A smell of oil

Maurice Walsh

Maurice Walsh


At nearly midnight, in the queue for immigration control at the airport in Baku, I’m trying to look over the shoulder of the man in front of me, who is carrying a black American diplomatic passport. As he opens it to prepare for inspection I can see that his profession is ‘geologist’. Why would a geologist need a diplomatic passport? A small airport, a small country, Americans arriving. Intrigue. The immigration hall is preposterously neat. The officials examining passports sit in little yellow painted boxes. A pot-bellied policeman scratching his head wears an enormous hat with a wide shiny peak tilting towards the ceiling. Alongside him a man in a beige shirt with very big green lapels is flicking through a passport with his thumb as if to check that the pages are cut evenly. You are requested to line up underneath signs for ‘Foreign Citizens’ and ‘Diplomatik Persons’. There is no menace here but it reminds me of one of those cod Iron Curtain republics from a plot for ‘Mission Impossible’.

After customs I stop to buy a bottle of water. The shop sells sweets and T-shirts but also tomatoes. The car park where we meet our driver is full of Ladas and Volgas. It’s warm and so I open the window as we speed along a dark highway past partially whitewashed trees. There are some small clouds scudding overhead and many stars. Sometimes we pass people in ones and twos idling outside a flower-shop doorway that lights up the gloom. Every few hundred yards there’s a glimpse of the bare concrete porch of a house illuminated by an electric light. The voice on the car radio is singing ‘It’s alright, baby it’s alright.’ I give up counting after ten petrol stations. There is a smell of oil folded in the balmy breeze.


Azerbaijan is a resuscitated nation that had been petrified in the vault of the Soviet Union. The majority of its population is Muslim and it has deep historical ties to Turkey. Its dispute with its Christian neighbour Armenia in 1988 was an early indication of how the USSR would break apart. Emboldened by Gorbachev’s reforms, the Armenian communists in the Azeri region of Nagorny Karabakh demanded the right to leave Azerbaijan and join Armenia. They could count on some support from Moscow. There was violence in towns and villages: Azeris drove out Armenians and vice versa. In January 1990 there was a vicious pogrom against Armenians in Baku. A year later Gorbachev sent in the tanks to try to crush Azeri independence. But the coup against him in August of that year was the signal that the Soviet Union was at an end. Azerbaijan declared independence, but the war against Armenia continued, and while the army was losing ground in Karabakh the streets of Baku were lawless and violent. The former Communist Party leader, Haidar Aliyev, emerged from retirement to take power and restore order. By the time a truce was declared in the war in 1994, Armenia had occupied 14 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory. Three quarters of a million refugees had fled from Armenia or Karabakh, many of them to live in destitution around Baku. But by then Aliyev had rediscovered Caspian oil and promised it would eventually make everyone rich.

We meet Anna our fixer and talk in a little breakfast room with pale green tablecloths and an upright piano, to the sound of the high-pitched whirring of a drill from the other side of the narrow street. Anna feels personally aggrieved by the confusion caused by the disappearance of communism. She remembers that when she was four and a half she went to Moscow with her grandmother to visit Lenin’s tomb. She had worked hard and happily at school with Lenin’s photo staring down at her. And then they told the children that Lenin had killed people. Anna is in her early thirties and I am surprised by her nostalgia. She seems undone by the violence of the last decade; she shudders when she recalls waking up to see the Soviet tanks arriving in 1991. She explains that to be popular now in Azerbaijan you have to be western. People come back from America speaking English. Once everything was interpreted through Russian language and culture; the new lingua franca is American. She accepts President Aliyev’s authoritarianism because she likes the stability, but she worries what might happen when the old man dies (he has been very ill for months after collapsing while delivering a speech and seems to spend more time in Turkish and American hospitals than in Baku). ‘Of course we don’t have human rights. We’re not ready for them. If you had human rights you would have inertia.’ (She means, I think, anarchy.)

