A story from Azerbaijan before the fall of the Soviet Union, when everything seemed possible and old ties were suddenly being rediscovered across borders that had been closed for 70 years. I even met then disgraced Haidar Aliyev in exile in his hometown of Nakhichevan, where he served me breakfast in a light tracksuit and predicted correctly that the then regime in Baku was only hanging on thanks to support from Moscow.
Wednesday 31 October 1990
Azerbaijan looks to ‘blood brother’ Turkey
Hugh Pope, in Baku, finds a people in search of independence rediscovering their roots.
The grizzled Azerbaijani in the airport car park leaned forward to display his Grey Wolf lapel pin and whispered in Azeri Turkish: “Are you one of the pan-Turkists from Turkey?” It was an odd welcome to Azerbaijan, the first sign of a web of conspiracies, trade and bloodbrother love that is starting to bind the Soviet republic to Turkey as it moves to greater independence.
For years, such emotional bonds have been suppressed on both sides of the short Transcaucasia border Azerbaijanis share with Turkey. Throughout the Cold War, Nato-member Turkey feared to provoke Moscow and later wished to protect valued trade links. For its part, the Soviet Union feared for the loyalty of the 15 per cent of its population who speak Turkic dialects, stretching into a crescent across its southern boarders in central Asia.
Few in Azerbaijan or Turkey believe that the pan-Turkish dream of a union of Turkic peoples in anything but a dream, like the legend of the Grey Wolf said to have guided the Turks in their migrations westward from the Mongolian steppe a millennium ago. But as the Soviet Union decentralises, it is increasingly common to hear the idea voiced that Turkey will no longer stand alone as the self-styled “last independent Turkish state.”
The Turk in Istanbul may be lukewarm to such ideas, discredited because it was espoused by right-wing extremists during violence in the 1970s. But among the seven million people of soviet Azerbaijan, decades of frustration have bottled up feelings of Turkishness that are far more striking, for instance, than any post-glasnost revival of Islam.
Azerbaijan’s 70 mosques are being renovated but three generations of Marxist education have Europeanised the mainly Shia population. The Marlboro-smoking religious leader of Azerbaijan, Allahsukur Pasazade, effectively lost his deposit in the recent elections. The only taxi-driver I found who displayed a picture of the late Ayatollah Khomeini made it clear he did not want and Islamic state.
On the boulevards of Baku, the Soviet Azerbaijani capital, cassette tape sellers stock almost as much Turkish music as Azerbaijani. Hotel receptionists follow the fate of Turkish football teams and a teashop owner proudly displays a picture in his wallet of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.
“We like Turkish songs. We know their poetry. We have the same blood. We are Turks inside,” said Kamer Novrozaliyeva, 21, an Azerbaijani teacher. Refik Onur, an Istanbul chemicals manufacturer who attended the recent Azerbaijan Business Congress, where the biggest delegation came from Turkey, said he often had to eat in two houses each night in order not to give offence. “I never imagined such love,” he said.
Although plum contracts for the oil and cotton industries are likely to go to Western multinationals, the communist leadership of Azerbaijan has started its foreign visits with ground-breaking tours of Turkey, reciprocated by a visit from President Turgut Ozal’s wife, Semra. The Azerbaijan Prime Minister, Hasan Hasanov, glows with pleasure at the thought of engineering the same economic boom that Mr Ozal gave Turkey in the 1980s.
“We are doing everything that can be done with Turkey,” Mr Hasanov said. “We have great feelings for Turkey and Iran.”
In neighbouring northwest Iran, there are between 15 and 20 million Azeri Turks living in what some nationalists call “South Azerbaijan”. But both Soviet and Iranian Azerbaijanis say that a basic popular wish for reunion is complicated by differences arising from more than 150 years of separate development. For the times being, Soviet Azerbaijanis say that Turkey remains a more attractive partner mainly because it offers economic hope and a Moscow-free rout to the West, through Azerbaijan’s westernmost outpost of Nakhichevan.
A Turkish consulate opens in Baku soon, but Cengiz Israfil, a senior Turkish official of Azerbaijani origin, said: “Our policy has not changed. We don’t want to get involved in internal Soviet politics. Pan-Turkism is a false dream… But personally I would like to see more independent Turkish republics.”
