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Buying power

Life has improved for expats working in Azerbaijan. But it is not all a bed of roses.

As polite applause ripples around the swanky Italian restaurant the string quartet finishes playing Let It Be by the Beatles. Diners eat chocolate mousse and sip white wine, making it hard to believe that the scene is in a former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

The influx of western money and personnel has turned the Azeri capital into a happening city. A night time stroll around its centre reveals expensive designer shops, open air cafes and western style pubs and restaurants. There is even a state of the art bowling alley.

'It has not always been like this,' says Morrison construction manager Robert Davidson who has been living in Baku for three years. 'Life has changed. Three years ago there were only two or three western bars.'

It is not just the night life that is attractive. 'There are plenty of day trips from Baku,' says Davidson. 'The scenery in Azerbaijan is great. There are mud volcanoes and 'fire mountains' where you can see flaming gas jets coming out of the ground. And there are prehistoric cave paintings.'

But people have to be open minded, he says. 'There are still problems with irregular water and electricity supplies, although it is nothing compared to three or four years ago. '

However the western shops and pubs hide the serious social problems that face the county in its transition from a command economy to free market democracy. With a large unemployed population, most Azeris cannot afford the Baku high life. The average wage among those that work is around pounds12 a month, and that is often needed to support a large family. Few can afford pounds2 for a pint of beer in Baku's Irish pub or the pounds700 monthly bowling membership fee.

The influx of money into such a poor country has introduced a darker side to Azerbaijan's oil boom. The profession that has benefited most appears to be the oldest one. Prostitutes are available in many hotels. Corruption is endemic. One source claimed that the bowling membership list contains many false names of corrupt officials who should not be able to afford membership. Stories about corrupt doctors prompted Davidson and his Azeri girlfriend, Nailya, to travel to Scotland to have their first child.

'Many people think life was good under the Soviets,' says Davidson. 'They had food, water, electricity and even holidays, though perhaps with lower expectations than in the West.

Despite the problems, Davidson enjoys life in Baku. 'Coming here was the best thing I ever did,' he says.

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