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

Lada Louts in Azerbaijan

Law-abiding citizens urge police to get tough on Baku’s boy racers.
By Nigar Musayeva
  • A Zhiguli car with blacked-out windows does a wild overtaking manoeuvre. (Photo: Orkhan Tahirov)
    A Zhiguli car with blacked-out windows does a wild overtaking manoeuvre. (Photo: Orkhan Tahirov)
  • A police BMW in hot pursuit of a speeding car. (Photo: Orkhan Tahirov)
    A police BMW in hot pursuit of a speeding car. (Photo: Orkhan Tahirov)

Residents of the Azerbaijani capital Baku say they are being terrorised by groups of young men who race their cars through the city streets at night, and police are failing to stop them.

The street racing is more than just a cause for passing irritation. Public concern about it was galvanised by a police video posted on the internet showing a Soviet-era Zhiguli car, known as a Lada in the West , overturning after losing control on a corner, and crushing two women and a child to death against a wall.

The tragic deaths sparked a public campaign against the young racers, with around 2,000 people signing up to a Facebook group dedicated to stopping the menace by exchanging examples of the worst offenders and shaming the police into taking tougher action.

According to one posting, “The traffic police are not doing their duty. They are a corrupt service and they sell driving licenses to anyone who wants one. These hooligans are breaking the law right in front of policemen. They exceed the speed limit and drive on the wrong side of the road, but nothing gets done about it. Everyone in Azerbaijan knows you can get off any traffic violation by paying a small bribe.”

Residents of central Baku echoed these angry sentiments.

“You just can’t go to sleep for the noise,” Lala Quliyeva, who lives near Fizuli Square in the city centre, told IWPR. “They deliberately remove the silencer to make the engine even louder. The loud honking of horns, the squealing brakes, and the shouts of the crowd have made our lives intolerable.”

Mamed Aliyev, who lives on Rashid Behbudov Street in central Baku, said his family was also kept awake by the overnight street racing, and the danger was present in the daytime, too.

“Just recently, one of them only just missed some passers-by right in front of me, in broad daylight,” he said. “They only escaped because they managed to jump out of the way in time, and the hooligan continued on his way at high speed.”

The Azerbaijani police deny they are turning a blind eye to reckless driving.

“This form of hooliganism is a very real problem, and we have stepped up the fight against it of late. The traffic police have mounted special raids to try to catch these street racers,” Vaqif Asadov, a spokesman for the city police, told IWPR.

Asadov said 302 individuals were detained last year, of whom 51 were given penalties because it was not their first offence. Most were young men between the ages of 20 and 30.

Traffic accidents killed 307 people in Baku last year, and injured another 1,428. Official figures show that the New Year holiday period was a particularly grim time, with 31 deaths recorded.

In Baku, 51 per cent of crashes involved drivers hitting pedestrians.

“Much of the blame lies with these hooligans, who go mad on the streets, trying to beat all other road users. They often drive right through intersections, blocking the way to other drivers,” Asadov said.

Kamran Aliyev, a spokesman for the national traffic police force, said officers were making great efforts to stop the racers, and had installed video cameras on most city roads.

The cars used by the street racers are usually ancient Soviet models rather than more recent expensive imports, and Aliyev said, “Most of those involved are middle-class, and not the children of oligarchs, as people often say. In the main, it’s young lads aged 18 to 22, who love misbehaving on the streets.”

The road racers deny they are a danger to other traffic, and insist they will carry on regardless.

“It’s a sport. We arrange races among ourselves to show off what we can do,” enthusiast Alesker Huseinov said. “It's spectacular, beautiful, mesmerising. I accept that it’s dangerous – but mainly for ourselves. A real racer would never arrange something in the daytime. We pick remote areas and deserted streets for our contests.”

Huseinov admitted that his car often needed repairs after a race, but insisted, “I’m hardly going to give up my favourite activity.”

Elmira Akhundova, a member of parliament and journalist, is disturbed by the noise at night even though she lives 16 floors up.

“You can’t get to sleep for the noise of engines and brakes at two, three or four in the morning. I can’t understand where the traffic police are. They stop and fine ordinary citizens who are slightly exceeding the limit… so why don’t they tackle this hooliganism at night?” she asked.

Rather than just punitive action, Akhundova is proposing a safer alternative for the boy racers.

“We need to provide the right facilities for people who like high-speed sports. We need to legalise street racing by establishing special tracks for it, so as to protect other city residents from disturbance and danger,” she said.

Nigar Musayeva is a journalist from IWPR’s neighbours network.