We walk in the city on Saturday afternoon. It’s warm and sunny, a feeling of high summer. Just beyond the walls of the ancient city, at the edge of a park full of noisy sparrows, is a wide pedestrian street full of new shops; half of them appear to be offering mobile phones. As Anna said, every little sign seems intended to announce that Azerbaijan is part of the West. This street leads down towards the sea. Families are strolling along the promenade by the placid shore of the Caspian. Every now and then someone appears in a Mickey Mouse suit offering a companionable photograph. Beyond the promenade is a wide, busy avenue overlooked by fifteen-storey hotels built in the sixties and seventies. The avenue extends to a square where marching bands would once have pounded the tarmac. The square is so vast, the sun so strong, that you feel your morale sap as you cross it, a no man’s land fit for history-making crowds, a vast empty plain exposed to the sun and the traffic. The streets behind the square, with their little trees and bumpy pavements from which you step down into small shops or cafés, restore a sense of intimacy. In this part of town, at least, the city wears an expression of modest gaiety. A guidebook given to me by the Azerbaijani embassy in London refers to how, entering a traditional restaurant in Baku, ‘you will be taken away to the past’. But the more we walk around, the more it appears that this sinister injunction should apply to the present. In these small streets it’s impossible to avoid bars called Shakespear’s, Chaplin’s, the Caledonia, the Walkabout and O’Malley’s, homes from home for the British and Irish oil workers. You’ll find the consultants and the office types at the piano bar on the seventh floor of the Radisson Hotel.

That night there is a downpour, a brutal cloudburst. In the morning the cars are smeared with mud, dust carried down by the rain.


It’s sunny again as we head out of Baku to find the weekend home of Vafa Gulizade, a foreign-affairs advisor to President Aliyev for most of the nineties. We pass a large plateau with rusting oil derricks, nodding busily in the sun. The scruffy brown grass is stained with oil, viscous liquid brimming out of pools. In the little village on the outskirts of Baku where we search for Gulizade’s house we notice two mosques, one of them, we are told, built in the last few years with Iranian money. Iranian infiltration is a recurring theme of political gossip. A taximan offers to drive ahead of us to Gulizade’s and pulls up in front of a white palace with high walls and electric gates. It turns out that this belongs to Gulizade’s neighbour, a government official who has a floodlit football pitch behind the walls. We step through another, less forbidding wall to meet Mr Gulizade, a spry, mischievous-looking man in a windcheater with close-cropped grey hair. He greets us warmly and remarks on how unusual the downpour was the previous night. ‘The rain was yellow,’ he says.

We sit and talk on the veranda, by a narrow swimming pool. (He tells us he bought the house with the proceeds of some consultancy work for an oil company.) Soon we’re in the middle of another conversation about Soviet ritual. At Stalin’s funeral when he was a teenager, Vafa wiped spittle under his eyes in a pretence of grief. After university he became a diplomat (he keeps referring to the Soviet diplomatic ‘corpse’). He was in Cairo during the Arab–Israeli war in 1973 mediating between President Sadat and the Soviets. He laughs: ‘a little Azeri guy’ caught up in world history. For the past ten years his aim has been to keep Azerbaijan out of reach of the Russians. They would come and take over again if they could, he says more than once. His aim was to make Azerbaijan indispensable to the Americans, and the biggest card he had to play was the oil under the Caspian. If the Americans became interested in Azerbaijan they would see off the Russians. (He tells us a story of sitting with President Aliyev discussing politics. The president laughed: ‘Do you see: now the Politburo is not in Moscow. It’s in Washington.’) We drink a lot of vodka and Vafa goes into his living room and fries some sturgeon. I fall asleep in the car on the way home.

We have to change hotels for one night because we’ve mistakenly checked ourselves into the wrong one. There are rooms in one of the mighty Soviet hotels by the seafront. The lobby is wide and empty save for an elderly concierge in dark glasses. I am assigned a suite on the top floor. I walk down a musty corridor and open a door at the end. The effect is similar to the sensation of popping the lid on a sealed jar; opening the door disturbs an atmosphere of fetid airlessness. The décor is late seventies or early eighties chic, designed to please some satrap of those days, and the room doesn’t appear to have been painted since. Two damp armchairs are placed by a coffee table in an ante-room where you could be photographed receiving visitors. In the main room above a shiny lacquered table there is an enormous chandelier, but only one of the dozens of light bulbs is working. Every piece of furniture in these rooms is intended to be lavish but is actually rusty and decayed. The best thing about the room is the view out to the sea, but an ugly cable rattles against the balcony in the wind. Cars hiss on the street below as they speed by. I am surprised that there are so many people out in Baku long after midnight on a Sunday. I feel lost and unsettled in these rooms that smell of neglect. I worry about earthquakes, and sleep only fitfully under a thin, gauze-like sheet, the single-bulbed chandelier lit in the other room and the air-conditioning humming uselessly.


