eyes hold on the name. Several times. Heydar Aliyev airport. Heydar Aliyev Mosque. Heyder Aliyev Cultural Centre. Roads, statues, squares, more.
I’m still digesting this when I see a striking pink building ahead. When taking a photo, two snapping claps garner my attention. Across the road, a military-dressed man with a rather large gun strapped across his sternum beckons to lower the camera. I acquiesce. Simultaneously, several cars pull around him and steam away.
The cars are all the mandatory status symbol here, black BMWs. The dark tinted windows match the dark tinted glasses resting on the big noses of the duplicate moustachioed men behind the wheel of these identical cars. They carry themselves with the cold confidence of those who know the world sways in darker ways than the public might believe. It’s immediately palpable, from this distance. More dark-tinted clones walk up to the building adjacent to the big pink.
My intrigue tilts over into suspicion. I want to know more. Like a good little pretend journalist, I fired up the internet for some reading. Reports, though limited, are damning.
Heydar Aliyev was the president until his death in 2003. He directed the ‘contract of the century’ in 1994 that invited international investments into their reserves of oil and gas. Money pours. Baku blossoms. Heydar is hailed a hero. After his much-mourned death, an election for his replacement. Heydar’s son Ilham takes over the presidency.
Until then, even if there were worthy suspicions, nothing was confirmed. Recently, the corruption has been fully unmasked.
The recent scandal involving Mossack Fonesca and the ‘Panama Papers’ unveiled trenches of deceit across every continent, but arguably none more so than in Azerbaijan. During Heydar’s reign, bribes, corruption, exploitation, fraud. Oil money belonging to the country and the people was siphoned away as the Aliyevs acquired expensive foreign homes, forced themselves into controlling positions of companies owning valuable stakes in industries and natural resources, including that of a major gold mine, and set up ‘charitable funds’ that were nothing more than trust funds for descendants.
According to the Irish Times, the election after Heydar’s death wasn’t really democracy at all. Before son Ilham ‘inherited’ the presidency, “election monitors reported that police had beaten and detained political opponents, in line with the country’s reputation for repression.”
But all of this was swept under one of the rugs the country prides itself for, none of the Aliyevs ever tracing the irony in the country’s official title ‘The Republic of Azerbaijan’. For the next ten years, Ilham picked up from where his father left off, if a less popular version.
The most powerful communism operates under the illusion of democracy. Cloaks, daggers, smoke, mirrors. The puppeteer is better advised not show the strings as the magician does well not reveal the trick. With Azerbaijan protected from probing questions by the fact it had the West’s favourite commodity, oil, the autocracy continued undetected, discerning inquiries easily deflected.
But Ilham’s increasingly flamboyant tastes drew undue attention. The super yachts. The expensive foreign homes less subtly accrued. Flaunting, even, with the recent addition of Formula One here intended to catapult the city onto the world stage.
For any criminal, desire to be renowned is their true crime. Undue attention pretty much guarantees downfall. However, as Escobar knew, political standing goes a long way to immunity. They have it here. But the timing, designed to distract from the growing problems here, only served to illuminate them. The decline in oil that has seen the likes of Shell depart these shores saw the currency’s worth half overnight. The oil well is nearly dry, causing their commodity-based immunity to fade. Questions are being asked not only by the impoverished here, but elsewhere, with The Guardian labelling the celebrity-endorsed F1 race as ‘sportswashing’.
And, much worse, they delved deeper into the 2013 election:
“Opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov has been in jail for more than three years, imprisoned because President Aliyev saw him as a political threat. Mammadov had the temerity to want to stand against Aliyev in 2013’s presidential election. He found himself convicted on a ludicrous charge of inciting riots. Youth activist Ilkin Rustemzade has also been jailed for more than three years, in connection with a series of pro-democracy protests held in 2013. Journalist Seymur Hezi has been in prison for a year and a half, on the old Soviet catch-all charge of “hooliganism”. The list goes on.”
Later, I’m out having some beers with a couple of frighteningly intelligent Eastern Europeans, one of whom lives and works in the city. The scarcity of oil, combined with the failure to diversify the economy and growing public understating of the corruption threatens turbulence. Years of social engineering designed to demobilize and lobotomize the masses is under threat, with the plunging currency the catalyst.
