Saturday, October 11, 2008

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 3: Going Up?

As an earlier dispatch noted, construction is booming in Baku. Old neighborhoods are being leveled and replaced with high-rise buildings, but in a disorderly fashion. No zoning codes dictate how close buildings may be placed to one another, how high they may be built, or how the mix of commercial and residential properties should be balanced. In addition, shoddy and corrupt construction practices have led to horrible accidents. A building recently collapsed near Erik's hotel (prior to his arrival), killing many workers. The construction company had been selling the concrete designed for load-bearing walls, filling them instead with sand.

Poor quality construction is evident everywhere. The Caspian Palace hotel is located in the Caspian Business Center, a relatively new building. But, cracking walls, poorly fitted fixtures, and other evidence of limited quality control abound. Upon Erik's arrival, the entire curtain assembly fell from his ceiling (and he had no curtains for a couple of nights). The cheap plastic parts had been connected to the ceiling with small screws. In addition, the bare wood in the ceiling revealed that this was probably not the first time the assembly had fallen (a point backed up by the maid who shook her head and told Erik that it had happened before).

Unfortunately, Baku may be headed toward a grisly catastrophe similar to what we witnessed in China a few months ago. According to Elchin, local seismologists have noted that even a 4.0 earthquake could bring down much of the new construction in Baku. Baku is in an area of elevated seismic activity; the last major earthquake around 8 years ago was more intense than the feared 4.0. However, the construction boom post-dates that earthquake, so it will not be tested until the next major temblor.

On Friday, Erik attended a roundtable featuring political scientists and a former opposition party official. The roundtable's theme was the election, and all of the participants reflected pessimistically on the current state of pluralism in Azerbaijan. Of course, the fact that participants could talk openly about these matters is a good sign. But, the space for political dialogue is limited. Erik asked whether or not construction issues could be used as a springboard for the opposition (just as citizens have protested corruption and inadequate regulation of construction in China). He was told that in the wake of the building collapse noted above, some individuals attempted to force the issue, laying flowers and meeting at the site. Their efforts were thwarted by the police who removed the flowers and did not allow protests to continue.

Mosque under construction.

New sidewalks near the Caspian Sea boardwalk.

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