My parents are risk-averse people. Born and educated in Soviet Azerbaijan, they know little about what capitalism is and how the system works. Yet in 2007, they resolved to make a big jump and invest all the family’s savings to buy a new apartment. Their decision was driven by trust as the apartment they were eyeing was in the building that friends of ours owned. After months of nervousness, they signed the contract in August 2007.
Life went back to normal once the deal was closed, and soon we got used to the idea we owned a whole new property. We trusted the developers and that was it. It was an investment: we kept on living in our flat and had no immediate plans to rent it out, so we did not refurbish it and did visit it much. One of those rare, random visits though, in 2010, the concierge did not allow us into the building, claiming that our name was not on the list of homeowners. What sounded like a good decision morphed into a nightmare - the friends turned to be scammers who sold the flat not only to my parents. Our family was dragged through years of long and painful fighting in court in order to get out rights be finally restored in August 2015.
In the process, we discovered that our case is just one of hundreds.
On a cold November day in 2015, I walked up the stairs of that very building and found that some people had dumped all their belongings right on the landing at the tenth floor– a piano, a fancy wood cupboard with glass and crystal cups, chairs, tables, boxes full of small items and a coach with stacked up blankets. I would have thought that someone was moving in if everything would not have been covered with a thick layer of dust. The next minute I freaked out - the blankets started moving. Someone has been sleeping on the sofa. It was disturbing. I instinctively ran away as fast as I could.
Under the blankets, I then discovered, was Niyazi Salmanov, 62, a former musician at the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, a man who had performed in front of the most influential politicians of the USSR and independent Azerbaijan before getting a heart attack and retiring as a military veteran. Niyazi, his wife, Farida, 53, also a pianist, and their two sons, had been forced out of their apartment on the tenth floor and had nowhere to go. The vestibule was the only shelter they found.
In the mid-2000s Azerbaijan went through a period of dizzying economic expansion, mainly fueled by high oil prices and oil-related services. Baku, drunk on oil, was gripped by a construction boom which turned the capital into a giant building site. The frenzy brought happiness and wealth to developers, but hit many ordinary citizens hard .
One of the major problems of the boom has beneath lack of a vision and master plan for the city’s fastly changing face. Decisions about demolishing old buildings or erecting skyscrapers can be made in a day without following a thought-through plan - factors such as Baku’s earthquake-prone location, the distance between high-rises, the availability of parking spaces and roads, the capacity of sewerage lines, or fair compensation paid to those evicted who are often overlooked.
The same applies to the legal process to obtain construction permits - with over 300 different documents required to register a new building at the State Real Estate Agency- procedures are systematically violated. Legal loopholes, bureaucratic barriers, the lack of transparency and information, and an irresponsible approach of the construction companies mean that often these documents either do not exist or are incorrect.
As a result, high-rises have mushroomed. So did fraudulent practices with disastrous effects on many people’s lives. While the apartments are sold and the buyers settle in, it often happens that the building cannot be officially registered and the residents cannot be provided with official purchase documents proving their rights on the property. Selling one apartment to more than one buyer is the hoax which spread more easily as construction companies are the only entities in charge of the sale process when the building is not officially registered.
Zohrab Ismayil, a prominent Azeri economist , says that the majority of apartment blocks do not belong to private developers but are built based on a “housing cooperative,” an agreement between the building company and the buyers.
No official comments were available from the Architecture and Urban Planning Department under the Baku City Hall’s Executive Power, however three employees I approached talked to me, albeit reluctantly and not in person.
One official stated that such problems are “massive” in Baku, but added that the department is addressing the issue without elaborating how or why there are no apparent results from this approach. Another interviewee told me that resolving the problem with unregistered constructions would benefit the government as it’d provide a significant influx of cash from property taxes. A third interviewee refused to comment on the topic altogether, noting that body in his place would do the same.
