Mirshahin Agayev, the news anchor for Azerbaijan's ANS television, wondered during a recent broadcast about the potential repercussions of a landslide in Baku. "A crack in the ground or a crack in the government?" he asked. The question was not entirely rhetorical. The city government's response to a January 5 landslide in the Azerbaijani capital has touched off a storm of criticism that could have far-reaching political implications.
Reasons for the slide remain in dispute, but one factor overshadows the discussion: scores of new high-rises that have transformed the Baku skyline since the late 1990s. "They are building so many new buildings. Some of them are taller than 16 stories," said pediatrician Shafiga Masimova. "It is unacceptable for Baku, because it is a seismic zone with very shaky soil. That is why all these landslides happen."
The accident occurred near Baku's Naiman Narimanov monument, not far from the president's office and related government buildings. Surrounding roads were blocked and nearby apartment buildings evacuated. Officials said the cause of the slide was poor drainage in the area, as several buildings were reportedly not connected to the municipal sewage system.
Yet many Baku residents blame Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov instead. Last April, a flood of construction permits out of Abutalibov's office prompted the parliamentary newspaper Azerbaijan to beg the mayor to stop "the destruction of Baku's landscape." Two weeks before the landslide, the independent daily Zerkalo published an article that criticized Baku's construction boom with the headline; "The city that will cease to exist." [For additional information see the related EurasiaNet photo story].
Azerbaijan's opposition, weakened by the crackdown that followed President Ilham Aliyev's October 2003 election, has seized on the slide as a golden opportunity to score political points. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On January 7, two days after the accident, the opposition daily Azadlig published a story that blamed the landslide on the so-called "construction mafia" that is widely believed to have close ties to city authorities.
Independent media has also entered the fray. According to Rafael Allahverdiyev, a former Baku mayor currently in exile, corruption feeds the high-rise boom. "One can understand Abutalibov. Giving land in the center of the town for the construction of high-rises is his major source of income," Allahverdiyev alleged in comments published by the independent daily Echo. Allahverdiyev's allegation could not be independently verified. Abutalibov has denied the corruption charge.
The slide also caused political damage to President Aliyev, who faced criticism over his conduct during and after the incident. The president was reportedly on vacation at an unnamed site outside of the country at the time of the slide, and was perceived to lag in his response to the incident.
The January landslide is not an isolated occurrence in Baku. In March 2000, a major landslide in the city's Bayil area destroyed dozens of shops, apartments and gas stations. It was followed eight months later by an earthquake, the most powerful in 150 years, that left up to 31 people dead throughout Azerbaijan. Some 177 buildings were evacuated in Baku after the November 25, 2000 quake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale. Much speculation ensued about whether or not the city's newly built high-rises would withstand a second or stronger earthquake.
Experts say that the builders' failure to observe construction norms led to Baku's latest slide. "This territory is considered very complicated from the point of view of engineering and geological conditions," said Taladdin Rzayev, department chief at the State Water Systems Agency. "The construction project is not following standards for laying foundations, or considering natural factors, or studying underground water [systems]."
The building practices of a Turkish company, Intepe Offshore Ltd., which is developing an apartment complex below the slide site, has come under scrutiny as a result of the January 5 incident, according to Firdovsi Aliyev, an expert at the Geology Institute of the Academy of Sciences. At a January 10 press conference, Aliyev stated the slide could have been avoided if builders had first established ground support systems.
A special commission set up by Aliyev to investigate the landslide ordered Intepe -- a company that reputedly had ties to Haidar Aliyev, Ilham's deceased father and predecessor as president -- to obtain permits from 42 governmental agencies and commissions before continuing with its construction project.
Meanwhile, the city has been scrambling to respond. Abutalibov ordered workers to inspect the basements of all Baku's buildings and "dry them well," Baku Today reported on January 11. The mayor officially declared the landslide "eliminated" on January 12, and has taken steps to repair his tattered public image. The day after the landslide, a tree planting ceremony was held near the accident site.
Fariz Ismailzade is a freelance analyst on Caucasus politics and economics. He has received his masters degree from Washington University in St. Louis and is a regular correspondent for various international media outlets.