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.”
In the back of an old folder I found this photo published by the Independent on 21 October 1993, taken when I accompanied a harried former President Shevardnadze from Tbilisi to the central Georgian city of Kutaisi. On arrival in Kutaisi, I (and Vanora Bennett, then a reporter) jumped onto a helicopter that was waiting to take off to reach refugees streaming out of Sukhumi. Shevardnadze’s spokesman pulled us off, insisting we stay with the president as he toured the town. Luckily. The same helicopter crashed on a mountain pass. I flew over the wreckage on the way to see the refugees in another helicopter a few days later, and the pilots told us that all who had been on board that first helicopter had died.
Two decades ago, the (former Soviet) Republic of Georgia was crazed with conflicts and confusion. Everything has now changed, of course, and when I stayed a week last summer I saw that construction is under way everywhere. Betsy’s Hotel no longer a warren of old thick-walled houses in a steep alley but a clean, all-mod-cons apartment block overlooking the city. Among the vineyards of the Kakheti valley, not far from where I had once visited rusty old Soviet grape-crushing machines and the men who had seized control of them in order to rip off foreign investors, I stayed at a German-owned winery with shiny stainless steel vats and immaculate outbuildings where vintners are recreating ancient ways of fermenting wine in great earthenware pots. And, of course, Tbilisi Airport is now new and unrecognisable compared to the days we used to go on trips like the one described below …
The Independent, 1 May 1993
Out of Georgia
COMING IN ON A WING AND A PAIR – OF MAUSERS
By Hugh Pope
TBILISI – Cleaning one’s nails with the pin of a live grenade is an apt way to describe the thrills of flying in some of the newly-independent southern republics of the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, that as exactly what the man across the aisle was doing as we sat waiting for take-off at Tbilisi airport in Georgia. And he was modestly armed compared with the piratical gang of soldiers around us. One commander had a pair of Mauser pistols the size of meat cleavers strapped to each of his tree-trunk thighs.
When a domestic ticket costs less than a cognac and a chocolate bar in the gloomy airport cafés of the Caucasus, a sense of danger is not surprising. But there was no charge at all for this flight to the front line of Georgia’s war with separatist rebels in Abkhazia.
The gate was marked by a clutch of civilians with bundles of luggage tied up in paper, trying to get past a check-in desk wedged against the door. Soldiers lounged in corners swapping stories, toasts of brandy and comparisons of their personal armouries. Do come along, they insisted, but explained there might be a delay because of the national shortage of fuel. “Don’t worry, we’ll find some,” they said. That, we learned later, sometimes involved surrounding another plane about to take off and siphoning off fuel.
Far too many people seemed to have been invited to join us. The pilot stormed on, off and back on again. Fist-fights broke out and the man with the Mausers waved one in the air and led a charge up the boarding steps. Teenage soldiers downed vodka as if it was water. An apparently dead body on a stretcher stewed in the heat, along with nauseating smell-waves of garlic sausage and sacks of onions.
It was only five hours later that we managed to take off for the 250-mile trip to the war-torn Black Sea port of Sukhumi, cut off from the capital by bandits on the roads and rebels on the railways.
As we taxied to a halt a dozen cars surrounded the plane. Within minutes, hundreds of soldiers were fighting to get up the stairs. Others tried to forced their way down. As the first shots rang out, we escaped down a metal scaffold thrown up against a little-used emergency exit.
Our 24 hours in Sukhumi, touring frontline positions, came to seem like rest and recreation, however, compared to the flight back to Tbilisi. We limped to the airport in a wreck of a car looted from the Abkhazians. An armoured vehicle had appeared on the tarmac, symbolizing an order that did not really exist. One plane was up on three huge jacks, being looked over by a dubious ground crew. Another had been blown apart, perhaps hit in a legendary bombing raid by an Abkhazian rebel in a hang-glider. It was being subjected to the kind of cannibalization for parts that in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, has reduced half the aircraft on the apron to skeletons.
A flight had just arrived, miraculously, from Moscow. Its passengers were allowed off in peace. Dragging their baggage through puddles, they headed up the overgrown steps and through the broken window-frames of still-locked doors into the terminal and out through another window into the car park.
What, only six months ago, had been a rather pleasant neo-classical building among cypresses and palm trees now looked like a scene from a film about post-nuclear chaos.
Gunmen had wantonly fired bullets into the smooth plaster dome over the main hall. A gang of men had made a bonfire in the middle, sitting on planks, swilling vodka and insulting strangers. Snatches of song rolled down from a drunken party in progress upstairs.
Outside, dogs thrown out on to the streets by owners no longer able to afford pets had formed a pack to sniff for food among the debris, misty rain and advancing sub-tropical vegetation. Under the wings of the Moscow plane, local people had started bleeding fuel into kerosene cans to heat their homes, looking for all the world as though they were milking a giant cow.
The Tupolev from Tbilisi landed in a shower of spray and it our turn to lay siege to the plane. After the coffins and the walking wounded were on board, screams, shots and women’s tears made no difference as were crushed together with our luggage. A big soldier blocked my way with his rifle, hitting me one moment and gently pushing my dislodged glasses back up my nose the next.
Another gangway went up nearby. We threw ourselves off our boarding steps and headed over there. Bliss: two seats were left. Nothing else seemed to matter as the plane filled as full as a Cairo bus and a man with four machine-guns invited himself on to the table over my lap. Pockets full of bullets spilled over the seats and boisterous thugs in bandannas tied like pirates pretended to toss grenades at each other like English schoolboys with buns.
After hours of pleading, the pilot popped out to survey the bizarre scene. A crewman said there were 230 people on board the 170-seat plane. “Normal,” said the captain, and went to start the engines.
Did the Georgian doctor-turned-militiaman beside me miss the safe old certainties of the Soviet Union? Not a bit of it. War is war, he said, and the plane still flies.
A version of this experience also appeared in the Los Angeles Times (here). It’s pretty similar, obviously. A scary moment that neither story mentions was that in order to take off, the crewman forced all those standing in the aisles and in the front seats to go to the back of the plane to try to get the nose up in the air (the same applied to the landing). The LAT version expands on the scene when the pilot popped out of his cockpit:
The bemused pilot in his Soviet-era uniform got out to watch this exercise in anarchy. Leading the charge were the soldiers, an intimidating, war-scarred bunch, armed to the teeth, some with long beards like Orthodox monks, others with piratical bandannas around their heads. Despite their rough appearance, many turned out to be former students of economics, doctors or even former archeologists. Hard-bitten individualists to a man, there was no question of giving or obeying any orders.
“Discipline! Discipline!” shouted a 74-year-old veteran, once a squad of soldiers had managed to roll a set of steps through the crowd up to the fuselage of the plane. “If we have no discipline, we will lose the war!”
Nobody listened as the old man weakly waved his revolver in the air, although there was relative quiet as several thin steel coffins bearing war dead appeared. A drunken policeman fired a slow salute as they were passed hand over head into the plane.
I have already posted another Indie ‘Out of’ story about what it was like to travel by train in those years here, here at Champagne and Cabbage on board the Baku Express. For my summer 2012 photo album on today’s Georgia, busily under construction, see here.
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