Thursday, December 25, 2008
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Saturday, December 13, 2008
Istanbul airport is one of the more pleasant airports I pass through from time to time. Pleasant - but of course not cheap.
At the moment - I write from this airport - with a free wireless connection. (In most airports I've been in - if it's available at all - it's no free.) I'm on my way back to the States for a few weeks. So my reporting from Azerbaijan will take a hiatus of a few weeks.
Now - back to that $6 glass of Perrier!
Friday, December 12, 2008
I rode back to Baku this afternoon, a rollicking and rapid ride in a taxi that jolted along the road at an average speed of 120 km an hour. Perhaps faster. Our driver took the task of conducting us to Baku as some sort of incessant contest, attempting to push the other vehicles off the road with his front bumper.
In other words, he was a fairly average taxi driver.
Roughly half way on the road between Lenkoran and Baku, we stopped for tea and I sat with the four other men. The driver and one of the passengers spoke some Russian, so we chatted a little. Naturally, about American politics. Obama provokes a lot of curiosity here. Is he really an American? How can that be? What a funny name? I answered their questions - and gave my abbreviated lecture on America & how Americans are white, brown, black, yellow, red & maybe green too.
The fact that Obama is black is strange for them, because there are very few Africans in Azerbaijan. But - I got the feeling that some of the men liked the idea that his father was raised a Muslim.
On my last night in Lenkoran, I was invited to an Azerbaijani wedding.
Invited may not be the right verb. “Dragged” is more accurate. I really wasn’t in the mood for a big party - but of course - that’s what I got.
The wedding was very large and very loud. Lots of food. Lots of dancing. Lots of drink. We got there about 10 p.m. and the party was in fully swing. My friend said a few words to the father of the bride, and soon the waiters came to our table, bringing bottles and dishes of the famous lavangi chicken and fish, the kebabs, and other delicious examples of Azerbaijani cuisine.
It was a fine way to spend my last night in the city. The December climate in Lenkoran is damp and cold, but the people are very warm.
(Above is a photo of the market in Lenkoran. Note all the beautiful apples.)
Monday, December 8, 2008
Today is Qurban Bayram, a Muslim feast day. As I understand it, the motivation behind the holiday dates back to Abraham, when he sacrificed a ram rather than his son on the orders of God. The meat should be distributed to the poor.
So, you can guess the fate of this sheep, tethered to a tree in downtown Baku. Shashlik by tonight.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Yes, there are big, nasty dictators who do repress democratic movements. But - there are plenty of people for whom democracy - as they understand it - doesn’t hold much appeal.
I met one of them last night.
Perfectly ordinary fellow. We had a good conversation when the van we were riding from Ganca to Baku made its ten-minute rest stop somewhere on the long road. Obviously, I was a foreigner, although I spoke Russian. So, I faced the normal questions. Where are you from? What are you doing? I answered the answers truthfully. I’m an American, teaching journalism here. This fellow understood that because I was a journalist, I was probably for a free press and therefore a democrat.
“Democracy,” he sniffed. “It’s a bad idea. I’m against it.”
I did not feel inclined to convince him of its merits. What was the point? I wasn’t even really all that interested in why he opposed democracy. He had his opinion, and he was entitled to it.
But we talked a little about what he does, his background. He’s a truck driver, working for an energy company. Before, in Soviet times, he had a good job, and he still has a job. But I’m sure he looks around him and sees lots of people who have suffered in the transition from the Soviet Union. Or - maybe he equates democracy with the ethnic violence that was unleashed when the Soviet system collapsed. I didn’t enquire. There are so many reasons to oppose what he understands as democracy, whatever the merits I think the system has.
I arrived back in Baku at an ungodly hour, and in the afternoon went out to replenish my supplies. At the market where I shop, extensive changes are underway. Under the same roof they now are selling everything from notebooks to pants, along with the cheese, nuts, vegetables, and fruit that were sold before. The guy from whom I buy cheese and eggs joked with me.
“It’s perestroika,” he said, referring to the renovations. ("Perestroika" literally means "rebuilding" in Russian.)
“Oh, that means democracy will soon follow.”
He thought this was hilarious!
“I’m an optimist,” I said.
“Democracy!,” he laughed and laughed and laughed.
