Baku underground youth save historic building
A former Molokan prayer house in downtown Baku will not be demolished as the result of a decision to include it on the list of monuments of cultural heritage as promised to activists by the Youth Foundation of Azerbaijan.
Since the beginning of 2019, this building was rented out by SalaamCinema Theatre, which is popular among the city’s underground youth movement. In late April, the owner demanded that the building be released from its contract, saying that he wanted to repair it.
Youth activists did not believe him and decided that the owner wanted to demolish the building, and that this should not be allowed because of its historical value. In their opinion, the building deserves the status of a historical monument.
Several hundred youth then occupied the building to prevent it from being demolished.
On May 6, they wrote an open letter to the First Vice President and First Lady of the country, Mehriban Aliyeva, with a request to personally intervene in the matter not to allow for its demolition.
The case received much publicity, and Facebook posts called for the theatre to be saved.
On the building
The building in question was built in 1913. Initially it was the prayer house of the Molokans – a Christian denomination with a large population in Azerbaijan. In 1926, the building was handed over to the Ministry of Communications.
Since the beginning of the 90s the building was empty.
At the end of 2018, the building was privatized and transferred to private ownership from whom Salaam Cinema then rented out the building.
Essence and stages of the conflict
The conflict between SalaamCinema and the owner of the building coincided in time with the holding of the IMAGINE Tolerance Festival in Baku, organized by the delegation of the European Union in Azerbaijan.
On May 1 at a press conference in honor of the opening of the festival, the deputy head of the delegation Denis Daniilidis said that part of the festival events will be held in Salaam Cinema, an old building that needs to be preserved as part of the history of the city.
Starting May 2, the owner and several of his associates came to the building on multiple occasions to demand the tenants vacate the premises, and even tried to force them out.
Young activists began to stake out the place around the clock in the building and launched a campaign to save the building on social media, writing letters to state institutions that were in oneway or another connected with the protection of architectural monuments. If the building is added to the list of protected monuments, it will not be demolished.
The matter is complicated by the fact that SalaamCinema does not have a formal lease agreement with the owner. The building was handed over to them by a representative of the owner, and the transaction was not formalized.
The interference of the police was limited to ensuring that neither the youth activists nor the building owner and his representatives got into a fight.
On May 8, representatives of SalaamCinema were called into the Youth Foundation of Azerbaijan and told that the building would not be demolished; the building would receive historic monument status within two weeks time, and; SalaamCinema will not have to leave the building for these two months.
What’s happening now?
The group of activists has decided not to leave the building until they are given a guarantee of the building’s inviolability. In the evenings, they hold impromptu concerts and other events for which a lot of people gather “from outside”. In general, many townspeople sympathise with the activists and help them ‘defend’ the building. For example, they bring food and water.
What does all of this mean?
The problem of SalaamCinema in Baku is being actively discussed in the following vein:
- “[This is the] awakening of the youth protest movement”, one Facebook user wrote.
- Another explanation positions the event as the birth of a new bohemia around an independent art site, of which there are few in Baku.
- And, finally, others simply lump it in with the typical reaction of Baku residents to the destruction of the cultural heritage of the city – after all, the demolition of historic buildings in Baku has been constant for at least 10 years.
In the hope of the first option, former political prisoners Bayram Mammadov and Qiyas Ibrahimov joined the protesting party. But then they left because of disagreements with the “mainstream” activists who did not want Bayram and Qiyas to use political posters and slogans and, in general, to politicize the situation. Bayram and Qiyas, in turn, were opposed to writing a letter to Mehriban Aliyeva and asking for her help.