Summertime in Soviet Baku, And the Living Is Uneasy
BAKU, USSR — A BRISK wind howls across the massive square in front of Azerbaijan's main government building, the obligatory statue of Vladimir Lenin gesturing triumphantly to the empty expanse before him. A mother cat and her five kittens lay about near Lenin's feet as an old man sweeps. A mile away, the street teems with life at the bazaar, where mountains of onions, tomatoes, and melons - part of this year's plentiful harvest - go for a fraction of the prices at Moscow's farmers' markets. One man hawks produce out of the back of his car. The trunk lid, he explains, keeps the pounding sun off his merchandise.
It's summer in Baku, steamy but windy - the word Baku literally means ``city of strong winds'' - and the pace is relaxed. Not, certainly, the image of a city in the midst of a state of emergency.
But technically the ``emergency'' remains, months after January's events: the massacre of Baku Armenians, the perceived threat of an overthrow of Azerbaijan's government, the bloody invasion of Soviet troops into Baku that took scores of innocent lives, the million-strong funeral gathering.
On closer inspection, the normality of Baku life is tinged with reminders that not all is, in fact, normal.
Lenin Square is quiet because it is roped off, with two policemen allowing access as they see fit. Last winter, before the crackdown, the scene here was beginning to resemble Beijing's Tiananmen Square before its own massacre, local residents say. Antigovernment protesters camped out. They built small fires to cook and keep warm. They lacked sanitary facilities.
Now, under the state of emergency, people are not allowed to gather in groups on the street without permission. A nighttime curfew remains in effect, from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., cut back from the original midnight to 6 a.m. Soviet Army soldiers monitor traffic on the road from the airport to the city, checking passes.
The lack of street activity seems particularly odd in light of next month's elections to the Azerbaijani parliament, the first multi-candidate elections to that body. Campaign posters are nowhere to be seen.
Nor are there any of the free-wheeling street-corner discussion clubs that have sprung up spontaneously in other major Soviet cities. Publication of the Azerbaijani Popular Front newspaper was temporarily suspended by the city's military commandant for reporting that the republic's new parliament chairman had been illegally elected.
The lingering state of emergency has also meant few foreign visitors, depriving ``Bakintsy'' (as residents are called) of the opportunity to show off their legendary hospitality.
Foreign correspondents technically are not allowed to visit Baku, because of its continuing ``closed'' status after the January events. But it is possible to gain permission through a not-widely-advertised avenue: Contact the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry press office and ask for an invitation, which Moscow will likely honor. The Azerbaijanis are happy to schedule one's every waking moment with interviews - an opportunity, as they see it, to counter the pro-Armenian bias they feel pervades the Western press.
On the streets of Baku, no special troop presence is visible. According to Col. Valery Buniyatov, the military commandant, there are now only 1,000 extra Interior Ministry troops in this city of 2 million people - down from more than 10,000 sent in January when the state of emergency was imposed. They back up the police and enforce the curfew, Colonel Buniyatov says.
``A big show of force is not needed now,'' says Aydin Mamedov, a local political commentator. ``It's enough for people to know that the state of emergency still exists. They still have strong memories of what happened in January.''
Some residents claim that there are military forces ready ``behind the scenes'' at all times in case trouble breaks out, a perception that must keep any potential troublemakers - if they are indeed still here - lying low.
Any discussion of the Baku state of emergency gives rise to inevitable, and unanswerable, questions: What would be happening here if the emergency had already been lifted? And what if it were lifted tomorrow?
The people of Baku are divided on the answers. Now that life is more or less back to normal, many Bakintsy are eager to see the remnants of ``black January'' completely removed. For some, Buniyatov's presence is tangible evidence of Moscow's continued meddling in local affairs. Furthermore, Buniyatov is himself part Azerbaijani (his father is a respected local scholar and World War II hero), but does not speak Azerbaijani, having been raised by his Russian mother. An Azerbaijani phrase book lies on his desk.
According to a family member, Buniyatov has received threats on his life.
Other residents say they feel safer with extra military protection, especially amid statements by officials like Buniyatov that Azerbaijan's hostile neighbor, Armenia, has massed a paramilitary force of 140,000 armed troops - a force that refused to comply with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's July 25 order to disarm.
``Martial law has not been rescinded because there is still danger on the part of extremists. You've heard Gorbachev's order about disarmament...,'' says Buniyatov, who became Baku's military chief on July 1. There are no illegal armed groups in Azerbaijan, he adds.
A bombing earlier this month on a bus in Azerbaijan, which killed at least 17 people, plays into the fears of extremism. It is not known who planted the bomb, but Azerbaijanis will likely suspect Armenians - especially since the bombing took place near Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory in Azerbaijan that has been the focus of violence in recent years between the two republics.
``Now our main task is to provide security for the elections to the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet,'' Buniyatov says. ``You see, now we have multiple parties. In the republic we have about 50 different parties, societies, and organizations. Connected with that, there are a variety of opinions, with their own unique circumstances. And therefore, there are contradictions that could destabilize the situation both in the republic and in the city of Baku.''
Buniyatov also implies that Baku's 70,000 ``Yerazy'' - Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia - could also pose a threat to peace. Many of those who rampaged against Baku Armenians last January were Yerazy, and the underlying factors that contributed to their rage are still present: lack of housing, unemployment, and poor overall social conditions.