Friday, December 5, 2008
I met up today with one of our former students from the Baku journalism program. She’s living now in Baku, working as a poorly paid journalist. We chatted about friends and what they’re doing - and then about what she’s doing. She wanted to get some of her articles translated into English - not an easy task, really. My friend really has some interesting work, and it reminded me of the tangled knot of problems this country faces.
One example. Last year, the government agency in charge of education decreed that all primary school students needed uniforms. But - the tender for providing these uniforms was not awarded competitively, so not surprisingly the uniforms were expensive and shoddy. Because they are so expensive, many families face additional hardships, outfitting their children for school.
So - again we have a decision made to benefit inside cronies that directly harms the welfare of ordinary Azerbaijanis. This is true in so many sectors of the economy. The monopoly on cement - held by a government insider - forces higher building costs - which again affects the whole economy. There is even a government monopoly on the import of shoes. I personally know two people who were forced out of business because of this monopoly. Who benefits from these monopolies and uncompetitive tenders? Government insiders. But because the government is not run democratically, there is no systematic way to cleanse the “rent takers,” as they are called in political science. Sure - one government official might fall from favor and lose his comfy post, but he will be replaced by an official that will almost certainly be or become equally corrupt.
My friend’s article was published in one of the few independent newspapers. But changing the pattern of corruption will take more than a few newspaper articles.
(Above is a picture of the Kepez Hotel, mentioned in the previous post. Not scenic in any sense -but a remarkably good example of Soviet architecture.)
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Last night as I was walking back from class, I gazed up at the Kapez Hotel, a hulking Soviet-era building, a gray box. One room was lighted from inside. On a whim, I decided to enter the foreboding building and inquire about the cost of a room.
The lobby was empty except for an older woman behind the “administration” desk. How much is a room?
“15 manat,” she answered.
This is about $18, so the price was attractive and suspect.
“Do the rooms have their own showers?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, somewhat miffed. “But there’s only cold water.”
I decided to keep the hotel I have for the moment. My only complaint with that place is the huge flock of pigeons roosting directly above my room.
My attitude toward taxis is similar to my attitude toward flying in airplanes. Yes, it’s inherently dangerous, and yes, it’s necessary sometimes. I suspend anxiety, and just assume that once I’ve made the decision to get into the car, I’m entrusting my life to the taxi driver or to God.
But, sometimes even I get a little nervous.
The taxi driver I met today was very nice. Even spoke some English, because his mother was an English teacher. We talked about the US elections. I said that Obama's policy would certainly be more peaceful and sensible than Bush's. He agreed. He hated war, after serving five years as a soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh.
My driver had charm - but he had no brakes to speak of. He used the down shift and coast method of stopping. Which is often fine, but when he discovered that the authorities had erected a new traffic light, he had to swerve into oncoming traffic in order to avoid hitting cars stopped for the light.
After about ten minutes of riding with him, I commented that his brakes needed repairing. I’m not a terribly conscientious car owner, but brake repairs are one point of maintenance that I don’t neglect.
Later, he said he was looking for a new car, which is probably why he’s not repairing his current taxi. It’s 35 years old, he said.
“Good for you,” I said.
As it turned out, as we were about a mile from my destination, he swerved to the side of the road and stopped.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Out of gas,” he said.
I walked the rest of the way.
(Here are some pictures from today. Swans in the central park. A ruined Soviet building. Funny how quickly these buildings can decay!)
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
I'm back in Ganca, the place where I began my road trips late in the spring. It is not much different. Some of the buildings that were under construction when I was here are complete - and empty. The building phenomenon is not limited to Baku. High rises sprout in the provincial cities too. Who buys these expensive apartments? Some wealthy residents of Baku buy them for second homes. Ganca, after all, isn't that far from some beautiful pastoral areas. And doubtless some of the units are built for speculative or money laundering purposes.
In any case, it's nice to be back here. The city has a relaxed feel in general. Of course, I am more obvious as a foreigner - but I'm used to that now.
Pictured here are the old mosque in the central park, the central plaza (note the large picture of Heydar Aliyev), and a newly constructed apartment building facing the plaza.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
This piece nicely sums up how I've felt about the last eight years. I know I'm not alone. Michael Moore had a book a few years ago - "Dude, where's my country." That's what so many of us were asking - as we contemplated the dizzying speed with which constitutional guarantees were discarded like so many campaign promises. Obama is the focus of many high hopes - and he's bound to disappoint some people sometimes, but on balance I think we may actually be on the way to taking the USA back on path where government enacts policies to benefit the nation as a whole, rather than a privileged elite.
