By Ulf Mauder -
A BITING wind blows from the Caspian Sea across Azerbaijan's latest pride, the glittering German-built Crystal Hall, the venue for the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest.
President Ilham Aliyev sees his land as cosmopolitan and facing the West. The Eurovision contest and Baku's rocketing skyline, the city's residents and brand-name shops are all seen by his regime as emblems for a modern Azerbaijan: open for business, similar to Europe and well on track to converting its energy riches into sustainable economic growth.
But average Azerbaijanis face growing frustration with life in their country, which borders Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and Iran. Wealth here is plenty, but only a few benefit. Those that complain can be punished, some say.
"If you're different, or you think differently, and you can't cut a deal with a regime, then they'll treat you like a crazy animal," said musician Jamal Ali. The 24-year-old said he was arrested in March and jailed for 10 days, and beaten twice, because he cursed the Aliyev family during a performance.
Like many members of Azerbaijan's urban youth, Ali wants out. More than 30 of his friends have gone to live abroad. The state-controlled television acts a propaganda organ for the regime and "there is no way to stop it," he said.
Azerbaijan's opposition Popular Front, and Musawat parties, have repeatedly accused the government of detaining dissidents, restricting freedom of speech and assembly and not just condoning but actively engaging in violence against journalists. But above all the government's expropriation of families from their homes, usually for grandiose construction projects in the capital, has angered many.
In order to make room for the new splendour, since 2009 some 4,000 buildings have been demolished, according to independent experts. Numerous architectural monuments have fallen victim to the building boom. Only a few buildings in Old Baku — since 2000 a Unesco World Heritage Site — are safe from the state's development plans.
The road out the Azerbaijani capital, however, soon leaves the construction sites behind, leading past box-shaped, Soviet-era housing blocks.
Quba’s Muslim quarter, on the far side of the Kudial-Khai River, is a world apart. Here there are no rich benefactors. The last big employer here were Soviet-era collective farms. Now there is unemployment.