Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Azerbaijan car nut interview

The one thing that I am most proud of with this blog is its readers. As a geopolitics and car nut, I love the fact that it has attracted a diverse group of smart, well-read, well-traveled, and open-minded car enthusiasts. Today, I want to share an interview I did with regular commenter Tarlan. Before this interview, I knew that Tarlan is from Baku, Azerbaijan; works in the oil industry; and loves cars. I guarantee that you will find his background interesting and that we have all underestimated his passion for all sorts of strange and unique cars.

Tarlan, thank you for sharing!

1. What was life like in Soviet-era Azerbaijan?

Life in Soviet Azerbaijan wasn't too much different from any other Soviet republics. For me, it was the most happy time of my life as I was a kid, spending life with my family. Just as it is all over the world, your teenage time is the best time of your life. My family lived in Baku when I was a teenager and life was beautiful.

2. Has there been any recent progress with Nagorno-Karabakh? What do you think the permanent solution should be?

Jim, I am an Azeri citizen, a reserve lieutenant of the Azerbaijani armed forces, so I couldn't be independent on this issue. Last year an Armenian helicopter was brought down by our military forces, and that doesn't help the progress.

3. Will an F1 race take place in Baku?

Definitely. Unlike his father who was an ex-KGB general, our existing president Ilham Aliyev is a playboy. He loves good restaurants, horses, cars, and races. He still enjoys driving his Maybach and Toyota Land Cruiser by himself from time to time. I'm pretty much sure that inviting F1 to Baku was his personal idea and it's definitely going to happen in 2016.

4. Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country. How is the country handling the low oil prices?

The petrol price in Azerbaijan is $2.90 per U.S. gallon. This price is fixed and the same for all petrol stations around the country. This price has not changed in the last 2 to 3 years. 

5. During the Soviet era, what cars were popular in Azerbaijan?

Of course the most popular car in Soviet time was the Lada. The most expensive car available on the market was the Volga GAZ 24. My father bought one in 1988 for 16,000 rubles which was almost $10,000 at that time. Bigger cars like the ZIL or Chaika could not be purchased with money. 

6. What are popular cars now in Azerbaijan and Baku?

There are three main sources for used import cars in Azerbaijan: 1) Germany through Georgia for 5 to 6 year old Mercedes, BMWs, Opels, Audis, and Volkswagens. 2) UAE (mostly Dubai) for SUVs and 2 to 3 year old upper middle class sedans. 3) Japan for middle class European and Japanese cars converted to right hand drive. 

Almost all the brands have dealerships in Azerbaijan, starting from Lamborghini, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce down to cheap Chinese, Iranian copies of Peugeot, and Russian Ladas.
The best sellers are Russian Ladas and Korean Hyundais and Kias. I'm sorry that I couldn't find any statistics in English regarding our car market but I know that the Hyundai dealership sells around 100 cars per month just in Baku.

7. What is the state of car culture in your country now?

Unfortunately, driving culture is too low on our roads. Hundreds of illegal taxis are parked all over the streets creating many parking and access problems for both pedestrians and cars. Although I agree that the easiest way to earn money is to buy a 15 year old Mercedes W201 or something similar and wait on the side of the road for a customer, there are plenty of ways to find a job on many construction sites all around Azerbaijan. We are expecting a few big projects in the near future and a lot of preparations are going on now, e.g. F1 race, European games, road reconstruction. 

8. What kind of cars have you owned?

My car ownership history is a little bit complicated, Jim. I have always been interested in cars, racing, etc. I studied in Azeri technical university in the management of auto transport during the late Soviet period and my first job was as a sales representative for the first Mobil lubricants dealer in Azerbaijan. 

I bought my first car in 1994, for $400. It was a ZAZ 968 with an air cooled V4 in the back. That was my first car and I transferred a lot of my theoretical knowledge about cars and engines to practice (I managed to change the pistons twice in 2 years) Then, my father became the head of the Renault dealership in Baku and I started to buy all sorts of Renaults just because I had easy access to spare parts and service facilities. At this time, I drove an R12, R9, R21, R19, R5 Baccara, and Renault Laguna. The R5 Baccara is a crazy car, Jim, and I still love it. 

Then, in the late 90s, I started to work in the oil and gas business and most of the time the company provided me with big SUVs like the Pajero I, Hyundai Galloper, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. At the same time, I owned a 1988 Land Rover Discovery, Dodge Spirit, Hyundai Santa Fe and Tucson as my family cars. 

For the past 4 to 5 years, I didn't change many cars but I still had big trucks at my job (Nissan Navara, Toyota Hilux, or Mitsubishi L200) and a small Peugeot 206 and Infiniti QX4 for my family. 

And, of course, my dream came true last year when i bought a 2001 Jaguar XKR convertible. (Editor: There will be a separate story about that.)

9. What would you like to tell people who do not know much about your country? How would you describe your country?

Azerbaijan is a good example of an authoritarian petrocracy with more than 100 years of Russian impact making for a strange mix of Shia Islam and Communist world outlook. I'm still a part of this system and I love it. I'm not alone, and there are a lot of people from different stratum of the population who think almost the same as me. But in general, our people are friendly and naive towards foreigners as are most people form the Middle East and the Caucasus.

10. Why do you love cars?

I partly answered this in response to Question No. 8. I can add that the love came from my father. He was not only a great enthusiast of cars but also participated in the development of the injection system (revolutionary system at the time) for the Soviet ZMZ engine which was mounted on later models, like the GAZ 31.


Richard Chen said...

Fascinating, thanks for that! That R5 Baccara does look mighty luxurious.

Sanchez said...

This was amazing. Would love to visit Baku one day and if F1 race happens it will be a must. Looking forward to XKR post.

Anonymous said...

We have also locally assembled cars: Azsamand Aziz and Naz Lifan.