Unfortunately, one person who will not see this new era will be Brent Hurd. In some of his last blog postings, he wrote about his hopes for the new administration. Brent was writing from Bangalore, India, where he was hit and killed by a bus on Saturday. He was a young and talented film maker and teacher, much loved by his Azerbaijani students here.
My own connection with Brent is strange. I only spoke to him once and we exchanged perhaps a half dozen e-mails. He impressed me as a warm and intelligent person, but I didn't really have the opportunity to know him. But - in some sense, we have some shared experience because I have been living in his old apartment since March. I sent him a picture of the sunrise once from this apartment, and he appreciated the memory. That was probably my last contact with him.
Life is fragile and brief. Love it.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
A couple of days ago, I was talking with a publisher here. We were talking about one of the current issues discussed by members in the opposition and by members of the foreign community: the impending closure of the Azerbaijani-language version of Radio Liberty. I’ve heard different views on this. Some people think it’s not a big deal. The consensus I’ve heard from the foreigners living here is that it is a big deal, and backchannel protests are being registered by various embassies here.
The fellow I was talking with said the closure would be a like clear line. If they can get away with this, then they will know that they can get away with even more repressive actions.
I won’t put any money on the outcome at this point, but let’s just say that it’s not clear that the closure will be stopped.
In another conversation, an Azerbaijani journalist told me that the websites of Radio Liberty and the Turan News Agency have already be shut down in Nakhchivan, the Azerbaijan autonomous republic bordering Iran. Nakhchivan is generally accepted to be the most repressive area of Azerbaijan, and some people regard it as a testing area for policies to be tried in the country at large. I’ve known a few people from this region, and I knew one U.S. citizen who lived there. People describe the stark physical beauty of the place and the grim political realities of a regime close to a police state.
Yesterday I was talking politics with some people from Iran and Azerbaijan. One of the men remarked on the dissent in Iran to the current regime. For example, a recent declaration criticizing the current Iranian leadership was made by a large group of economists in that country. The natural question: could such an event occur in Azerbaijan.
It was deemed unlikely. Why?
One man, an Azerbaijani, said that a key difference is that Iran never had experience with communism. In communist countries, private property rights were destroyed, and the countries still live with this legacy. So if a person dissents or causes trouble for the regime, there is an easy solution. Take away his property. Without any property, he will suddenly have bigger problems and he will forget about his dissent. He will be muzzled and intimidated.
One of the guys joked that Iran, they would just kill you.
But perhaps killing certain people is not always an option – and so we have this recent demonstration of dissent in Iran.
Today as strolled around Baku, I came upon a chess game, and while I watched, I thought how it exemplified a cultural aspect that troubled me when I first came here. I don't mean that this cultural characteristic troubled me in any sort of existential or political sense - I just wasn't used to the different standards of personal space. When I go to the bank here, I am likely to have someone crowding in at my elbow when I talk to the teller. If I use an ATM, it is common to have one or two people looking on. I've more or less gotten used to it. More or less. I realize that the people at my elbow aren't thieves. (This was my first reaction.) They just have different standards of personal space.
When I play chess, for example, I am used to making my own moves. But chess, as I observed it today and on other occasions in Baku, is not a game played between two people. It is a group enterprise. In this case, men were literally reaching in and making the moves that they thought were warranted.
It could be interpreted as friendly. Or intrusive.
The most important thing in living in a foreign environment is accepting that the cultural rules are different - and even the rules you thought were immutable, aren't.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Baku is an endless fount of tasks to be done by manual laborers.
If managers are lacking a project, they can always order the destruction and creation of a walkway. A succession of projects has been underway non-stop since I arrived here in the early spring. The walkway or road may look quite serviceable - but orders for its reconstruction must be followed. A small army of laborers first destroys the old road, and then painstakingly re-paves it with paving stones. Sometimes the work crews are Azerbaijani - but not always.
When the work is done, it does look good. I can't help wondering, however, about lavishing such sums on making sure that the walkways in the parks are freshly paved. The educational system, for example, is chronically underfunded, according to teachers and students. Is it better to have nicely tended flower beds or well-paid teachers?
(Above are a couple of pictures from the current work being done on the boulevard by the Caspian Sea.)
