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Azerbaijan: Building Collapse Exposes "Chaos" in Baku's Urban Planning

Some 20 construction workers, all from outside Baku, were killed on August 28 when the nearly completed building on Mukhtarov Street in the capital's Yasamal neighborhood, one of hundreds of structures erected amid a seven-year building boom, suddenly imploded, sending tons of debris crashing to the ground. The Ministry of Emergency Situations has attributed the cause of the collapse to uneven foundations and low-quality construction work.

The director and three managers of Mutefekkir Company, the firm responsible for the building, are now under arrest. On September 5, the head of the Baku city government department for apartments and cooperative buildings, which oversees such construction projects, was also taken into custody on abuse-of-power charges.

The tragedy has intensified a longstanding debate about the government's ability to uphold construction safety standards - a critical question in this earthquake-prone city. Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov, who heads a government commission looking into the building's collapse, told reporters on August 31 that Mutefekkir Company had permits only for the building's design, not its construction. A day earlier, Baku City Prosecutor Aziz Seidov revealed that the building's foundation had been designed to support only nine stories. In addition, approval for the final design plan was never given.

Nonetheless, construction on the building has been underway since 2002 - a fact that is fueling public anger. A court order that year banning work on the site was later overturned by a Baku appeals court.

"You need authorization from up to 40 government bodies to begin the construction of a building in Baku. If you start construction of a garage in your courtyard without proper permission, it will be destroyed by bulldozers the next morning. How is it possible to build a 16-storey building in the city center without authorization?" commented Rauf Mirkadirov, a political columnist for the pro-opposition Zerkalo daily.

Like many other observers, Mirkadirov believes the tragedy is linked to widespread corruption in Azerbaijan. "Either the company owners paid big bribes during all these years to not be touched, or the company was backed by very high-ranking officials. There are no other ways possible," Mirkadirov said.

Government officials and pro-government politicians are more cautious. General Prosecutor Zahid Garalov told reporters on September 1 that his office "is conducting a detailed investigation of the tragedy's causes," adding that "[i]t is too early to make conclusions." Those responsible for the event "will be punished," he insisted.

While professing to be baffled by the project's permit-free status, Aydin Mirzazade, an MP affiliated with the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party, also was quick to call for justice. "I believe all those who are guilty have to be punished regardless of their positions or influence."

Some construction experts, however, are calling for more -- the resignation of Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov. Terming the tragedy Abutalibov's "personal responsibility," Emil Akhundov, the former head of Baku's main construction department, told EurasiaNet that "chaos" exists in the city's urban planning. Companies, he alleged, do not follow construction specifications, use sub-standard materials as substitutes for those in short supply and hire untrained laborers for jobs that demand a high level of building skills. "There is no other way, but to stop all residential building in Azerbaijan until order [is] restored in this sector," he said.

Neither the city nor national government has yet responded to the criticism of Baku's urban planning process. Authorities, however, have announced since the building collapse that an additional 74 new buildings erected in Baku have been inhabited "without the proper authorization." Eight buildings under construction (seven in Baku, one in Ganja) in Azerbaijan have entirely or partially collapsed since the start of the year, killing 40 people.

Meanwhile, even as it urges caution in drawing conclusions, the government has taken steps to show that it is responding. On August 31 a presidential decree was issued that gives additional authority to the Ministry of Emergency Situations to intervene in construction projects - a move designed to assure quality standards. The decree also confirms the Ministry of Labor's responsibility for ensuring construction workers' rights and workplace safety.

Compensation is also planned. On September 5, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to allocate 10,000 manats (about $11,700) to the families of workers killed in the incident. Families of injured workers will receive 3,000 manats (about $3,500).

Whether such measures will allay popular concerns remains to be seen. Ilgar Mammadov, an independent Baku-based political analyst, believes that the catastrophe is symptomatic of a broad failure of governance in Azerbaijan. To support his argument he pointed to a court decision that allowed construction to continue, despite an attempt at intervention by officials. "A representative of the Labor Ministry said [the ministry] wanted to check the existence of labor contracts ... but they were not allowed to do it. It means that the construction mafia in Azerbaijan is more powerful than executive authorities."

Meanwhile, opposition politicians are calling for the resignation of the Emergency Situations Minister Kamaleddin Heydarov, a longtime political target. Heydarov had earlier promised that his ministry, which exercises control over the quality and safety of all building construction, would keep a tighter watch on new buildings. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The relatives of workers who died in the crash have also expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of the ministry's recovery operations. At an August 31 protest in Baku, villagers from Archivan in the southern Astara region, home to most of the killed workers, demanded that they be allowed themselves to join the recovery effort. Five bodies are still believed to be lying under the rubble.

Orudjali Hajiyev, the deputy minister of emergency situations, has rejected the relatives' criticism, saying that rescue team members were working with heavy machinery, and had to proceed carefully. Work at the site will be finished within a few days, he told APA news agency on September 5. "We are doing our best," he said.

With over 1,200 new buildings approved for construction since January 2007, the chances of another tragic collapse would appear to be high. Ali Kerimli, who heads the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, sarcastically noted that "the construction sector has turned into a second battlefield for the Azerbaijani people."

Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

Azerbaijan: Building Collapse Exposes "Chaos" in Baku's Urban Planning

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