Independence is the ultimate desire of nearly all Azerbaijanis and local political forces in the republic, including a bewildering variety of 15 small new parties, the main opposition movement, the National Front, and even, to a certain extent, the well-entrenched ruling Communist Party. Some Azerbaijanis see Baku’s role as a future lodestar and route to the West for the other Turkic republics of Turkmenistan, Kirgizia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan further east.
Meanwhile lessons have been learned from “Black January” when mass rallies for independence led by the National Front in Baku were crushed by the Soviet Army; 122 people were killed.
“It must be that the Soviet leadership doesn’t feel it necessary to do such things again,” Mr Hasanov says. “We are going towards independence. But it will not be by Lithuania’s or Armenia’s way. We will negotiate [with Moscow] all the way. We do not want to harm the other republics.”
After the Soviet intervention, the Communist Party successfully repressed and split the National Front. Baku remains under a 1am to 5 am, its fine turn-of-the-century centre scarred by a burnt-out Armenian cathedral. Two years of ethnic strife in the Transcaucasus have left some 250,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia living in slum suburbs around Baku or in Armenian homes deserted by their owners. Only a few thousand Armenians remain from what was once a community of 300,000 people.
In this strained atmosphere, two rounds of voting on 20 September and 14 October gave the Communist Party 90 per cent of seats for the 360-seat Azerbaijan parliament. Nobody believes the result is representative, since opposition parties were not allowed to hold meetings, Communist Party pressured on voters on polling-day were great and turnout was low.
“They put 22 other communist candidates up against me in my constituency alone. No wonder I couldn’t reach the 50 per cent barrier,” said Vahit Akhundov, an opposition figure.
“If the elections had been free, the party would have lost power… the Baku leadership is there with the support of the Soviet army,” said Haidar Aliev, the former communist strongman of Azerbaijan who was ousted from the Soviet Politurbo in 1987. Mr Aliev was elected as an independent last month with the highest percentage vote of any candidate in Azerbaijan.
The Communist Party remains relatively strong and is adopting Azeri national issues as it struggles to recover popularity. Mr Hasanov wants an Azerbaijani army and is struggling to bring economic independence and direct foreign trade to the long-isolated republic which has large surpluses in basic foodstuffs and energy.
Azerbaijani officials say that both a strong army and economy are vital to counter what is seen as the main threat to the republic, the Armenians. Azerbaijan is convinced that Moscow and the West give one-sided support to what everyone in Baku describes as Armenian aggression. Azerbaijanis point to Armenian claims on the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh and what they say are a pattern of attacks against the 300,000-strong Azerbaijani enclave of the Nakhichevan, bordering Turkey and Iran.
Armenians launched attacks on Nakhichevan in January. Azerbaijani nationalists tore down the border fences with Iran and Turkey and forced the enclave’s parliament to declare a unilateral independence which, although it collapsed after eight days, was technically the first in the Soviet Union. Some Azerbaijanis are bitter that the Turkish troops could do little more than mass on the border. But Azerbaijanis involved in the clashes said a dozen or so Turkish “Grey Wolf” irregulars managed to slip across to fight alongside what Turks on both sides of the border agree are their “brothers in soul and blood”.
This is one of a group of articles I wrote during a wild trip to Azerbaijan’s First International Business Conference in October 1990. There were a lot of “firsts” back then as the Soviet Union fragmented – starting with the first direct passenger flight I know of between Istanbul and Baku. This story is perhaps the first published news that BP was to play a leading role in the new development of post-Soviet Azerbaijan’s oil wealth. My full impressions of Baku’s early independence can be found in chapters 3, 7 and 20 of my book on the rise of the Turkic world, Sons of the Conquerors.
Tuesday 23 October 1990
BP ahead in Great Baku oil rush
Azerbaijan risks Moscow’s ire by enlisting the West to revive its oil industry, writes Hugh Pope in Baku
THE GREAT century-old oilfields of Baku are opening up to foreign exploration and production for the first time since their capture by Soviet Russia in 1920, triggering a latter-day oil rush in which an alliance between British Petroleum and Statoil of Norway has taken the lead.
