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Rovshan Ismayilov 8/13/07
Photos by Rena Effendi

Two separate worlds uneasily coexist within Azerbaijan. One is Baku, the country’s oil boom capital, a metropolis increasingly slick with skyscrapers, ritzy clubs and high-end boutiques. But travel not too far outside this city of 2.9 million, and the picture suddenly changes.

Azerbaijan’s regions -- especially in rural areas � are trapped by the twin troubles of unemployment and underdeveloped transportation. Monthly salaries here (about $120-$150) are less than half what they average in Baku, according to official statistics. Driving a private taxi is one of the most common jobs for local males.

An irregular rate of economic development drives the disparity. Jobs for qualified specialists may be hard to come by in Baku, but opportunities for ordinary workers in construction, restaurants and retail abound. While official data does not exist, young people are increasingly coming to Baku for university, and then staying in the capital for work afterwards.

"As a result, we have an abnormal economic misbalance when up to 90 percent of the country’s GDP is being produced by Baku, while the rest of the country produces about ten percent," commented Rasim Huseynov, a Baku-based independent economic expert.

The growing economic gap can be seen most vividly in lifestyle differences. Baku is packed with bars, nightclubs and discothèques, bowling clubs and entertainment centers attended equally by men and women. By contrast, not a single nightclub or discotheque exists outside of Azerbaijan’s capital.

"It is boring to live in the village," complained 17-year-old Mobil Mammadov, a resident of the village of Asrik near the Armenian border. "There’s no Internet, newspapers are not delivered. We can only watch the state television channel, which is not interesting at all." Entertainment for young people in Mammadov’s village amounts to "Futprognoz," a take-off on the computerized betting system Totalizator, which can be accessed in towns throughout the South Caucasus.

Mammadov’s dream is for an Internet café to come to his village � the closest one is 25 kilometers away in the regional center of Tovuz. "I heard about the Internet from friends who use it in Baku," he said. "It seems exciting."

A whopping 77 percent of Azerbaijan’s estimated 700,000-800,000 Internet users live in Baku, with only six percent living outside of major regional cities, according to Osman Gunduz, head of the Internet Forum of Azerbaijan. The government has launched a program to diversify computer access by providing what Communications Minister Ali Abbasov terms "preferential prices" for the machines, but its impact on the regions is not yet known.

Economic expert Huseynov, however, cautions that focusing on the obvious disparities between town and country in Azerbaijan can distort the picture.

"It is wrong to allege that the oil boom did not touch the provinces at all," he said. " The economy is growing throughout the country, major infrastructure in regions is improved, new industrial facilities, and hotels are being opened there, tourism is developing."

The State Program on Social and Economic Development of Regions, introduced in 2004, aims to address these imbalances by promoting the economy’s non-oil-dependent sectors. Huseynov and other experts see the program’s main value as introducing competition between local government heads.

The Program’s 2006 report states that 80 percent of the 174,000 new jobs created in Azerbaijan last year were located outside of Baku. At the same time, state spending is building new roads, factories, schools, hospitals, and making some improvements with utilities.

But outside of large regional cities, that situation deteriorates. Agriculture, the economic mainstay for Azerbaijan’s regions, has a relatively bleak outlook, one expert argues. Importing food is now cheaper than growing it domestically, said Inglab Ahmadov, director of the Public Finance Monitoring Center. "Paradoxically, our farmers are getting poorer while prices in the agriculture market are growing," Ahmadov elaborated. "The cost of products increases with their transportation to market and at the market itself."

That situation contributes to a high rate of unemployment for women living in the regions. "Women have no jobs in the provinces, so they have to sit at home," commented Saida Hojamanly, chairwoman of the Bureau of Human Rights Protection, a Baku-based non-governmental organization. "There are no places except with family and children where women can apply themselves."

As a result, outlets are few, she continued. "Even in relatively big regional cities like Mingachevir or Guba there are not a lot of women walking on the streets, not to mention sitting in cafes or restaurants. Everything in the regions is designed for men � sport facilities, cafes, restaurants, chaykhanas (tea houses)."

While Azerbaijani legislation on gender may meet international standards, the reality falls short in the regions, added Mehriban Zeynalova, head of Temiz Dunya (Clean World), a support group for women. "The passivity of the local executive authorities and municipal governments too is a big problem," she said.

A similar misbalance mars the overall human rights situation in the provinces, say activists. "The offices of all International organizations as well as the lion’s share of local human rights NGOs are located in Baku, so they operate more in the capital," commented Hajimurad Sadaddinov, president of the Baku-based Azerbaijani Foundation on Democracy Development and Human Rights. "People’s rights in the regions are being violated more often and crudely."

Will these two "countries" ever become one? For now, economic expert Huseynov is skeptical. As long as the energy money continues to flow, he said, "Baku will remain the center of the country in all senses."

Editor�s Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku. Rena Effendi is a freelance photojournalist also based in Baku.

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