Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Atop Azerbaijan's Oil Boom: Mr. Aliyev ; the Country's President Is Overseeing an Uprecedented Influx of Wealth in One of the World's Most Corrupt Countries

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Atop Azerbaijan's Oil Boom: Mr. Aliyev ; the Country's President Is Overseeing an Uprecedented Influx of Wealth in One of the World's Most Corrupt Countries

Article excerpt

British Petroleum's gleaming, ultramodern Sangachal oil terminal is the face of Azerbaijan that President Ilham Aliyev wants the world to see.

Surrounded by a jumble of derelict Soviet-era oil rigs, the sprawling $350 million facility is an oasis of computerized efficiency. Soon, it will be pumping up to 1 million barrels of Caspian crude daily to thirsty Western markets through the new Baku- Ceyhan pipeline.

Thanks to the gusher of profits as Azerbaijan's new oil and gas fields come onstream, this Caucasus country of 8 million has rocketed in just three years from near-stagnation to become the world's hottest economy. GDP growth will be a dazzling 32 percent this year, according to Economics Minister Heydar Babayev.

"We need to use this unique opportunity to solve our social and economic problems," says Aliyev, speaking to a group of visiting journalists in his office. "We aim to build a strong, independent, economically self-sufficient, politically free state."

But the Moscow-educated, multilingual president has his work cut out for him: Azerbaijan is rated one of the world's most corrupt countries, and critics have voiced concern that the government is ill-prepared to preside over such a massive influx of wealth. But Aliyev, who's seen his state budget quadruple since 2004, insists the expected $150 billion in oil revenues over the next two decades will be put to good use, slashing poverty and unemployment, rebuilding Azerbaijan's crumbling infrastructure, and creating a sustainable, diversified economy.

Aliyev was parachuted into the presidency after the 2003 death of his father, Azerbaijan's longtime strongman Gaydar Aliyev, in polls that few international observers ratified as free or fair. Many experts doubted the former Soviet Union's first political dynasty would last. But the junior Aliyev appears to have successfully held his father's fractious administration together, maintained the friendship of both Russia and the West - while presiding over an exploding oil boom. Last spring, he was invited to the White House for a visit.

The view of Baku from Aliyev's desk is a forest of construction cranes and choking traffic jams, with giant oil platforms hulking on the distant Caspian horizon. But beyond the bustling capital is another face of Azerbaijan: impoverished villagers living in shacks with no indoor plumbing, sporadic gas and electricity supplies, and connected to the world by deeply rutted dirt roads.

"Azerbaijan has so much oil and gas, but people can't even get light on a regular basis," says Kamran, a worker from the northern town of Quba, who asked that his last name not be used. He adds that people have little chance to address their grievances through political action. "There will never be an uprising here because people are too afraid. …

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