“The size of the new field being discussed has significance in world terms,” said Rondo Fehlberg, leading a team of BP-Statoil negotiators in Baku, the capital of the Transcaucasian Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.
Amoco of Houston and Unocal of California also joined last week’s extraordinary circus of talks at the end of which the Azerbaijani government announced the redevelopment of its languishing 200,000 – 250,000 bpd oil industry was up for international tender.
The Azerbaijani Prime Minister, Hasan Hasanov, said: “We want all the best companied in the world to come.”
Despite official assurances of a “flat playing field”, Azerbaijani officials say BP-Statoil was most likely to win the contract to develop an offshore field previously named after “the 26 Baku Commissars”, a group of pro-Bolshevik revolutionaries that official Soviet historians used to allege were shot during a six-week British occupation of Baku in 1918.
The new field, in 120 – 300 metres of water and outside the reach of Soviet drilling technology, was last weekend renamed the “Azer” field in line with the Azerbaijani government’s strong bit for economic independence from Moscow, Mr Hasanov said.
He demands $2m (£1.02m) from anyone who wants to know the new offshore field’s size, but all agree it is big – “enough to cause a stir if it were found in the North Sea”, Mr Fehlberg said.
Despite being the world’s oldest oil centre – it produced half the world’s oil before the First World War – executives say inefficient extraction and limited exploitation mean much is still left behind.
Oil still oozes out from the ground on the outskirts of the Baku, giving the city air its heavy hydrocarbon scent. A US-South Korean group is in advanced negotiations for what Azerbaijani officials say is a $5bn redevelopment of the bleak rig-studded landscape.
Mr Insun Yun, of the newly formed Azerbaijan-Korean Enterprise, said: “We think there is 1.5 billion tonnes of oil still under there.”
A big question mark over all the excitement was what Moscow might thing of this foreign oil rush into what, despite the fact that Baku now only produces about 2 per cent of the Soviet Union’s oil, is one of its jealously guarded strategic assets.
Mr Hasanov said he has received no word from the Soviet capital about how it would view this independence: “There are no obstacles – they have all been removed. You have to understand the concept. We want to increase production and dispose of the surplus. We do not want to harm the other republics.”
Local encouragement to seek out links to foreign firms has released a surge of commercial energy in Baku, whose proud turn-of-the-century boulevards and palaces are now ageing apartment blocks or stores empty of anything but the most basic goods.
One oil executive said: “I’ve never seen anything like it. This old trading people have been released from 70 years of bondage. It’s like a parched man who has just had a bucket of water thrown over his head and doesn’t know where to start drinking it.”
The old guard at the Caspian Sea off-shore operators, Kasmorneftigaz – which extracts nearly 80 per cent of the republic’s oil – wants to keep the situation clear and under control.
A director, Abbas Abasov said: “We just want one single operator, a big international oil company to do the whole job with us.”
The join venture contract would include full rights for exploration and production at the former “26 Baku Commissars” field as well as adjoining prospecting rights – a huge undertaking for any company, he acknowledged.
Mr Fehlberg said: “They have needs that are much broader than our expertise or current desires. It just is not the kind of thing that Western companies do. But we are interested in co-ordinating it.”
He estimated it would take six months to put together a joint venture and that studies of the field could be completed next year, but the announcement of an international tender meant delays.
Compensation would be through a share in production, but no talks had been held on how it would be shipped out of the Caspian Sea area.
The Prime Minister has said he is considering both a gas pipeline to Turkey and an upgrading of the 1,700km Baku-Batum crude oil pipeline to the Black Sea. A complex multilateral $21m deal, signed and approved by Moscow, will allow Britain’s KBC Process Technology to upgrade one of Baku’s two major refineries, according to Brian Swan, KBC’s marketing director.
“Last year they lost $14m – $18m in gas fires alone. The refinery could be making $400m a year at today’s oil prices.”
