Since the 19th century, Azerbaijan’s wealth has come from oil. Baku, its oil-pumping epicentre, curls around the Caspian Sea and has become a focal point for those following apparent dreams of prosperity, drawing over half the population, five out of nine million people, into the city.
Since the second oil boom of 2005, Azerbaijan’s ever-expanding capital has continued its rapid transformation.
As the sun breaks, the dawn light outlines the city’s newly newbuilt skyline of shiny skyscrapers, hotels, and shopping malls. Traces of old Soviet city planning are dwarfed against mushrooming luxury apartments, commercial centres and renovated cultural sites – a playground for the Bakuvian elite and foreign oil workers alike. It’s impressive and has all the trappings of any modern metropolis.
Remodelled public spaces offer the appearance of prosperous globalisation. But despite the glitz, the country is deeply unequal and behind the billboards and sandstone walls many struggle to get by.
I arrived in Baku in December 2013 and have witnessed the steady demarcation of the city. Colossal four-meter high sandstone-coloured walls run the length of every major highway in and out of the city. The central boulevards and avenues are lined with lavish Parisian-style buildings punctuated with contemporary glass skyscrapers that puncture the skyline.
The city’s soviet past and its poorer residents are hidden behind facades as buildings are covered in new cladding and large stretches of the city disappear behind low-grade photographic billboards and high fences.
The city’s transformation and role as host to high-profile events also transformed the city. Such as the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, one of the most expensive in history, and the 2015 European Games which saw the demolition of entire neighbourhoods across the city to make way for roads, sporting arenas, and luxury apartments.
The games’ main events were held in the newly constructed Baku Olympic Stadium, the biggest stadium in the country.