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
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But this divide between public squalor and private comfort sometimes becomes a little uncomfortable. I was thinking about it yesterday because some animal crapped in the stairwell. No nice way to put that. Perhaps it was one of the cats that visits the stairwell, although cats are usually more discrete in that way.
This is not a tragedy, and in an apartment building in the States, for example, the mess would probably be cleaned up quickly. Probably by the management company that deals with such things. But part of the former Soviet mentality is a reluctance to take responsibility for public goods. So, the small pile still sits on the stairwell. A woman comes from time to time to clean the stairwell, so it will be cleaned up then. But her visits don't seem to conform to any particular schedule. At this point, it's a sort of social experiment. How long we collectively evade responsibility for cleaning up a mess that affects us all? My guess is: pretty long.
(Actually - it was cleaned up a few hours after I wrote the above....)
Monday, November 17, 2008
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Sunday, November 16, 2008
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On the way into town, I was seeking updates from the taxi driver - who said not too much has been happening. The elections were a month ago - and really not much happened after that. Everyone knew the results of that election months earlier. One interesting observation: I asked if the "financial crisis" had affected Azerbaijan much. He said no. Not at all.
In Russia, it's the subject of many conversations and more headlines. But not so in Azerbaijan. Why? Fewer loans? Less economic development - and hence an economy that is less integrated into the world economy? Azerbaijan's economy - like Russia's - depends on its gas and oil wealth - but somehow the drop in prices don't seem to have shaken Azerbaijan as much.
Or - maybe it just seems that way.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Just as I get ready to leave the country on Sunday, the dollar has begun to strengthen against the ruble. I got 28 rubles for the dollar today. Two weeks ago, it was roughly 26. This might not sound like a lot - but actually it adds up - even for the personal consumer.
But - the cappuccino machine where I write is still steaming. I'm not the only customer in this cafe. The stores still have products on the shelves - although I saw a piece on the TV today - about some stores encountering problems with getting the credit they need.
And - of course - the news from the United States isn't so encouraging. I'm posting today's piece by Krugman about Depression Economics. This is Obama's great challenge and opportunity.
(Above are some recent picture. One of the Kremlin area and the full moon. The other - znachki - the little badges that were so freely given out in the Soviet Union. )
Sunday, November 9, 2008
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Saturday, November 8, 2008
I had a Russian friend ask me tonight whether I think the "crisis" is for real.
Funny - because I was wondering about the same thing myself, after reading a free Russian-language publication I picked up in a restaurant the other day. The cover story talks about the "financial crisis." The first article inside is a very self-referential piece about the crisis. A few pages in, an interview with a musical talks about making music in the period of a "crisis." Even the ad on the facing page talks about "How to take care of your family in a time of crisis." But - with all of this - I'm not sure how real this all is. I haven't been living here for awhile - so I don't have a large circle of friends. Among my roughly two dozen friends in Moscow, however, I don't know anyone who has lost a job. The shops are not stripped bare by hoarders, like they were during the financial crisis of 1998. The restaurants might be less crowded than they were nine months ago, but I haven't noticed the prices coming down. I haven't noticed hordes of homeless people on the streets, as they were during the Reagan years in the United States.
So - is there a crisis? I'll take it on faith - but perhaps the real effects aren't being felt yet.
(Here are some recent photos - completely unrelated to this topic. A church in the area of Kitay Gorod; a man walking a dog in the area of the university; a casino near my apartment. )
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
One of the stations also has been running little thumbnail biographies of both candidates. Not surprisingly, the bias is not too subtle toward Obama. Kremin may have been undecided earlier, but McCain has earned the steadfast enmity of the Russian government by his strident defense of Georgia this year. I’ve seen this segment on the candidates several times now. When was the last time you saw the US media present detailed information about the background of a Russian leader in the US media? You can say – “well, it’s not an open competitive political system” – but that does that mean that US citizens should be ignorant about these people?
(OK – Time magazine named Putin “Man of the Year” last year, and devoted the cover story to him. But in general, the US media do a horrible job of informing the US public about foreign affairs. Is it any wonder that US citizens were so easily duped by the Bush administration in so many areas?)
Of course, we get some equally silly commentary here – but perhaps it’s more amusing when it’s in a foreign language. Over breakfast, I listened to Zhirinovsky, for example. Yes, I have a strong stomach. (For those of you who don’t follow Russian politics, Zhirinovsky is a former presidential candidate and current member of the Duma, the Russian parliament. He enjoys his notoriety as an anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalistic racist.)
