TOL: Wealth Gap

by Rovshan Ismayilov

Transitions Online, Czech Republic
Aug 15 2007

Much of Azerbaijan is left behind as Baku flourishes. From EurasiaNet.

BAKU, Azerbaijan | Two separate worlds uneasily coexist within
Azerbaijan. One is Baku, the country’s oil boom capital, a metropolis
increasingly slick with skyscrapers, ritzy clubs and high-end
boutiques. But travel not too far outside this city of 2.9 million,
and the picture suddenly changes.

Azerbaijan’s regions – especially in rural areas – are trapped by
the twin troubles of unemployment and underdeveloped transportation.

Monthly salaries (about $120 to $150) are less than half what they
average in Baku, according to official statistics. Driving a private
taxi is one of the most common jobs for local males.

An irregular rate of economic development drives the disparity. Jobs
for qualified specialists may be hard to come by in Baku, but
opportunities for ordinary workers in construction, restaurants and
retail abound. While official data do not exist, young people are
increasingly coming to Baku for university, and then staying in the
capital for work afterwards.

"As a result, we have an abnormal economic misbalance when up to 90
percent of the country’s GDP is being produced by Baku, while the
rest of the country produces about 10 percent," says Rasim Huseynov,
a Baku-based independent economic expert.

A man dances at the Le Mirage nightclub in Baku. Photo by Rena Effendi
for EurasiaNet


The growing economic gap can be seen most vividly in lifestyle
differences. Baku is packed with bars, nightclubs and discotheques,
bowling clubs and entertainment centers attended equally by men and
women. By contrast, not a single nightclub or discotheque exists
outside of Azerbaijan’s capital.

"It is boring to live in the village," complained 17-year-old Mobil
Mammadov, a resident of Asrik near the Armenian border. "There’s no
Internet, newspapers are not delivered. We can only watch the state
television channel, which is not interesting at all."

Entertainment for young people in Mammadov’s village amounts
to "Futprognoz," a take-off on the computerized betting system
Totalizator, which can be accessed in towns throughout the South

Mammadov’s dream is for an Internet cafe to come to his village – the
closest one is 25 kilometers away in the regional center of Tovuz. "I
heard about the Internet from friends who use it in Baku," he said.

"It seems exciting."

A whopping 77 percent of Azerbaijan’s estimated 700,000 to 800,000
Internet users live in Baku, with only six percent living outside of
major regional cities, according to Osman Gunduz, head of the Internet
Forum of Azerbaijan. The government has launched a program to diversify
computer access by providing what Communications Minister Ali Abbasov
terms "preferential prices" for the machines, but its impact on the
regions is not yet known.

Economic expert Huseynov, however, cautions that focusing on the
obvious disparities between town and country in Azerbaijan can distort
the picture.

"It is wrong to allege that the oil boom did not touch the provinces
at all," he said. "The economy is growing throughout the country,
major infrastructure in regions is improved, new industrial facilities,
and hotels are being opened there, tourism is developing."


The State Program on Social and Economic Development of Regions,
introduced in 2004, aims to address these imbalances by promoting
the economy’s non-oil-dependent sectors. Huseynov and other experts
see the program’s main value as introducing competition between local
government heads.

The Program’s 2006 report states that 80 percent of the 174,000 new
jobs created in Azerbaijan last year were located outside of Baku. At
the same time, state spending is building new roads, factories,
schools, hospitals, and making some improvements with utilities.

But outside of large regional cities, that situation deteriorates.

Agriculture, the economic mainstay for Azerbaijan’s regions, has
a relatively bleak outlook, one expert argues. Importing food is
now cheaper than growing it domestically, said Inglab Ahmadov,
director of the Public Finance Monitoring Center. "Paradoxically,
our farmers are getting poorer while prices in the agriculture market
are growing," Ahmadov elaborated. "The cost of products increases
with their transportation to market and at the market itself."

That situation contributes to a high rate of unemployment for women
living in the regions. "Women have no jobs in the provinces, so
they have to sit at home," says Saida Hojamanly, chairwoman of the
Bureau of Human Rights Protection, a Baku-based non-governmental
organization. "There are no places except with family and children
where women can apply themselves."

As a result, outlets are few, she continued. "Even in relatively
big regional cities like Mingachevir or Guba there are not a lot
of women walking on the streets, not to mention sitting in cafes or
restaurants. Everything in the regions is designed for men – sport
facilities, cafes, restaurants, chaykhanas (tea houses)."

While Azerbaijani legislation on gender may meet international
standards, the reality falls short in the regions, added Mehriban
Zeynalova, head of Temiz Dunya (Clean World), a support group for
women. "The passivity of the local executive authorities and municipal
governments too is a big problem," she says.

A similar misbalance mars the overall human rights situation in
the provinces, say activists. "The offices of all International
organizations as well as the lion’s share of local human rights
NGOs are located in Baku, so they operate more in the capital,"
says Hajimurad Sadaddinov, president of the Baku-based Azerbaijani
Foundation on Democracy Development and Human Rights. "People’s rights
in the regions are being violated more often and crudely."

Will these two "countries" ever become one? For now, economic expert
Huseynov is skeptical. As long as the energy money continues to flow,
he says, "Baku will remain the center of the country in all senses."

Photo: A woman smokes a nargili pipe at Konti Cafe in Baku. Rena
Effendi for EurasiaNet

Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku. This is
a partner post from EurasiaNet.