News travels slowly from Central Asia, and I only just caught up with the December’s news that Kazakhstan will shift the writing of its Kazakh language to a new Latin script by 2025. Having already changed from Arabic to a previous Latin script in 1927, and then to Cyrillic in 1940, Kazakhstan won’t be the first time a state in and around Central Asia has switched, or been forced to switch, its written national literature about. One of them, Azerbaijan, has done so four times in the past century. Here’s how I wrote up the story for the Wall Street Journal a decade ago:
The Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2000
Freed of Russian Yoke,
Turkic Nations Find
They Miss the Alphabet
New Countries Proudly
Adopt Their Own
Version of ABCs; Now
Try Reading the Menu
By Hugh Pope
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
BAKU, Azerbaijan — When a shoe salesman here named Mehman Alimuradov had to move some footwear this summer, he faced an odd marketing problem.
First, few people could clearly recognize the store’s sign out front, which was printed in the government-imposed Latin alphabet. But if he switched to the Russian-style alphabet most people could read, he faced possible fines from inspectors.
So the 22-year-old struck a compromise: He left the store sign alone. Above it, he hung a Russian-scripted, yellow sales banner, one provisional enough to keep inspectors off his back.
“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” Mr. Alimuradov says without much thought. “This is Azerbaijan.”
It’s also one of the world’s great alphabetical messes.
Most people here speak Azeri, so oral communication isn’t a problem. Written communication is. No one can decide how to write out the Azeri language. There have been four completely different alphabets in the last 75 years, and steady replacements of various letters.
These days, at restaurants it’s common to get a menu printed in Latin script, eat your meal, and then get the check written out in Russian-style script. (Those Latin characters look like the ones you’re reading right now.) Azeri newspapers don’t offer much clarity. Most have Latin-scripted headlines, and Russian-scripted articles. At one paper, Azadliq, the only recent all-Latin article was about former president Abulfez Elchibey, who made such a presentation a condition of his interview.
In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan and others celebrated their liberation from the USSR by announcing they would junk the Cyrillic alphabet that had been imposed by Soviet rule for 50 years. Azerbaijan was joined by the nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as Tatarstan, which technically is still a republic of Russia. Altogether, it has been nine years of alphabetic fits and starts.
Changing scripts isn’t easy. There’s logistics: think street signs and textbooks. There are philosophical issues: Is it really a good idea to make it more difficult for people to read? And there are the larger realities of Central Asia: not much money, half-implemented reforms, corrupt governments, emerging ethnic rivalries and a swing back to Russia.
Take Turkmenistan. A bit larger than California, it’s full of desert, natural gas, and lavish government spending on projects such as a revolving, gold-plated statue of the president perched atop a tower in the capital. Appropriately enough, when Turkmenistan went to a Latin-script seven years ago, it briefly added three characters: $, yen, and pound sterling. These characters didn’t simply mean dollar, yen and pound. They corresponded to certain sounds spoken by the Turkmens.
In all, the “Turkic region” spreads from the Balkans to Siberia, and includes five former Soviet republics and the nation of Turkey. Each has its own spoken language, a Turkic dialect. Needless to say, life would be simpler if they all shared the same alphabet. At last count, though, the region had 21 different published scripts — in various forms of Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin.
More than 1,000 years ago, Turkic-speaking people actually wrote in a single, official script: Runic.
Then they started converting to Islam, and adopted an Arabic script. The 1500s ushered in the great Asian Prince Babur, who had tough genes. His mother had descended from Ghengis Khan, the great Mongol warrior, while his father had came down from Timur, the Turkic conqueror.
Prince Babur, who himself founded India’s Moghul dynasty, felt the Arabic script’s lack of vowels couldn’t convey the rich harmonies of spoken Turkic. He tried to reform it. But Muslim clerics controlled the alphabets and blocked the Prince’s project.
Arabic scripts finally succumbed to revolutions and intellectual fervor. In 1926, here in the port city of Baku, the region’s First Turkology Congress convened inside the expropriated palace of an oil baron to discuss the alphabet issue. In a 101-7 landslide, they picked a Latin alphabet, returning to their respective countries to spread the new gospel.
To the north, Joseph Stalin was watching all this — even as much of the region was turning to communism. The Russian leader apparently liked the conversion to Latin letters, because it separated the region from Islamic countries to the south. But Stalin also wanted his own control. So, in the late 1930s, he imposed Russian-style, Cyrillic alphabets. To help drive a wedge among the Turkic nations, he assigned unique Cyrillic characters depending on the nation. So, even though Turkic dialects had the same sounds, those sounds were written differently.
