I was surprised to see that Azerbaijan resembled Dubai more than neighbouring Khazakstan from Borat.
When I was arrested by the military police of Azerbaijan during my investigation of BP for Channel 4′s Dispatches in 2010, one of the cops who surrounded our crew in the desert told us, with great pride:
“BP drives this country.”
Indeed it does.
In 1992, the newly independent former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan elected a kindly Muslim Professor, Abulfaz Elchibey, as President.
But the voters had made an error: Elchibey refused to give BP an exclusive contract to drill the nation’s massive Caspian Sea fields as the company wished. In 1993, with assistance and, reportedly, guns provided by MI6, Elchibey was overthrown by the nation’s former Soviet KGB boss, Heydar Aliyev.
Within three months, Aliyev handed BP a sweetheart deal, called “The Contract of the Century”, to take Azerbaijan’s Caspian oil.
The way to the no-bid deal for BP was “greased”, to use the term applied by former BP operative Leslie Abrahams, with several million dollars in illicit payments and weekends with lap dancers in London for Azeri officials. I asked Abrahams, who was ordered by BP to provide military intelligence to MI6, whether he understood that he was paying “bribes on behalf of BP and the British government”. He replied, “absolutely, yes”.
When asked, BP would not directly deny paying bribes.
The company told us, tantalisingly, that:
“While there were some facts in [Abrahams] account that were accurate, we do not recognise most of it and regarded it as fantasy.” (here is Abrahams in the BP office with his Kalashnikov).
Since BP has taken control of Azerbaijan’s oil, the nation has become fabulously wealthy – at least for those close to the Aliyev family and BP.
And they eat well. The daughters of the new President, Ilham Aliyev (son of Heydar), picked up the tab for dinner in London for a half dozen of their friends. It came to £300,000 (excluding tip and VAT).
According to Robert Ebel, the CIA’s former oil intelligence chief, the whereabouts of $140 million in BP and other oil industry payments are “totally unknown”.
This week, Eurovision Song Contest viewers will be treated to the images of the ancient city of Baku where the Silk Road streets are filled with Maseratis and Bentleys. The Bentley dealership, and much of the capital, is owned by Azerbaijan’s First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, the “Sexiest Muslim Woman in the World”. That’s official, the vote was taken by Esquire Magazine. (She’s actually the twelfth “Sexiest Woman in the World”, but the other eleven, infidels all, can be ignored here.)
(Photo above with husband Ilham).
I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve the title: her fashion model face has been created at great expense by “so much plastic surgery”, according to the US State Department Manning/WikiLeaks cables, that Lady Mehriban “appears unable to show a full range of facial expression.”
But when I left the Old City and its Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana stores and headed off to Sangachal, the town where BP’s terminal operates, I found a nation heading full speed into the 14th century…
Baku, once the world’s leading manufacturer of oil drilling equipment, is now one of the world’s leading centers of oil-toxin cancers. Walking along the main street of Sangachal, the aptly nicknamed, “Terminal Town”, was like doing the rounds in a cancer ward.
The local shoemaker, Elmar Mamonov – who hasn’t sold a shoe in two years – told me:
“This one’s daughter has breast cancer; there, Rasul had a brain tumor. Cancers we had never seen. His funeral was last week.”
Azlan, afraid to give his last name, paid to have a cancerous lung cut out, because employer BP wouldn’t pay. He says the oil company fired him after he could not keep up with his work.
And there was Shala Tageva, a schoolteacher, who has ovarian cancer. She needs treatment soon, but how to pay for it, Mamonov can’t imagine. Shala is Mamonov’s wife.
Suddenly, Mamonov stopped himself.
“If I am arrested, you will help me, yes?”
Sorry, sir, not in the Islamic Republic of BP.
Oil, their main industry, has seen employment drop about 90 per cent according to journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Her father, the former oil production minister, was fired by Aliyev when the minister suggested bribery was behind the destruction of the industry, bribes which allegedly allowed BP to avoid “local content” laws that would have saved those jobs.
Throughout the nation, we heard the same refrain: nostalgia for the old days of freedom and prosperity under Soviet rule; under BP rule, the people’s health, income and freedoms have decayed rapidly, as pollution has turned their Caspian fisheries into a dead, chemical toilet.
But Azeris are well entertained. The massive expenditure for the Eurovision Song Contest follows the government’s spending of $1 million for an Elton John concert during a depression.
Today, only one in seven dollars of GDP is paid in salaries (versus four of five dollars in the US and UK). Where have the billions gone? No one dare look for it, nor the source of the First Lady’s wealth. The last journalist who asked about the funds, Elmar Huseynov, was gunned down in his home. A journalist who questioned what happened to Huseynov was jailed. No third journalist is investigating what happened to the first two.
Azerbaijan is, nominally, a democracy. Indeed, the First Lady won a convincing election to Parliament (as did every other candidate supporting her husband’s regime – there was not a single member of the opposition elected). But it doesn’t, in the end, matter who is voted in, as long as “BP drives”.
Within hours of our arrest, my crew and I were released by the Deputy Chief of the Security Ministry: Imprisoning a Channel 4 reporter would have been an embarrassment for BP. But our witnesses to BP’s horrific drilling practices didn’t do so well. One made it out of the country, but others disappeared.
When you watch the Euro-warblers compete this Saturday, just remember that in Azerbaijan, the winners are already chosen: BP and the family of the Sexiest Muslim Woman in the World. And that’s not a pretty sight.
I was also hoping the Swedish Eurovision winner would talk on the stage about the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. This is what got her in trouble last week:
IN the final hours before a worldwide audience tuned in to the Eurovision Song Contest last night, the authorities in Azerbaijan sentenced three human-rights demonstrators to six days in jail.
With a global TV audience of 125 million focused on the oil-rich country, the Azerbaijani government had hoped to boost its image and play down criticism of its poor human-rights record.
Instead, it jailed some of the 70 democracy campaigners who were arrested in protests in the capital Baku on Friday and fined others. The demonstration, which saw those who dared to speak to the international media arrested, was the third to be broken up by police last week.
Since Azerbaijan’s surprise win in Germany last year, which brought it the prize of hosting the 2012 contest, the regime has spent hundreds of millions of pounds sprucing up the city centre for the international audience.
The 23,000-seat Crystal Hall was built especially for the event at an estimated cost of €220m and is staffed by a team who have learnt rudimentary English.
But concerns about the lack of freedoms of speech and assembly have marred the ex-soviet country’s preparations. Azerbaijan has 16 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders ranks it near the bottom of its index on press freedom.
The murder of a prominent journalist, Rafig Tagi, remains unsolved and a number of journalists are in jail.
Activists have also drawn attention to the dictatorial style of president Ilham Aliyev, who took over from his father in 2003.
US diplomats described the country as having “the feudalism found in Europe during the Middle Ages” in a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.
Azerbaijani officials deny the allegations and accuse foreign governments of spreading false information.
There was also criticism that Mr Aliyev had turned the contest into a family affair. His wife Mehriban chaired the organising committee and his son-in-law Emin Agalarov was booked to sing during the interval.
Democracy activists fear that the Azerbaijani government could crack down even harder once the show is over.