Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Homeowners Fleeced in Property Scam

Some of Baku's affluent citizens are resorting to any means to secure sought after real estate
By Lia Bairamova

Seven years ago, Eldar Alizade suddenly lost his home in the centre of Baku - and found a new mission in life.


Alizade, an engineer, his wife and their three sons were living in a state-owned apartment block, which had attracted the eye of a public prosecutor. Alizade says that all the other tenants came under pressure to sell their apartments to the man.


Alizade held out but eventually received a court summons, informing him that he was being evicted on the grounds that he and his family had not lived in their apartment for six months - a judgment based on a Soviet-era law.


Alizade's case is just one of many - part of a widespread problem which affects the better off as well as the poor.


The problem was really kick-started by the influx of refugees from the Nagorny-Karabakh conflict in the early Nineties. This, together with the ambitions of Azerbaijan's nouveaux riches intensified the competition for living space in Baku, especially its beautiful central streets where many of the controversial evictions have taken place.


Unlike most of his fellow victims, Alizade decided to fight back. Five years ago he and several others set up the Association of the Homeless of Baku, a body he now chairs. They provide legal advice and support for dozens of people, who've been evicted.


The evictions seem fairly random, even soldiers doing their military service away from Baku are not immune. Oleg Semizyanov, for example, was staying with his brother in Odessa four years ago, when his neighbours took over his apartment. They had obtained documents allegedly signed by Oleg's (then deceased) grandmother, saying that he did not live in the apartment. Although a court has ruled that the document was false, Alizade says that soldier has still not recovered his home.


Other scams have involved pensioners unwittingly signing their apartments away. Doba Burkova, who now lives on the street in central Baku, says she was told she was signing a receipt for humanitarian aid when in actual fact she was handing over her apartment to complete strangers.


The association has also investigated a series of suspicious cases where Bakuvians have died after bequeathing their flats to people in return for promises of financial support. The neighbours of 72-year-old Valentina Osina said that she was full of energy and good health when she signed documents willing her apartment to an unknown young man. Osina died shortly afterwards and an official now lives in her former home.


Responding to these cases, the Azerbaijani authorities say that, if unfairly evicted, all citizens have the right to go to court to demand their property be restored. In many instances, however, they say, apartments, which were lying empty, have merely transferred to worthy recipients, such as refugees. "There were some cases when unoccupied apartments were given to needy people," said Alimardan Husseinov, a spokesman for the Housing Office, still known as ZhEK after its Communist-era forebear. "However, this was all done legally."


Others accuse the Housing Office of direct collusion in the lucrative business of buying and selling Baku real estate. "Without the participation of the Housing Office and other state structures, these fraudulent seizures of apartments simply could not have happened," said Taisia Gordeyeva, chairwoman of the Commission for the Defence of the Rights of Soldiers and their Families, another group that fights for the rights of the homeless.


The courts also play an ambiguous role. The Soviet-era law depriving tenants of their rights after a six-month absence has been declared unconstitutional by the Azerbaijani constitutional court. But the association says that the legislation is still being employed to evict tenants.


Alizade himself and his family continue to live in a dacha outside Baku belonging to their friends. His wife, who earns a salary working for a commercial organisation, supports them, but they have still not recovered their former apartment.


Zaur Mamedov and Lia Bairamova are journalists with the Baku-based Zerkalo newspaper.