In the early part of the twentieth century Azerbaijan was producing half the world’s oil. Foreigners came to Baku to make their fortunes. In his book on the Soviet empire, Ryszard Kapuscinski tells the story of an elegant Pole who joined the oil rush: ‘He hired a droshky and had himself driven around. At a certain moment he took off his top hat and threw it on the ground. He indicated to the astonished driver the place where the hat had fallen. “We are going to drill here,” he said. He was a rich man later.’ Elaborate mansions went up, promiscuously incorporating dozens of architectural styles at once. Especially at night, in the part of the city close to the seafront, this grandeur still suffuses the half-lit streets, often so quiet that the only sound is the soft clackety-clack of footsteps passing beneath balconies covered in twisted vines. The boom ended when Azerbaijan – which salvaged two years of independence from the chaos of the Russian Revolution – was invaded by the Red Army in 1920. Foreign engineers fled Baku. In the years following, the Bolsheviks didn’t have the technology to exploit the deep waters of the Caspian and they concentrated instead on drilling in the oilfields of Siberia.

Seventy years later, when nationalists in Azerbaijan once again took advantage of chaos in Moscow to declare independence, the foreign engineers from the big oil companies dusted off their geological maps and returned to Baku. Now the independence of Azerbaijan is underwritten by the strength of this foreign interest in its oil reserves. When the executives from BP came here in 1992, they were amazed at the old and rickety equipment dredging small spurts of oil from the blackened soil around Baku. This new generation of oilmen were looking away from the land and out into the Caspian; beneath the sea there’s an oil field as big as London that might eventually produce five billion barrels. They set about working out how to ‘deplete the reservoir’.

In 1994 President Aliyev signed a contract with the international oil companies to develop Azerbaijan’s oil reserves. Aliyev called this ‘the deal of the century’. Coincidentally, President Clinton decided that the United States must have a dominant role in what happened to the oil from the Caspian, partly because it would give the United States influence in a region from which it had been excluded for decades and partly because people in Washington became excited about Caspian oil as an alternative supply to that of the volatile Middle East. Western oil companies had won the concession to extract the oil, but the big question was who would control the pipeline that would take the oil to market. Clinton didn’t like relying on existing pipelines which went through Russia, or the other obvious route through Iran to the Black Sea. He favoured the idea of a pipeline that would go west from Baku, through Georgia and Turkey, ending up at the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Laying a pipeline along this thousand-mile route through three different countries is not merely a commercial enterprise: it’s a question of politics. The American government isn’t building the pipeline or paying for it directly, but American diplomats have invested huge amounts of time making sure that the project becomes more attractive commercially – and also persuading BP and the rest of the consortium that it’s good for business to do what the United States government wants done.

We go to the annual oil conference inside a big stadium usually used for ice hockey matches. A tall thin woman from London, whose voice is very posh and who smokes long thin cigarettes, opens the conference as if it were the UN General Assembly. The oil show establishes a hierarchy of influence. The big stands are run by the companies that control the oil business: BP, Exxon. Around them are the stands of those trying to sell things: reciprocating processors, grommets, submersible suits. President Aliyev cannot be here because of his illness but the posh woman sends him the very best wishes of the conference, striking a note of solicitude that is taken up by every other speaker. His son – whom most people expect to take over when his father dies – arrives to do a tour. He appears glum and uninterested as he walks through the displays trailed by the camera crews. But perhaps the most important person here is Stephen Mann, the special ambassador appointed by the United States government whose sole job is to make sure the pipeline goes ahead: he travels incessantly from one country to another making sure that legal or political obstacles to the pipeline are removed. He’s a pleasant, unstuffy character who vaguely resembles the actor Billy Crystal. And he’s the man all the oil executives need to see.