Zhirinovsky’s perspective: Obama will be the US version of Gorbachev, leading to the dismantling of the US empire. The Mexicans will flood over the border. The blacks will take control of the country.
While this might be the occasion for some glee on the part of US foes, I also detected some ambivalence in Zhirinovsky. For any real racist, the idea of a despised race coming to power has to be disturbing, even if this is occurring in a foreign country.
I thought about the racists in my own country. There are many. But Obama is winning the election on the pledge to change much in the country, and a majority of people in the country recognize that major changes are needed. (I forget the current percentage of how many people tell pollsters that the country is heading in the wrong direction. A sizeable majority has felt this way for years.) The problem is – getting the people to agree on the changes. Major changes are needed & major changes are needed. I have absolutely no reservation in stating that Obama is the right person for this job right now. It’s a historic opportunity, and I hope he can use it.
Tonight - I'm going to an election night party in Moscow. I expect mostly expat Americans- perhaps with some curious Russians mixed in. More on that tomorrow!
Monday, November 3, 2008
Organized by the group Nashi (Ours), the demonstration was to protest the multitude of US foreign policy sins. The protestors carried gruesomely carved pumpkins with little American flags. I couldn’t do a crowd count just from seeing the TV footage but the protest certainly attracted a large crowd.
Nashi is the youth wing of the United Russia party, the ruling party here. So naturally I was wondering about the sub-text of this event. Such a demonstration doesn’t occur spontaneously. Why was this event held now? The purported reason was the Halloween holiday. I guess because US foreign policy is spooky.
The protest would have had a lot more credibility if it had not been so stage managed. Also, the little bits of footage I saw did not impress me. It seemed that the protestors were spouting rote slogans. One protestor complained about US policy in Iraq, Serbia, Georgia, and North Korea. OK – I definitely agree with the idiocy and immorality of US policy in Iraq. I think most of the civilized word gets that. Serbia and Georgia are completely understandable sore points for Russians. But Korea? I have my American bias, but I rarely hear about the US oppressing North Korea.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
According to AFP:
"Azerbaijan is not interested in the broadcasting of foreign channels on its national frequencies," said Nushirvan Magerramli, chairman of the State Council for Television and Radio broadcasting.
Obviously, this is disturbing - but not surprising. Everyone watching the elections in Azerbaijan expected that the landslide victory by President Ilham Aliyev would be followed by repression and unpopular measures. Now, maintaining the facade of democracy is even less important.
This seemed an obvious point, but he was not referring to the obvious use of the language to explain and describe. My friend was referring to the use of language to evade the censor, a cat-and-mouse game familiar to great Russian writers from Pushkin to Pasternak. Certain words, he noted, will get you targeted for such offenses as promoting extremism. So, a good writer must know these words, and know the synonyms for these words.
I thought this little conversation was interesting, because I had never had the issue described so frankly by a contemporary journalist. Later in the evening, I described our dialog to a friend of mine, a writer for Russian television. While his routine is naturally different, he said his team of writers faces the same challenges. But while a journalist may in fact be writing about political matters, these television script writers are writing comedy. Nonetheless, they are constantly having to battle censors at the company – which is essentially government owned – over what can and can’t be said by the characters in the comedy. Anything remotely political is taboo. And laughing at politics is absolutely forbidden.
On a different subject, I heard from two separate sources about new layoffs occurring within the Russian media. The assumption is that they are related to the current or expected economic downturn. Also – I spent some time yesterday looking for a Moscow Times. The newspaper at one point was the premiere English language news source in Moscow, very valuable when the Internet was not so ubiquitous. Now, however, I think it’s lost some of its value, perhaps because it does not claim the same place in the market and because its current owners do not allow it the editorial independence that it had 10 years ago. Anyway – my search was fruitless. I wonder whether it too may be squeezed by the current financial situation.
Another conversation: Yesterday I met a man who works in the financial services area. Specifically, he works with the currency exchange. We chatted, and I ventured that his business might be difficult at the moment. It’s difficult, he agreed, because it’s been very busy. The economic turmoil has increased the number of people coming into the office, seeking to make money from currency speculation. Interesting reaction – but at some level, I understand it.
