Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Baku's Tough-Talking Mayor Tidies Up City

BAKU, Azerbaijan — As soon as Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov stepped out of his black Mercedes on an impromptu visit to one of the city's refurbished parks, he was surrounded by well-wishers. People shook his hand warmly, thanking him for cleaning up their capital.

Abutalibov is a laser physicist by training and a politician by instinct. He accepted the praise and pleas with equal enthusiasm, smiling, nodding and responding with apparent sincerity.

Since he was appointed mayor at the end of January, Abutalibov, 57, slightly built and gray-haired, has gained cult status through a well-publicized campaign to clean up the city of 3 million.

His frequent and unscripted forays into public places and the cleanliness of the city have turned him into Azerbaijan's second-most-popular politician, after its long-serving president, Heydar Aliyev, who gave him the job.

Taking a page from the play book of the more famous mayor of a larger metropolitan American city, Abutalibov has crusaded to remove the once-ubiquitous street vendors from the streets and sidewalks, cracked down on prostitution and repaired more than 50 fountains and countless monuments and parks, all of which had fallen into decay over the past decade.

"I have not met Rudy Giuliani, but I have been told a lot about him and I know that he did a lot for New York City,'' said Abutalibov, who, like Giuliani, has stirred complaints with his aggressive tactics.

Abutalibov has great ambitions. "I am committed to turning Baku into the cleanest and most beautiful city in the world,'' he said in an interview at city hall, an ornate, century-old replica of Paris' city hall.

Last January, Aliyev decided it was time to spruce up the capital city and he chose an unlikely candidate for the job.

Abutalibov returned to his native Azerbaijan in 1992 after independence and was mayor of a small municipality and then a relatively unknown deputy prime minister under Aliyev.

"The first thing the president told me was to clean up the city,'' said Abutalibov.

More controversial were the tough measures the mayor took to rid the streets of prostitutes and vendors.

He forced the vendors to move their stalls to organized bazaars and undergo medical tests before selling goods.

There were mass arrests of prostitutes in regular midnight raids.

As part of the strategy, a new law was passed requiring bars and nightclubs to close at midnight to encourage safer streets.

Inevitably, the high-profile success has stirred speculation that Abutalibov might be destined for higher office, perhaps prime minister.

He dismissed the idea, saying: "For the time being there is enough work for me to do in the city.''