As the oil show gets underway we hear that some opponents of Aliyev have tried to stage an illegal demonstration near the parliament a few miles away. By the time we get there they have been beaten and scattered by the police. Some people on the pavement explain to us what happened. As we are walking along with them a white van drives slowly alongside us. It stops and the door is slid open from the inside. Heavy, stubble-faced men stare across at us. A woman whispers that these are thugs brought from Aliyev’s home village to break up demonstrations.

In the evening the delegates at the oil show attend a cocktail party organized by the American embassy around the pool in the Hyatt Hotel. The Hyatt complex also includes a line of expensive shops, some BP offices and newly built luxury housing for the oil executives. The guests are gathered around the pool as the sun fades slowly.


We arrive at the house of Stanley Escudero. He was the US ambassador to Azerbaijan in the late nineties and after a brief retirement returned to Baku to do business. He is a dapper, quick-minded man who can mix a certain courtliness with plain speaking and an air that he regards himself as a smart operator. We enter his house through the garage. Cans of Foster’s lager are piled up by the wall. There’s a lot of noise upstairs: his wife is hosting a ladies’ party; Stanley is sure we don’t want to get involved in that. Stanley brings us to his study, which, with its enormous desk and the Stars and Stripes on a staff alongside, is almost a replica of an ambassador’s office. Settling into a deep leather sofa while we set up our microphone, he tells us he was employed in undercover work in Iran in the late seventies. When he was sent as an ambassador to the Caucasus, the Iranians complained. ‘They said this man is responsible for the deaths of three hundred Iranians! Well, it wasn’t that many.’

After serving as ambassador in Azerbaijan Stanley had retired back home to the States, but before long he was bored. He was now returned as a ‘consultant’ to companies who were coming to invest in Azerbaijan. He has connections you might need if you want to set up here. His sons own the franchise to import Foster’s – hence the pile of cans in the garage. Stanley believes that President Aliyev is probably the greatest political leader ever produced by the Caucasus. How did Aliyev flip-flop so quickly from Communist apparatchik to such a Western-oriented leader? ‘Damned if I know! But that’s really where the man’s talent and genius lies.’


Finally BP have begun work on the pipeline that the American government have wanted all along. Driving out from Baku we see the brown, forest-less bluff that overlooks the city. There are a few mansions on the top with a commanding view of the sea. The Caspian is green with little waves. On the roadside there are dark-brown rusted barrels and tanks. We pass a lake of rusty, still water with a white foam settled in the middle. Away to the right a train is silently keeping pace with us as it chugs through the white dusty landscape pulled by a bright green engine.

On the roadside there is a big picture of Aliyev. Ahead of us is a smoky orange bus, its engine exposed. Struggling little tankers, lopsided and greasy, pass on their way to Baku. A white seagull tips unsteadily in the wind against the hazy sky. We pass peeling apartment buildings with washing draped on their rusty balconies and a cement factory which seems to draw all the dust into it. This is where the little green engine brings its rusty carriages to a halt. A herd of black and white goats are grazing near a power station. Suddenly out of this arid, windy landscape we reach the BP site, red and white plastic tape snapping in the vicious breeze, marking off the route of the pipeline. The steel pipes (made in Japan, shipped to Malaysia to receive a protective coating, shipped to Turkey and then, finally, to Baku) are placed in a jagged line at slight angles to each other as far as the eye can see, waiting to be laid in the ground. We’re given a talk on safety on the site which includes a warning to watch out for snakes and scorpions. Everybody is wearing yellow or white hard hats and overalls of red or bright orange. As we stand around on the dun-coloured earth with its tufts of weeds stretching for miles under a strong blue sky, I feel part of a composition for the cover photograph of an oil-company brochure.

Postscript: President Aliyev stood for re-election in October, but shortly before polling day he withdrew because of ill health, nominating his son Ilham as his replacement. Ilham Aliyev was declared winner of the election with 80 per cent of the vote. International observers said the election fell well short of international standards, citing evidence of intimidation and ballot-stuffing. Opposition parties refused to recognize the result.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 13 Winter 2003–4