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Saturday, January 15, 2005


The House is On Fire

One of the most frustrating parts of living in Azerbaijan is paying Western prices for Azeri quality and service. Anything a Westerner touches doubles, triples or quadruples in price. This is a result of big western companies like BP coming in, footing the rent and paying huge salaries to oil workers who don't think twice about throwing their salaries away on overpriced beer, food, whores and taxis.

The average Baku resident makes about $200 a month. The average oil worker, who has his rent paid and transportation provided by his company, easily makes 100 times that. It's a boom town. Inflation is to be expected.

In my life, nowhere is the lack of value more vexing than in housing. It is very difficult to rent a decent (meaning: renovated and rid of Soviet-era electrical, heating and plumbing) apartment for less than $1000 a month.

Our house is nice by most standards. It is furnished in a reasonably tasteful manner. It has electricity most of the time, a water tank (which protects us from frequent water cuts), a hot water heater and electric heaters/air-conditioning. For this my employer pays $1400 a month, plus a portion of utilities.

This is pure highway robbery.

The landlord thinks he can charge such steep rent because the apartment has all the amenities that westerners demand. That they don't actually work, or, more importantly, pose threats to life, limb and property, is of little concern to him. He knows the renter has no recourse.

Last week, the water heater broke and took three days to repair and, since being "repaired," leaks all over the bathroom floor. The week before it was the electricity, which fails to come through with enough juice to simultaneously power the microwave, heaters and stereo speakers. Power surges have blown out our TV. Weeks ago, a pipe under the sink burst, filling the kitchen with water. The roof has been leaking all winter, rotting the walls. And then there's the sulfurous smell that comes out of the bathroom sink drain, but only in the mornings.

See the little yard? See why we don't want to move?

The last straw came last night. I came home from work to see the water pipes on the outside of the house glowing red with heat and emitting sparks. When my downstairs neighbor saw me get out of the car, he ran outside, threatening to call the police if I didn't do something about the fiery pipes, and the water that's been leaking into his walls from the roof for the last few weeks.

I have no control over any of this. I can only work through intermediaries, such as my staff, who communicate with the downstairs neighbor, real estate agent and landlord, none of whom are English speakers. Furthermore, the jiminy cricket construction technique that gives water pipes the capacity to emit sparks or sulfurous smells defies my power of imagination. I often have difficulty articulating the problems to people who are responsible for fixing them because their source is a complete mystery to me.

The Azeri mindset is this: Do everything as cheaply and half-assed as possible, 'cause the foreigners will pay, no matter what. Get as much for yourself as you can. Don't pay the $50 utility bill for your tenant until the electricity is cut off, because the government might figure out you haven't paid your taxes.

We are instructed NEVER to open the door to someone we don't know, since the government sends people out to obtain information about homeowners who are not paying taxes on rental income. These taxes are the landlord's responsibility, and he puts an inordinate amount of effort into avoiding payment. Landlords get angry when foreign tenants alert the government to their presence, because an Azeri that clears $1400 a month on a house he owns outright is really struggling to get by.

I have absolutely no recourse. Landlords demand six months rent in advance so non-payment isn't an option. We could move, but we have to consider that the next place could be worse.

Azerbaijan was recently rated by Transparency International as one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world. Only Burma, Chad, Paraguay, Nigeria, Haiti and Bangladesh are worse. Azeris complain to no end about corruption in government, but the attitude of "I've got to get mine" is pervasive at every level of society.

I hope I'm here when the real estate market crashes.

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