These unique alphabets, in turn, further altered how people pronounced words, which further fragmented the region.
In 1992, a year after the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkey organized a modern-day alphabet congress. Academics arrived from throughout the region, and agreed on a standard 34-character, Latin alphabet — one based on Turkey’s script. Everyone promised to go home and preach another Latin conversion. But few had much sway with the ex-Communist governments.
Azerbaijan, a country the size of Maine, has made the most progress — particularly given wrenching problems, like a six-year war in the mountains separating it from Armenia that displaced one-tenth of its population. Many Azerbaijani kids now can read their native Azeri language in Latin. But they can’t read all the Azeri literature and history printed in Russian-style Cyrillic. Their parents, meantime, can’t read newly published books. In public spaces and on billboards, there’s now a kaleidoscope of Cyrillic, Latin, even some Arabic.
Elsewhere, alphabet conversions have gone even slower. One big problem: Because the Turkic states were just freed of the Soviet Union, they feared a new big brother in Turkey. So, even those who went Latin did so on their own terms.
Meanwhile, businesses throughout the region still use Russian for conversations. So do Turkic presidents, while speaking at regional summits. For many younger people, oddly enough, Russian now is seen as cool.
Recently, a young man walking through historic, downtown Baku — near the confused shoe store — turned his head when two young women walked by, not just because they were pretty, but also because their spoken Russian made them sound sophisticated. And, where Russian is spoken, of course, Russian is written — which means the Cyrillic script.
Many feel that the Internet will ultimately drive people to Latin scripts. But this isn’t easy either. The idiosyncratic variations on the Cyrillic alphabet that Stalin imposed aren’t readily available on computers. So Turkic cybersurfers make do by adopting obscure letters from well-known American computer fonts, which of course aren’t part of the 34-character Latin alphabet established at the Turkey linguistic confab eight years ago.
And there’s always politics, in places like Uzbekistan, a large, dusty nation whose oasis cities like Samarkand evoke the famed Silk Road to China. In 1993, a nationwide committee adopted a Latin alphabet — with a goal of full conversion by 2000. Tellingly, the committee had more provincial governors than linguists.
By 1995, relations soured with Turkey. Uzbekistan changed two Turkish-style consonants to English-style “ch” and “sh.” And controversy remains about writing an “o” script when you’re saying an “a” sound. One result of all the manipulations: When Uzbeks write “Isaac, ” people elsewhere read “donkey.”
The new alphabet doesn’t sit well with everyone. “It’s so ugly. I can’t bear to see it,” says Mohammed Salih, Uzbekistan’s opposition Erk Party leader, speaking by telephone from his exiled home in Norway. A poet, he chooses to write in Cyrillic rather than what he sees as a bastardized script.
“If we come to power,” Mr. Salih says, “we’ll have to modify the Latin alphabet again.”
When an Azerbaijani co-worker arrived in our Istanbul office, she was pretty surprised by the ragged Internet service offered by Turkey’s high-handed TTNET monopoly, comparing it unfavourably to zippy data speeds in the glossy new Baku. Roles have indeed reversed, reminding me of the days things weren’t so great in the Caucasus. On my first trip to Azerbaijan in 1990, the only way I was told I could communicate with anywhere outside the Soviet Union was by telegram. Theoretically. The one “in Baku am ok stop” message I attempted to send never arrived back home in next-door Turkey.
The story below about one aspect of the traumatic transition to the early chaos of Caucasian independence was experienced just a month after the Soviet collapse. It’s a medley of experiences with my photographer brother Patrick as we criss-crossed the region that really freezing mid-winter. Neither of us spoke any Russian, my Turkish only half-worked with Azeris and we had little idea what we were doing. One day Patrick went out looking something more exciting to do than watch me pointlessly try to make phone calls. He came back with a pair of tickets to somewhere we’d heard events were afoot – Grozny, in Chechnya. We had no idea that were about to go to independent Russia, but back then, nobody raised an eyebrow…
CHAMPAGNE AND CABBAGE ABOARD THE BAKU EXPRESS
By Hugh Pope
Baku – Icy draughts whistle in through the cracked carriage-work. There are long unexplained stops in the night. Thieves are so rife that conductors tell their passengers to stow even shoes securely under their bunks.
