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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not Exactly a People's Pipeline

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Not everyone deemed last week's ceremony to mark the start of construction of a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean a success.

The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey met at the Sangachal Oil Terminal just outside Baku to lower the first section of pipe into place. Only the strong wind, which covered everyone in a thick blanket of dust, marred an otherwise triumphant occasion. "I can tell you that for Azerbaijan, today's event is a dream come true," Azeri President Heidar Aliyev told the crowd. Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze nodded in agreement and pulled his cardigan on a little tighter.

All three presidents made long speeches about how important the pipeline would be for their economies. They shoveled earth over the pipe with three shiny spades, smiled for the cameras, and then they were gone. But across Azerbaijan, few joined in the celebrations.

Aliyev pulled off a major coup when he signed an agreement with Western oil companies to build the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which would transport a million barrels of oil a day. Azerbaijan was touted as the next Kuwait, and its lucrative oil and gas reserves were sure to make it the richest of all the former Soviet republics.

Inevitably, this hasn't happened. As fast as hotels and shopping complexes go up in the capital, Azerbaijan's provinces have been slipping into destitution. For the first time on a tour of the country this month, Aliyev was attacked by a group of women angry at the lack of employment in Gyandzha, Azerbaijan's third city. "If we do receive wages, they're insulting, but most of us are living on our parents' meager pensions," they told him. "How can you let this go on?"

There was some embarrassment when the president admonished the head of the town's administration for the appalling state of the roads in his region, only to be told that the government gave him no money to mend them.

Meanwhile in Sumgait, once the chemical manufacturing capital of the Soviet Union, most of the factories have closed and people sit around on street corners all day with nothing to do. The average wage here is $10 a week, but that's if you have a job. More and more people are moving to Russia to try to make ends meet. Every time I go to the bank, the line to receive money from relatives abroad gets longer.

"It's all very well building a giant oil pipeline to Turkey," a man from Sumgait told me. "But if the president doesn't give any of the money it makes to his people, I can't really see the point."

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.