In June, I visited Baku, Azerbaijan as part of a vacation around the Caucasus. I'd timed it so I'd be able to attend the first European Grand Prix, a fresh stop on the Formula 1 racing circuit, to be hosted in Baku. The race course meandered through the city center, which was close to equal parts historic buildings, old restaurants and shops, and gleaming, sparsely populated luxury stores. The glitz and glamor of Formula 1 and its global circus of the wealthy was draped against a backdrop of old castles and ambitious state-sponsored construction fueled by an oil industry that's had to weather world oil prices declining by half in the last three years.
An autocratic petrostate investing in prestige events and glistening highrises to gain a foothold on the world stage is nothing new, and it was interesting to see the world's sporting press descend on the city, mention the Dior boutiques and incoming Starbucks, and move on. It'd be easy, and not entirely unfair, to say the government of Azerbaijan aspires for Baku to be a new Dubai on the Caspian Sea. It even has its own artificial islands, although construction is ongoing. A 2013 New York Times Magazine headline sums it up nicely: "Azerbaijan Is Rich. Now It Wants to Be Famous."
Driving into the city from the airport, I passed down a highway lined with new apartment buildings, stadiums, and stunning architecture the likes of the Heydar Aliyev Center. But what struck me more than the city's new sheen, which is inspired by the same generically-global luxury of other booming cities—of course there's a Trump hotel in Baku—was when I took a stroll through the city to check out some historic neighborhoods, and came across one in the latter stages of being demolished to make room for a more glitzy replacement.
This was once Sovetsky, a neighborhood with buildings dating back a century, whose name reference's Azerbaijan's time as a Soviet republic, starting with Baku's capture by the 11th Red Army in 1920. More recently, Sovetsky came to be an old neighborhood in one of the city's more expensive districts, and with the steady creep of condos and luxury stores expanding its way.
The architecture of the neighborhood has a distinct, ornate style, and after seeing a few photo blogs showcasing it, I hoped to catch a few buildings before the whole neighborhood was gone.
In December 2013, the mayor of Baku called for the demolition of Sovetsky, which is home to a number of historic buildings, including mosques, a church, and homes of famous Azeris. Officials have said they will protect these buildings, but the residential buildings are to be replaced with construction more fitting to the city's desire to be a cosmopolitan destination. Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov recently told reporters that Sovetsky will be dominated by greenery and parks, saying that "No new residential buildings will be built in that area," according to a report from the local newspaper Kaspi.
The Kaspi report added that 2400 buildings have been torn down since 2013. The city has built new housing for some displaced residents, in most cases on the outskirts of the city, which they have said isn't a fair trade for valuable property in the city center.
Sovetsky residents began protesting forced evictions in 2014, saying that the government's compensation for their property was far below market rate. "Residents complain that the compensation offer of 1500 Manats (1397 Euros) per square meter is not enough to purchase a new property," Radio Free Europe's Azerbaijan bureau reported at the time. "Instead, residents are demanding up to 5000 Manats (4650 Euros) per square meter, which they believe is the current market price for downtown real estate."
The demolition of Sovetsky is part of a larger modernization effort by the city, which has evicted residents from undesirable neighborhoods as it's concurrently hosted events like the 2015 European Games and the F1 race this year. In 2012, Human Rights Watch accused the Baku government of "illegal expropriation of properties and forcible evictions of dozens of families in four Baku neighborhoods, at times without warning or in the middle of the night."
"The authorities subsequently demolished homes, sometimes with residents' possessions inside," the group's report continued. "The government has refused to provide homeowners fair compensation for the properties, many of which are in highly desirable locations. Azerbaijani law stipulates that market value should be paid in compensation for a forced sale."
While I was dodging backhoes, this gentleman, who we'll call Ferid since he didn't give me his name, came by to say hello and show me around. Ferid was working with a crew helping a few families move out of an apartment block that was still standing despite most of the land around it having already been cleared.
(Ferid saw the tattoos on my arms and showed off his; when I told Ferid I was a journalist, he said I should share his too. Full transparency: I'm only publishing these photos now because I thought I'd lost them, but consider the promise fulfilled.)
This is the apartment block he was helping clear out, whose residents had mostly cleared out. Through an interpreter, Ferid explained that the government had shut off water and power to the apartments, with residents being forced to accept property buyouts and move far out of the city to apartment buildings in more affordable neighborhoods. He also said that one family was still holding out.
Ferid introduced me to Mr. Aliyev, pictured here, who had been in the same building for decades with his family. He was trying to hang onto his property as long as possible despite the lack of utilities. Through an interpreter, Aliyev said that the city government's offer for compensation was way below what his property was worth, and he railed against being forced out of his home to make way for housing for wealthier people.
At one point two of his grandkids poked their heads out of one of the windows, and he asked how the city could leave a whole family in their building without water or power.
Aliyev's house was about a two kilometer walk to the Flame Towers (those mirrored buildings in the center there), which glow with a flame lighting effect at night to celebrate both the country's historical identity as The Land of Fire as well as to show off its oil wealth.
The pace of progress is relentless, especially in a nation trying to assert itself on the world stage. Just about every city I've visited around the world has had parts cordoned off and undergoing rapid change. But this scene in Sovetksy, of multiple backhoes working in concert to clear rubble, stuck with me.
The grand prix in Baku was not hugely attended, but it's scheduled again for 2017. Organizers signed a five-year contract to host the race, and they have assured that its budget is secure. (The Financial Times explained nicely why that might not be the case for any of the oil-rich nations hosting F1 races.) But it's unclear how Baku's growth will be affected by the oil bubble bursting. Today I looked up the blocks I shot above on Google Maps, and whatever was left when I was there is now gone.