Azerbaijani demolitions: an update

The authorities’ destruction of a building and precious archive of human-rights workers in Baku is an act of mindless cruelty that damages Azerbaijan itself, says Thomas de Waal.

A month ago I published an article on openDemocracy entitled “Azerbaijan: speed without system” (29 July 2011). In it I wrote about the threats to the office of Azerbaijan’s foremost human-rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus, in a building which also housed Baku’s only women’s crisis centre and a demining charity.

Two weeks later, on the evening of 11 August, the Azerbaijani authorities struck. Two officials, one from the municipal government and one from the state property ministry, showed up at the Institute of Peace and Democracy (IPD) and said they had orders to start demolition of the house next door. They asked IPD employee Azad Isazade, who was inside the building, to leave. He stepped outside but did not leave the street. The human-rights activists had made contingency plans to summon help if the office was under threat and soon journalists and a Norwegian diplomat were on the scene observing what happened.

Several young men started attacking the front wall of the office - still decorated with inscriptions saying it was the private property of Leyla Yunus - with crowbars and ripping out the windows. Then a bulldozer pulled up and began smashing it. Radio Liberty’s Azeri service filmed what happened. The building was reduced to a pile of rubble.
 
The office tenants were taken by surprise. Leyla Yunus herself was in Norway. The tenants had relaxed a little after the Baku administrative economic court ruled in May that the destruction of the building was inadmissible without a court decision. They expected that the clash over the office would last at least until the end of 2011.

As a result they had removed a few of their possessions from the office but left most of them inside. So they lost to the bulldozer not only a building in central Baku that belongs to them but computers, furniture and, most importantly, personal archives. They lost Arif Yunus’s book collection and his own archive of the national movement in Azerbaijan from 1987-94 (newspapers, samizdat literature and brochures). They also lost portraits of Leyla’s grandparents painted by famous Azerbaijani artists. 

Why did the authorities strike in this way? One feature of this awful story leaps out, which is that they were not just unafraid of the international attention their actions were getting - but that such attention actually seemed to spur them on to act worse.

The office was demolished only a day after an article appeared in the New York Times on the eviction of Baku residents from their homes which quoted Leyla Yunus (see Amanda Erickson, “Middle-Class Families Face Evictions in Azerbaijan”, 10 August 2011).

The United States embassy, the European Union, Amnesty International and many other international organisations condemned the demolition. But, as in the case of the two jailed bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, international pressure seems to have had no effect or even produced a contrary reaction. Milli and Hajizade, who were jailed on clearly fabricated charges, were released in November 2010. The authorities waited several months after a personal appeal by President Obama to set them free.

Azerbaijani official decision-making is a black box. Nowadays, the country combines increased confidence and sophistication with the kind of mindless cruelty visited on the Institute of Peace and Democracy. Those who took the decision to demolish the office must know that this kind of action hurts Azerbaijan’s efforts to build a reputation as a grown-up international actor. But they went ahead and did it anyway.

About the author

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate for the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington. He is the author of The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010). His earlier books include Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (NYU Press, 1999) - with Carlotta Gall; and Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War (NYU Press, 2003)

More On

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate for the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington. He is the author of The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010). His earlier books include Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (NYU Press, 1999) - with Carlotta Gall; and Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War (NYU Press, 2003)

Also by Thomas de Waal in openDemocracy:

"The north Caucasus: politcs or war?" (2 September 2007)

"Musa Shanib in the Caucasus: a political journey" (11 October 2005)

"Abkhazia's dream of freedom" (9 May 2006)

"Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?" (1 September 2006) - with Zeyno Baran

"Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history" (20 October 2006)

"The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (13 May 2008)

"South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (12 August 2008)

"Transdniestria: a family quarrel" (27 November 2008)

"Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)

"Crimes in the Caucasus" (21 May 2010)

"The lightness of history in the Caucasus" (14 November 2010)

"Azerbaijan: speed without system" (29 July 2011)