"Thus, those who buy the apartments in newer buildings, simply pay to the cooperative housing construction. The builders do it for tax evasion, the government knows it and facilitates it,” states the Baku-born lawyer who recently moved to Tbilisi. “In such a case, the building company has the ability to fraud the contract owners and sell one apartment to several people. In other countries, those who buy the apartment in a newly constructed building have the ownership of a property and register it in the state registry, so such problems do not arise. This issue is more prevalent in Baku because of the construction boom, but the regions face the same situation.”
The European Court for Human Rights has expressed concern about the property rights in Azerbaijan, pointing specifically at the “the lack of transparency in the process, the absence of a legal basis in national law and the violation of 5 provisions of existing national laws on expropriation.” The 2016 International Property Rights Index pushed Azerbaijan down in its evaluation of property rights across the world, ranking it 103 out of the 129 country analysed.
In Baku, all buildings are unofficially divided into “old” and “new”, with the former referring to Soviet-like apartment blocks - commonly known as krushovska or stalinka - and the latter to constructions from the early 2000s, called novostroykas or newly built. According to Baku’s Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, only one third of the capital’s novostroykas are officially registered and their buyers can be issued a proof of purchase. The extent of such frauds is so extensive that in 2015 it featured in the comedy film Oğlan evi: Azərbaycansayağı qarət (The groom’s house: Azerbaijani style robbery) by Ilham Qasimov.
In order for their property rights be respected or their money be retrieved, thousands of savers, like my parents, ended up tangled in turbulent juridical procedures that last years.
"In general, there is a legislative gap regarding to private property registration, real estate acquisition, and the construction permit. Additionally, there are bureaucratic barriers and corruption. As a result, the land occupation, illegal construction and lack of property registration have become widespread,” maintains Ismayil.
In August 2013, the Salmanovs sold their old apartment and moved into a new, more spacious one they’d purchased. Two years later, they received a visit from the executive officers of the Ministry of Justice who claimed that the flat was in fact owned by someone else and gave them ten days to leave. When the Salmanovs showed their purchase paperwork, the officials apologized for the misunderstanding and left. Thus, the family ignored the following warnings about vacating the apartment. Yet, a following visit from the same authorities left them outside the flat’s door with all their possessions.
“Over the summer it was not too difficult to live in the vestibule, we were hoping that the problem could be solved soon, before it got cold,” says Niyazi Salmanov. It was not solved. After six months spent camping in front of the flat they had bought, they had to move and rented a flat in the same building.
“Don’t take off your shoes when you come in. I don’t clean here,” told me Farida Salmanova when I walked into the rented property.
Their readiness to leave that place as soon as possible was evident and most of their belongings were packed in boxes, wrapped and laid on the floor. The most organized things were the two big paper folders with all the records related to the apartment and the court decisions - for every step of their saga, Farida knew exactly where to find the right paper.
It looked straightforward. The second buyer was provided easy-to-proof bogus documents with the outdated stamp of the Housing Construction Committee (HCC)that owns the building, the wrong last name and signature of the Chair of the Committee, as well as many other mismatches. Yet, the new owners presented the fake documents to get hold of the flat to Baku’s Yasamal District Court and won. The Salmanovs were evicted. The family then collected copies of the same false documents and won the appeal which annulled the decision of the district court. The second owner went straight to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan which sent the case back to the Court of Appeal that in turns annulled its own previous decision. After four judicial steps the Salmanovs were stripped of their ownership rights, but their fight is still not over as they will appeal to the Supreme Court again.
My parents were luckier. We detected the problem early, went straight to the court and managed to claim the flat back. Some people got their money back while others were left with nothing as by the time they realized the fraud the developers were broke and could not pay back the buyers.
When we were finally granted the right to enter our apartment, it was shocking. The flat, which we had left with nothing but bare concrete, was now fully renovated - wallpaper all over the walls, shiny chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, parquet floors, and a new bathroom and doors.
As of today we still don’t know who worked so much on it and lived in it. Probably these people are also fighting for their violated property rights right now.