With the kind permission of the authors, Bright Green is publishing two excerpts from “The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London”, a travelogue written by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello of Platform and published by Verso this month.
In a unique journey from the oil fields of the Caspian to the refineries and financial centres of Northern Europe, Platform tracks the concealed routes along which the lifeblood of our economy is pumped. The stupendous wealth of Azerbaijani crude has long inspired dreams of a world remade. From the revolutionary Futurism of Baku in the 1920s to the unblinking Capitalism of modern London, the drive to control oil reserves – and hence people and events – has shattered environments and shaped societies.
The first excerpt published here explores how BP’s stifles dissent in Azerbaijan and along its Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, while the second tracks a BP tanker across the Mediterranean from Turkey to Italy, to examine the company’s claims to deal with climate change.
The Oil Road, written by James Marriott & Mika Minio-Paluello, can be ordered from Platform’s webshop for £10.
MATBUAT AVENUE, BAKU, AZERBAIJAN
Walking in Baku is challenging. The construction boom means that buildings, roads and overpasses have sprung up everywhere, and street maps have not kept pace. Sometimes road names have changed only on our map, elsewhere only on the street sign.
Heading to a meeting with Zardusht Alizade, we are confronted with an urban military base straddling the route we had planned to take. The road is where the map says it should be, but lying across it is a metal barrier: the road then runs past a guard post and in between rows of parked tanks. Civilians are nowhere in sight – only officers in pristine uniforms chatting as they stroll by. We are nervous that we have already put ourselves at risk by talking to government critics. Walking through a military base is probably not the smartest plan.
But we are late, having already got lost once, and we do not want to keep Zardusht waiting. So we take a deep breath and plunge on, studiously ignoring the sentry guarding the barrier. Once through it, it dawns on us that this is a military training college. The security, at least for two lost foreigners, is comparatively lax.
On this quiet, dusty Baku street, flanked by large trees blooming with plastic bags snagged on their branches, stands the building we are heading for. Finding the way in is less easy. Two entrances give onto a car workshop and a general store respectively. Finally, we discover a third door down a side alley, with a handwritten sign in English announcing that a committee meeting has been moved. This bodes well.
Inside lies Baku’s only independent journalism school. Zardusht welcomes us into his little corner office. Tight and compact, the room barely accommodates its two paper-strewn desks and a cabinet of books. With a broad smile on his tanned face and bright eyes, Zardusht offers us a choice of Rafaello or Russian chocolates.
Zardusht seems to take after his namesake Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism who opposed the existing caste and class structures in Persia 3,000 years ago. As a founder of the original Popular Front opposition in the 1980s, Zardusht had promoted democracy and improvement of the social situation in Azerbaijan. But as the nationalist wing of the Front began to dominate and push for conflict with Armenia, Zardusht and his allies quit and founded the Social Democrat Party instead.
‘When we were starting the Azeri democracy movement’, Zardusht remembers, ‘I was afraid that the country would go the same way as Egypt.’ He had spent time there between 1969 and 1971, on secondment from the Soviet Army, and saw the impact that oil had on the powerful. ‘And now we have gone the same way. We have a corrupt anti-national elite which controls information, oil and gas in order to enrich itself. Our ruling class is immoral.’
In recent years he has distanced himself from party politics in favour of this journalism school he has founded. But he also volunteers as chairman of the Open Society Institute (OSI), Azerbaijan. Warm and effusive, he speaks highly of others and is humble about his own role. He confirms much of what we have heard elsewhere.
‘BP has never supported independent civil society. You should ask Mayis Gulaliyev about this. He was in the OSI monitoring group, and criticised the pipeline. So BP said to OSI, “We will support your programme, but only if Mayis is not part of the coalition.” This is one of the conditions they put on participating in our programmes. Of course, they pursue their interests as a corporation – they support only those who support them, who say BP is soft, very good, very clean – GoNGOs [“Government NGOs”]. There are many GoNGOs in this city. Many are former real activists, who then became hunters of grants. I never respect such GoNGOs. I recognise their right to live and my right to not respect them.’
Young women and men periodically pop their heads in to ask questions, and Zardusht patiently deals with each of them. We can see how he built up a movement of dedicated and loyal activists against Soviet oppression in the late 1980s. Respect and affection beam from the eyes of his students.
This is not the only journalism school in Baku; BP itself has run joint courses with the British Council. Zardusht admits that this programme is a good thing because it teaches the basics of journalism. But the benefits are limited. If a journalist tries to use this method to investigate BP, he says, ‘they will become an enemy like Mayis. Both the government and BP try to stop Mayis speaking. They try to close his mouth, to keep him silent.’ As he describes BP’s attempts to silence criticism, Zardusht imitates a fist crushing somebody.
Warming to his theme, Zardusht argues that the Aliyev dynasty and BP are winning at Azerbaijan’s expense. He feels that the oil revenues could be used to develop, to build other works, to create a future without oil, without gas. But instead, ‘our very clever English-speaking president has learned how to run a dictatorship and manipulate civil society for his own benefit’. The restrictions on speech and strong control of media are such that allowing limited civil society is profitable for the government. Zardusht points out that Soros’s programmes, including OSI, have been closed by the Russian government but allowed to operate in Azerbaijan. ‘The government here even collaborates with our OSI health programmes. Does this mean that we live in a democracy? No! But this all works well for BP.’
After two hours, Zardusht apologises profusely that he needs to leave. ‘I need to go to an OSI board meeting – it’s time to disburse George’s money again.’ He gives us a lift back into the centre of Baku, and as we drive through the city he says,
‘When colleagues from America visit, they ask me: “Why don’t you recognise the beautiful buildings, the nice cars, the expensive shops? People must enjoy this. Surely this is a good transformation of society?” I answer, “No – this is not my society. That is part of the corrupt state apparatus. The oil will end, BP will leave, the elite will move to their fancy houses in London and Paris. And what will be left behind?” Lots of empty skyscrapers that we can’t keep clean.’