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A rug shop in Baku's "old city."
 

The temporary U.S. Embassy in Baku.
Note the American flag and the antique Azerbaijan carpet.
 

An "at home" depot in Sheki offered a chance to search for treasure
 
 

On the Road to Azerbaijan:
Paranoia and price gouging in the post Soviet era
by Saul Yale Barodofsky
Oriental Rug Review , 1992, Vol.13/1


July 1992

I arrived at Baku airport on a direct flight from Istanbul. If you don't want to fly Aeroflot, Turkish Air flies from Istanbul to Baku, continuing on to Tashkent and Alma Ata. It was nice to bypass Moscow, not to mention less expensive.

We were met by Çemal Palamatsu's mother-in-law, Sereah Ismaelelova, who administers all of the country's museums (a wonderful contact!), and taken to our hotel, the New Intourist, now renamed the Azerbaijan Hotel. This dump was built in 1978 and is in serious need of repairs. The telephone service is virtually non-existent, the marble flooring is broken, and there is no hot water. The meals are adequate, provided you don't mind the same food every meal, and the "key ladies" will bring you tea upon request. Like most women working in Azerbaijan, the tea ladies are Russian; "good Azerbaijani girls don't work." The tea situation improved remarkably when on delivery I started tipping 100 rubles (about 50 cents). However, it was wonderful to sit on the balcony with a hot cup of tea (no milk or sugar -- sorry!) and watch the city and the Caspian sea. Periodically, a military helicopter would buzz the hotel, just to remind you that there is fighting in the Karabagh region. There was also a drunk soldier who harangued the crowd at the hotel's disco -- cute place -- for enjoying themselves while he and his brothers were fighting to protect the country.

The old Intourist Hotel is presently the "best" hotel in Baku; it also houses both the U.S. Embassy and residence. When I visited, I was made aware of the American presence by an American flag flying over a second floor balcony whose rail bore an antique Azerbaijan carpet drying in the afternoon sun (Phillip Remler's room). A Turkish company had totally redone their telephone system, and it works. By next year, the old Moscow Hotel will be reopened as the Ankara Hotel, owned and operated, naturally, by a Turkish company. The locals claimed that it will be the biggest and best in Baku.

The kingdom of Azerbaijan was conquered by the Russians 165 years ago, and they've been there ever since. Everyone speaks Russian, and the Azerbaijan written script is a form of Cyrillic. There are seven million people in the country, two million of them in Baku alone. Although Iran's population includes 18 million Azerbaijanis, the many people I spoke to felt very close ties to Turkey rather than Iran. Turkey does seem to be winning the war of influence over the Turkic peoples with their satellite broadcasting of Turkish language, history, culture, and Islamic religion. I actually saw Azerbaijani people at home watching Turkish television programming.

In Azerbaijan the flag is new, as are the markings on aircraft and uniforms. But the Russian ruble is still used as currency; they are talking about changing it but it hasn't happened yet. Everyone is very happy to accept dollars. Most rug prices were quoted in dollars. I was very generous with my rubles and probably used less than $30 worth in nine days. Official exchange is $1 = 150 rubles, or 200 rubles in the market.

Life is very difficult there for most people. The average salary ranges from 700 to 1000 rubles per month ($3.50 to $5). In the old days, that was more than adequate as rent is only 8 rubles per month, and that includes electricity, natural gas, water, and basic telephone service. However, today's food prices (as just one example) are very high. Although bread is still subsidized, most other food is not. Caviar is cheap and plentiful; $10 will buy you a kilo of Beluga, however it is third quality and not at all tasty. Too bad! But I saw candy bars selling for 80 rubles; people were just standing and staring at them.

There is no shortage of food, toilet paper, tea, tobacco, etc., but western electronics are rare. In one home I was proudly shown a brand, new computer, made in Bulgaria, still in the box. I saw a souvenir tee shirt emblazoned with the word BAKU; it was made in the U.S.A. Gasoline is cheap and readily available. There are lots of automobiles, mostly Ladas. The largest market I saw on the entire trip was the used car market (free market) outside Baku. There must have been more than 5,000 autos for sale, including one Mercedes and one Toyota Land Cruiser.

Azerbaijan claims to have oil and natural gas reserves greater than Kuwait. AMACO is there helping to modernize the production facilities, which are ancient. Supposedly, this is the source of the Rockefeller fortune, pre-Russian revolution and never retooled. I did see a number of foreign oil people and spoke to an Azerbaijani who works with AMACO. His comment was that Russia gave them nothing, while AMACO will give them 85% of oil production. Sounds like a good deal. I did a carpet appraisal for the head of all Azerbaijan petroleum and petroleum products for domestic consumption. He claimed that when their export production is in full swing, the average citizen will have the highest standard of living in the world. Many people on the street echoed this hopeful sentiment. Through a Jewish friend from Bukhara, I was introduced to the Jewish carpet dealers of Baku. The following figures are theirs: There are more than 200,000 Jews in Azerbaijan. They have been there for more than 2,000 years. Although most live in cities, many small mountain villages remain. There are regular flights to Tel Aviv, and many Jews have already left for Israel. Two active synagogues are open. The Jews claim that they were never closed, that Azerbaijan has always been a welcome home for them, and that they have always been treated like Azerbaijanis. They further stated that this was not true in the rest of Russia, or even in the Caucasus, and that very few Jews live in Georgia and Armenia because of local anti-semitism. But none exists in Azerbaijan. Interesting...

  
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