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

Azerbaijan: Poverty in Midst of Plenty

Homeless oil workers wait years for flats, as officials argue amongst themselves over who is to blame.
By Diana Isayeva
Azerbaijan’s oil wealth has filled the capital Baku with gleaming office blocks and foreign cars, but for some oil workers the picture has been as bleak as could be.

In 2003, eighteen oil workers and their families in the Surakhany region, about 20 kilometres from the centre of Baku, were moved out of their apartment block into a kindergarten. They are still there, and have no clue as to when they might be able to move out.

“There are cockroaches swarming in our accommodation, rats are always running out of the pipes, the house is so damp that slugs and beetles come up from under the floor. There is no running water, we wash in the room over a basin because there is no bathroom. There is one toilet for everyone. Our one room serves as a dining-room and a bedroom,” said Roza Ismailova, a 48-year-old resident of the block.

“I have a big family, with four sons, one of whom is married with his own family, and they live with us too. We made a bathroom-kitchen from one room. But there is no water, so we have to stand in a queue in the courtyard to fetch it. And even there we argue, who’s after whom. And there isn’t always enough water for everyone.”

More than 80 people live in the old kindergarten, and privacy is impossible since the walls are so thin and every word spoken by their neighbours is audible.

Such poverty is in the midst of plenty. The state’s oil fund is spending 145 million manats (180 million US dollars) on social support for refugees, with 330 million manats going on infrastructure spending. On January 1, the funds assets came to almost 9 billion manats (11.2 billion dollars).

But that money has not helped the homeless oil workers.

Recently, a municipal team came and repaired the heating system, which upset the residents who feel it may be a sign they will be stuck in the building permanently. And, according to Mirvari Gahramanly, chairwoman of the Organisation to Protect the Rights of Azerbaijan’s Oil Workers, they are right to worry.

“There are many families like this. Such families regularly appeal to our organisation. Around 300 people are on the waiting list for flats from the oil company. SOCAR (the state oil company) has promised to give flats to people who have waited for 15 or 20 years,” she said.

“These families live for years in hostels, or have eight or nine people in one room. We have many times appealed to SOCAR to know when they will get flats, but have got no firm answer. In 2008, we got an answer than the question hadn’t been examined.”

The local authorities and Azneft, a subsidiary of SOCAR, argue among themselves over who is responsible for the Surakhany workers’ plight. The site of their old house, which was condemned as dangerous, is now occupied by a school and a new house that has been built is not yet ready for habitation.

“At SOCAR’s request, all necessary documents for putting communal services were sent to Azneft, for filling in the demands for the flats. It is not clear why the process is still going on. Only the social department of Azneft could know,” said Elkhan Zakhirli, head of the legal department in the Surakhany regionional government.

Azneft’s social department batted the blame back again.

“A nearby house, which was built earlier, is not finished, although people are living in it… When the first building is finished, then communication lines must be connected between the two buildings, and these poor people can move in. We do not know how long the process will take, but there is no cause for alarm,” said Tofik Sharifov, head of the department.

But the residents say they have learned not to trust such promises. Four years ago, they were promised rooms in another building, but those went to different families.

“If they don’t take the necessary steps and take this to court, then the story might repeat itself,” said Irada Dzhavadova, a lawyer defending the residents’ interests.

“There are many laws that regulate this question. According to Article 157 of Azerbaijan’s civil code, property can be confiscated by the state, if social needs demand it but only in circumstances allowed by law, and only with compensation based on its market value, and in this case no compensation was paid.”

Meanwhile, the families are losing hope.

“First they offered us flats by the holiday of Nouruz, then by the birthday of (the late former president) Heidar Aliev, then our last hope was to get a flat before the presidential elections. Now it’s unlikely anyone will remember us. We don’t believe anyone and don’t know where to turn,” said 49-year-old Farkhad Farzaliev.

Diana Isayeva is a freelance journalist.

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