Baku Mayor Under Fire

In the three months since he was elected mayor of Baku, Gadjibala Abutalybov has shaken the capital to its foundations.

Baku Mayor Under Fire

In the three months since he was elected mayor of Baku, Gadjibala Abutalybov has shaken the capital to its foundations.

Never shy of courting controversy, Baku's mayor, Gadjibala Abutalybov has launched a devastating campaign against street kiosks and refugee shanty towns. He has also demolished a Baku mosque and dismantled a city centre landmark.


And the new mayor makes no secret of his long-term goal - restoring the Azeri capital to the way it was in the 1970s, "just as our respected president built it".


Abutalybov's most recent adjustment to the city skyline - the removal of the monument to Azeri independence - has come close to sparking a diplomatic crisis.


On April 17, the Turkish embassy in Baku made an official protest to the Azeri foreign ministry, complaining that the memorial had been funded by Turkish charities in 1996 at a cost of $100,000.


Sayim Ergut, the press secretary to the Turkish embassy, explained that this unique example of Ottoman architecture stood as a symbol to friendship between the two countries.


The move has also provoked a storm of criticism from local opposition parties. A spokesman from Musavat said the mayor had insulted the memory of those who died for Azeri independence.


Irfan Sapmaz, a well-known Turkish journalist and editor of Baku's Avrasia newspaper, called Abutalybov "an immoral man".


And Samir Adigezalov, leader of the Great National Party, said, "The decision shows a clear lack of respect for our ally and could seriously damage Azeri-Turkish relations."


Adigezalov called for protesters to stage a picket outside the Baku mayor's office and demand that the monument be restored to its original position.


Meanwhile, the Baku mayor's office explained that the monument had been erected above a water pipe without the permission of the city authorities. It had been removed in order to carry out repair work on the pipe.


Appearing on the ANS TV channel, Abutalybov said that he had personally made five phone calls to the Turkish embassy but had been unable to reach the ambassador. He had then sent written notification that the monument would be dismantled two hours before the work began.


The Azeri foreign ministry has yet to respond to the Turkish communique, explaining that it will first seek a full explanation from the city authorities. The scandal coincides with President Heidar Aliev's official visit to Turkey, scheduled for April 24-27.


Abutalybov's no-nonsense approach to city planning became apparent just days after his election at the end of January 2001. One of his first moves was to outlaw the illegal street stalls -- mostly owned by refugees -- which had mushroomed across the city. The initiative enjoyed the full support of the local population.


Then Abutalybov turned his attention to supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants, closing down 25,000 outlets which he claimed had been built without planning permission.


One businessman, Shahin Aliev, who is also press secretary for the opposition Democratic Party, told IWPR that he had spent $150,000 on building a restaurant which he was now obliged to demolish. However, he had received no offer of compensation from the city authorities.


Public outrage reached a climax earlier this month when Abutalybov slapped a demolition order on a mosque, which was built last year on a disused military base in the village of Akhmedla.


On April 17, the congregation was forced to hold its prayer meeting on the street as bulldozers flattened the building.


Mirdjafar Nasirov, head of the mosque, threatened to take the mayor to court, adding, "It is now my life's goal to resurrect our place of worship. I would rather die that submit to these godless people."


The demolition of the Akhmedla mosque prompted an angry debate in the Baku parliament. Araz Alizade, co-chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, said, "After this despicable decision, Gadjibala Abutalybov can no longer call himself an Azeri and a Muslim."


And Turkish journalist Irfan Sapmaz quoted from the Koran: "If a man defiles God's temple then his hands shall wither."


However, Abutalybov was swift to justify his actions during an ANS TV interview. "This is an illegal construction, built by human hands," he said. "It is not God's temple at all, it's just a place where sinners can hide behind God's name."


The embattled mayor explained that the mosque had been built by a cooperative which had failed to secure planning permission from the city administration. He promised to build a new mosque for worshippers in a different location.


Some members of the Akhmedla congregation have supported his move. One woman said that the mosque had been built in a hurry and the builders had failed to observe the traditions demanded by Islamic law.


But few of those affected by the mayor's policies are so forgiving. Khangusein Aliev, director of Gaya, a newspaper distribution business, said the mayor had demolished five kiosks belonging to his company.


Aliev believes that "the authorities are eager to monopolise the newspaper distribution industry in order to bring pressure to bear on the independent and opposition press".


He explained, "Some state distribution firms have refused to sell certain editions of opposition papers which contain articles critical of top officials. If independent distribution is stamped out, then we're going to see a return to political censorship."


For the thousands of Nagorny Karabakh refugees living in shacks along the road to the airport, the mayor's hard line could have dire consequences.


Last week, hundreds of refugees blockaded the road in protest against plans to move them to hostels outside the city limits. The picket was dispersed by police and, on April 18, dozens of shacks in the Sabunchinsky region were demolished.


Gahraman Abbasov, a refugee from the Zangelansky region, said, "I've lived here for the past six years. My son was taken prisoner [during the war] and his whereabouts are unknown. I also have two unmarried daughters. Where are we to live now? I paid $350 for our caravan - it took me six months to earn the money by working as a porter at the station. How will I ever get that money back?"


One woman who asked not be named threatened to set light to herself outside the mayor's office in protest against the move.


Meanwhile, President Heidar Aliev has refused to be drawn into the crossfire. Araz Alizade, co-chairman of the Social Democratic Party, said it was clear that the mayor enjoyed Aliev's full support.


He believes that the measures are aimed at filling the state coffers by forcing traders to relocate to new premises. "The authorities will make $3-4 million out of it," he said.


Shahin Rzaev is a regular IWPR contributor

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