Friday, October 31, 2008
Thursday, October 30, 2008
In fact, while the article talks about credit cards being refused, I don't really see many signs here of a business slowdown. Yesterday, I read an article about guest workers being stranded here - as their work contracts aren't renewed. But - the restaurants still have business. I don't notice more people sleeping on the street. Yet.
I did notice earlier this week that the ruble had weakened against the dollar - but today, the rates were back to what they had been. The government here has deep currency reserves to protect the value of the dollar. And there is a strong political reason for such action.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
I read the headlines in the NYT this morning about the stock markets plunging again. I have been blissfully unaware of this. I went for a walk by the Moscow River while the frenetic and depressing activity was occurring on Wall Street. But Russia is quite tied into this downturn. The plunging oil prices spell trouble for the government. I was talking with a friend yesterday who is a headhunter for people in the banking business. Needless to say, his business has been crazy. The effect of the crisis is already visible on the skyline - as work has visibly slowed at the multitude of construction sites that dot this city.
I'm not sure where is the right place to hide from this economic downturn - but Moscow isn't it.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Sunday, October 19, 2008
On a related note, I read yesterday about the team of Russian election observers going to check out the contest in the US. Good for them. There are some people in Florida, Mississippi, and Ohio (to name a few states) who could give first class lessons in voter fraud.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Perhaps this is because Azerbaijan is less tightly connected to world markets. Of course, it is connected – quite dependent on the oil consumption in the developed world, of course. But financial activity does not occur on anything near the scale like Moscow or New York.
Another explanation could be that Russia has suffered so much from past financial crises, and so is sensitized to them. Ten years ago, I left Russia in the midst of the ruble crisis of 1998. The stores were emptied of goods that could be horded. The bank machines stopped working for days. I remember lending a friend – who was a fairly prominent film director – some spare cash, because he found himself flat broke & with no means of getting cash.
Within a few minutes of my arrival this time, my Russian hosts asked me about the global financial crisis, joking that the Americans are to blame.
Of course, that’s not much of a joke. But they smiled.
Today I met with the leader of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, to discuss a new training program for journalists. It was a fine & fruitful meeting. Nice guy. Well-connected journalist. Chubais returned his phone call in the middle of our conversation. My only objection to the conversation were the cheap cigarettes he chain smoked. About five minutes before my departure, he thought to open a window. Actually, I don’t think it would have made a difference to me if he were chain-smoking the most expensive cigarettes. It was still pretty damn smoky in there.
I’ll be attending a conference with a bunch of Russian journalists in a couple of days. I can expect some more smoky rooms.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I hear a small cavalcade of cars honking their horns. I imagine that they are supporters of the president, who has surely won re-election. Perhaps the results have been officially called. The results, in any case, were known for months. Today I spoke with a taxi driver about the situation. He said that Russia is much more democratic compared to Azerbaijan. Certainly, these election provide lots of food for cynicism.
Nonetheless, people did come out to vote. I visited a polling place this afternoon with some friends, and it was crowded. I met a 90-year-old man who was voting. I also saw a man reeking of alcohol who attempted to vote, but he was hustled away. The people running the balloting took their jobs quite seriously, as did the people casting their ballots. One of my friends, an Azerbaijani man, asked how the scene was different from the polling in the USA. Where I have voted in recent years - New York State - the voters use automated voting machines. But other than this, the scene was fairly similar. Unlike the United States, the limit on campaigning near the polling booth was quite stringent. There were no people holding signs on the street corner. But - then again - I've never seen anyone holding a sign during this whole campaign. That's not what they do here.
So, the president will win another term. And then? People are already joking about his wife succeeding him. And he has a young son too.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
So, tomorrow thousands of people will go to the polls, to participate in some sort of civic exercise. It's not really a democratic exercise. It's more like going to a parade, a way to express patriotism by voting support for the government. And after the president has won re-election, what then?
That is the more important question. Price hikes? More concerted repression of dissent? These are distinct possibilities. But defeat at the polls for the president is completely impossible.
After the election, the hundreds of election observers will write their reports. The observers might see a few offenses, but I doubt that any shenanigans are necessary to ensure that the right result is obtained at the polls. Democracy is not about the conduct of any one election. Free elections are the result of months of democratic behavior that precede the elections. And in Azerbaijan, the political and social environment just doesn't allow an open consideration of alternatives in this election.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Friday, October 10, 2008
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Thursday, October 9, 2008
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Tuesday, October 7, 2008
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Monday, October 6, 2008
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Sunday, October 5, 2008
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Saturday, October 4, 2008
Last night we lost power for at least six hours. This seems like a prosaic enough event, but as I mentioned earlier, I view apparently innocent developments through a political lens. What does this new construction project mean? The shiny new currency issued two weeks before the election?
