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

Azerbaijan: For Some, Eurovision Means Demolition

Homeowners say they were summarily evicted and offered poor compensation in land clearance for song contest venue.
By Shahla Sultanova

Eurovision 2012 is supposed to be Azerbaijan’s coming-out party, but it will bring little joy to Natalia Alibekova Cherkezova, a pensioner in the capital Baku.

“It will remind me how I was evicted from my beautiful home,” she said. “When Azerbaijan won Eurovision in 2011, I had a gut feeling that the government would hurt people. ”

Baku won the right to host the festival contest in May last year, when Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Jamal came top in the annual contest.

Eurovision will be the most high-profile international event held in Azerbaijan since it became independent two decades ago, and the government has made extraordinary efforts to get the capital into shape for it.

The centrepiece is the Crystal Hall, the event venue, but clearing space for it involved evicting almost 100 families from their homes.

Civil rights activists say that the authorities ignored householders’ rights in the eviction process, and that the compensation it has provided is inadequate.

Cherkezova’s family was one of 71 living in a nine-storey apartment block next to the square chosen as the site of the concert hall. Late last year, they were told their building was to be demolished. Cherkezova says the notification came in the form of slip of paper with no official markings or explanation of the legal process involved.

Residents had a meeting with Baku’s mayor Hajibala Abutalibov, and they say he promised the block would not be touched.

In January, however, workers arrived and began tearing down the building even though the residents were still living there unawares.

Most families refused to leave, but their electricity, gas and water were then disconnected as temperatures fell to the lowest recorded level in a century, and they were reduced to melting snow to get water.

Eventually, they moved out, and Cherkezova was among the last to go.

“I was encouraging people to fight,” she said. “I fought for a long time, but in the end I had to give up. There’s no hope of this unjust government treating you fairly.”

Cherkezov was given 117,000 manats, 148,000 US dollars, in compensation, and is now renting an apartment.

Minira Iskenderova, who was evicted from the same block, described fighting a losing battle.

“I wouldn’t leave even when night-time temperatures were minus 14 degrees Celsius. I could take that, but I couldn’t withstand the psychological pressure,” she said. “There were labourers with their tools waiting to tear down the doors. Municipal staff knocked on the door every day to ask if we would move out soon. The noise and stress of the demolition work going on while we were still living there completely broke us.”

Iskenderova’s family moved out two weeks ago, and are currently in a rented apartment. They got 100,000 manats as compensation, which they used to buy a new place for 85,000 manats, although Iskenderova says she needs another 30,000 for furniture and improvements to make it habitable.

Arzu Adigozelova, a single mother with two children described what happened when the demolition men moved in.

“After the building’s entrance was destroyed, I had to clamber through the wrecked apartment of my neighbours to reach my own apartment. The building was shaking all the time as the demolition progressed,” she said. “My nine-year-old daughter was so scared that she refused to live there, so I had to leave her with my parents.”

Baku city officials insist they followed all the correct legal procedures for requisitioning the building, and offered evicted residents a good package.

“We are paying them a fair amount according to market prices. They can buy a home in the city centre,” Zulfali Ismailov, head of the city’s demolition commission, said.

However, Zohrab Ismail, head of the Public Association for Assisting a Free Economy, a group that campaigns for citizens’ rights and against corruption, said this was not the case. He said there had been no negotiation with residents about compensation, and the money provided was not enough to allow them to go on living in the same area.

“In reality, prices are much higher in that part of the city. It’s right next to the city centre. With the compensation that’s been given to them, they can only buy houses at the far end of Baku,” he said.

Ismail commissioned two local companies to research market prices for housing in the area, and this showed that the Cherkezovs’ apartment was worth 151,000 manats, 30 per cent than what they got for it.

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch issued a report on February 29 accusing the Azerbaijani government of failing to offer fair compensation to evicted homeowners.

“The Azerbaijani government forcibly people, violated their property and their compensation rights. Their houses were destroyed while they were still inside, without any court decision,” Jane Buchanan, the Human Rights Watch researcher who wrote the report, told journalists in Baku.

The report also noted that some homeowners were arrested for protesting. “Police escalated the evictions process by detaining homeowners in a police station following their eviction while the authorities demolished the apartment building,” it said.

Leila Yunus, a human rights activist and head of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, said she had been closely watching the impact that hosting Eurovision was having.

“The human rights situation in the country has deteriorated in the last few months, and it will get even worse,” she said. “Eurovision is a tragedy for Azerbaijan.”

Arzu Adigozelova has lost not only her home in an environment with good schools and day-care centres, but also her teaching job because of the trauma of fighting eviction.

She says the 57,000 manats she was given for her home is not nearly enough to buy another flat in the same part of town.

She has taken the matter to court, but the case is now on hold as the municipal authority’s representative failed to turn up for the hearing.

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Baku.