And yet, remarkably, when I take to the streets this doesn’t seem to be the case. The Aliyevs, Heydar in particular, are deified, with three different Azeris I struck up conversations with on the street walking away in disgust when I asked about it. It’s just a staunchly insular place, suspicious of everything and everyone foreign.
The Visa situation speaks volumes, it’s the hardest place to reach in the Caucasus region. On the night train in, the border officials rooted through every nook and cranny of my bag, and once you arrive, there’s something in the air that makes you feel like you shouldn’t be asking questions, that there’s something to hide. At the top of the Azeri pyramid, they’ll take the money for oil, but further down, you’d expect uprising to already be in motion, with the internet rendering contemporary propaganda extremely difficult to implement, hence the restrictions in North Korea.
Even with widespread internet, the people seem to back the Aliyevs. Either the propaganda has been incredibly effective or there’s a fear that speaking out of turn will see them behind bars. Maybe they just truly believe. For me personally, it’s informative of how you can’t consider politicians or ‘the elite’ representative of a city or country, as the blue half, or just the liberal half, of America will be understandably leaping to tell you after recent events. On the other side of the coin, that secrets and propaganda still exist in the internet age. It’s like Russia, without the constraints of being watched and analysed by the world.
But as The Guardian notes, there’s dissent, and in dissent, hope. It led to a referendum which occurred a month ago, with multiple questions on the political state here. The results came back 75% in Ilham Aliyev’s favour, though we’ll never know the real result as there’s every indication it was rigged. Instead, the limit of a presidential term has been extended from five to seven years and Aliyev is trying to rewrite the rulebook further to literally name his successor without any election being required. His son’s name? Heydar Aliyev Jr. That’s not just modern, diluted communism, it carries a dark ages severity.
But how does it change? Innocent bell-ringers are immediately jailed. Until the harshness spreads wide enough, there simply isn’t reason enough for people to raise their heads above the parapet. And when they do, what happens? Civil war. There’s a ‘Game of Thrones’ sense of ‘power families’ here, with lots of intermarrying and particular families owning borders and land. Maybe the country will adhere to the rule of the third generation communist cycle collapse rule, but it will be one hell of a fight. It’s a well worn path and the city at the end is labelled ‘Chaos’. Ask Libya. It’s unstable enough here, with its geographical position as direct neighbours of the bickering Russia and Iran rendering it a necessary peacekeeper. What happens when the peacekeeper goes to war? It looks, in the next twenty years or so, as if we’re going to find out.
What started as an attempt to understand the small details and intricacies of what went into Silk Road unintentionally unveiled the sense that something was politically askew here. I had no idea of the situation coming in, but the Aliyev’s overt attempts to portray themselves as icons of benevolence unmasked them, really, as authoritarian overlords. And that’s the true story of Baku.
Oil and water don’t mix, as the analogy goes. Nor does oil and democracy. Oil contaminates, the promise of riches seducing and reducing people to the greediest versions of themselves.
With the voices of dissenters muted, simply, by the fact there are no microphones behind bars, who’s left to stand against it? This system of autocracy has legs until a monumental uprising topples it, from Azeris and the wider world. And that’s the worry. Who needs another Libya? Another Syria? The path to political chaos starts exactly like this; we’ve seen it all before. One can only hope an original, peaceful way to squash it is invented in time.
In the meantime, Azerbaijan keeps moving towards the propeller. Like the heroin in the rugs, veiled communism is woven into the fabric here. With bigger things going on in the world, they will continue, largely unwatched and strangely revered by their people. But what I’ll never know – what would those same civilians say behind closed doors?
In my hostel, a local Azeri doubles as a receptionist and translator. She proudly tells me she’s visited thirty-plus countries, which would indicate a more liberal, informed attitude. So having spoken to her for a while, I decide to test the water and ask the Aliyev question. She chews over the answer for a long time. Eventually,
“There’s no terror here,” she says. “Look around the world and look at my country, there is no terror.”
“Is that what you really think or what you think you should say to me?” I push.
“There’s no terror. It’s very important,” she says.
I don’t push further. It’s an answer that’s incredibly revealing in the way it tries to conceal.
In Azerbaijan, the wheels of uprising are creaking and easing into motion. It will only accelerate the deeper their oil crisis and currency plummet, and when it does, you get the impression it’s a train without a station – once the ‘democracy’ here reveals its true nature, the house of cards will collapse. The only question is how long.