But at crumbling railway stations all over the Caucasus, long-distance trains of the old Soviet railways still creak into action with little regard for who is independent, who is at war and who has signed on to the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The Soviet system may be decaying, but parts survive – and with a lingering pride of purpose. It may have taken up to two hours to struggle for tickets. But of five trains I travelled on in recent weeks, four left precisely on time.
The conductors still shovel the coal into ancient boilers that keep each carriage warm. They hand out sheets, slightly damp and grey, but clean. And at each station passengers with money stock up on supplies, shared with compartments companions with remarkable joie de vivre. “You’re from England? Fantastic. This calls for champagne,” said a collective farm mechanic from Nagorny Karabakh, returning minutes later with “Azerbaijan Champagne”, fruit juice, sausages and bread.
Fate chooses one’s fellow-passengers and there is no segregation of the sexes, as we two men found one evening when shunted into the same four-berth second-class compartment as Martha and Khalima, two shop assistants from the would-be independent Chechen Republic. Good Muslim women, they wouldn’t touch our Western food offerings for fear of pork. But with broad smiles they brought out a bottle of vodka to go with the pickled cabbage bought from one of the more unlikely minorities in the Caucasus, the ethnic Koreans of Grozny.
First class “SV” carriages still tag on the end of the 20-cariage, three-day service from Baku to Moscow. But the relative luxury could not match the atmosphere of third-class travel in 54-berth mobile dormitories.
There were Uzbeks, Dagestanis, Slavs, Jews, grandmothers, chicken merchants and drunken soldiers, but all obediently unrolled their bedding on cue from the woman conductor. Ethnic tensions amounted to light-hearted teasing of two Armenian women who got on to a carriage in Georiga but wouldn’t come in because it was full of Azeris. “I love this job. You really see the world,” laughed our conductor, a half-Kurdish Azeri, enforcing the no-smoking rule by shooing out a grandfather who lit a cigarette.
The world may only pass the grimy train windows at a lurching canter, but at least the railways regularly deliver people over long distances for a price that makes the Western visitor feel like a millionaire – 30p for the 15-hour journey from Baku to Tbilisi.
There are few travel alternatives. By some miracle, Aeroflot still works relatively well in the Caucasus, with tickets available for dollars. But there are very few flights and safety standards put one on a wing and a prayer.
Card sharps tried and failed to relieve us of our money on the train, but road travel is far more dangerous in these times when highway bandits are at large.
Vehicles are also becoming unreliable. The vie-president of Azerbaijan’s Intourist agency said he believed half of Baku’s taxis were off the road due to missing parts. Private hire was little better.
Taking a small Lada from Tbilisi to western Georgia involved a long detour to buy petrol from a mafia-run collection of tankers. On a mountain road the car shuddered to a halt as impurities clogged up its carburettor. Our friends cursed fluently in Georgian but dismantled it with a well-practiced air, sucking each pinhole clean in a driving blizzard. The miracle of survival continued as we surmounted icy slopes with long run-ups and thanked our lucky bald front tyre for our safe arrival.
Nobody would hire out a vehicle for the journey back. All over the Caucasus, crime rates have doubled. In the absence of most central police authority, car owners remove their windscreen wipers and chain up the steering wheel, lock the pedals and park them in guarded lots if they can.
So it was an Israeli businessman also stranded by the weather who offered us a ride back over the mountains through snow-storms in the one vehicle he had found for hire – an open-top truck already filled with snow. Amazingly, Georgian snowploughs had cleared the road and we made it.
Half-frozen at the top of the pass, resting and dreading the next three hours of night travel, a bus parked in the same lay-by suddenly offered the chance of a ride all the way back to Baku with a bus-load of Azeri tourists and suitcase traders. Rarely have I felt so grateful. Friendly hands took off our wet coats. Warm furs were draped over our shoulders. Mugs of cognac were passed.
“You will write that we are not monsters, won’t you,” said Maia, a Baku police captain who had gone all the way to Turkey to buy clothes for her children, but had been robbed at the customs post. “We really hope things get completely back to normal soon.”
The Independent, “Out of the Caucasus”, 8 February 1992