The power outage is probably just an infrastructure problem. We lose electricity service from time to time. It happens often. Usually, the outage doesn't last six hours, but.....
Earlier this summer, a friend was telling me about the last presidential election, when apparently real competition existed and it was possible that the president's power might be shaken. The opposition was active - as opposed to this year, when for the most part it is boycotting the election. When the opposition candidate attempted to hold events, however, mysterious power outages occurred in the vicinity. This was not only inconvenient; it severely handicapped the opposition's attempts to get publicity, already an uphill battle. Here's a good report on the 2003 election, in which the government was widely condemned for its manipulation of the vote.
So, when the lights go out, I wonder.
(Above is one of the boards posted around the downtown, displaying the candidates. The president's picture is in the top left corner. Also, a photo of another large "beautification" project down by the boulevard.)
Friday, October 3, 2008
I advised her to go to the market, shop, and note who treated her well & who did not. Don't return to the people who cheated you & just shop with the people who treated you well.
The bazaar economy is different from the economy that most Westerners are used to - where they can more or less efficiently seek out the best price for best quality . In the bazaar, personal relationships and reputations are much more importa)t than momentary price advantages. (Thanks to the late, great Clifford Geertz for exploring this theme in his work.)
Of course, I don't always follow my own advice. Usually I do. But sometimes I get swayed by variations in price or quality. About a month ago my regular egg merchant, for example, began selling eggs that seemed decidedly smaller than usual. I didn't stop buying them immediately, but last week I went to a different merchant. My regular guy saw me buying there! I felt like I was buying some sort of contraband. Caught! Very guilty. Today, I went back to him and bought my regular 10 eggs. He was polite & said the eggs were of good quality - although I mentioned that they were smaller.
When I was leaving, he said something to the effect of - "I saw you the other day. You should just shop here. You're my friend."
I had broken the law of the bazaar. He knew it & I knew it. I think I'm forgiven. After all, I have been quite a good customer over the last seven months or so. But I know that these offenses are noticed.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
I was talking tonight with a friend, an Azerbaijani woman, who just returned from the regions. She was visiting relatives in the area around Barda, which isn't that far from the area now occupied by the Armenian separatists. She said the president recently had been through this region. In the weeks prior to the Oct. 15 election, he has been touring most of the country, even visiting the small city of Zaqatala, which is perched up by the border with Georgia. The routine seems to be the same in all these visits, as he cuts many ribbons and gives speeches that are then reported verbatim by the government newspapers.
What I thought was interesting was the preparation that authorities had made for the visit to the region. She said her friends and relatives were prohibited from going out on the street during the time of the president's visit. Not to mail a letter. Not visit a friend. No one was allowed on the streets.
It's a little ironic, because I'm sure the local residents thoroughly cleaned and painted all the areas that the president saw on his visit. But he couldn't see the regular residents. Oh, I'm sure he saw the local officials - but regular life was shut down by his visit. OK - I didn't interview the residents of this town, but my friend's account has the ring of verisimilitude. I'm remembering how the road to Sheki was shut down for his visit there. The only road to town. Just shut down. Inconvenient? Yes. But arguing with the policemen is worse than useless.
So, I expect the folk in the town that the president visit just followed orders and stayed inside.
(The photo above is of the sunrise this morning in Baku.)
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Monday, September 29, 2008
Everything is connected, so just because my involvement in the stock market is limited to one very small 401k doesn't mean that the US financial crisis doesn't affect me here, thousands of miles away. Sometimes it's nice to cling to the illusory feeling of isolation. Earlier this month when I spent a couple of weeks in the small mountain city of Zaqatala, it was easy to feel that the USA could implode and the Azerbaijani cattle would continue to saunter slowly through the streets, the nut trees would continue to bear their harvest, the clouds would continue to dance over the mountain. And, of course, they certainly would. But that doesn't mean that I wouldn't be touched by such a crisis.
I was reading the post-vote commentary this morning, and one comment stuck with me. A majority of Republican representatives voted against the economic rescue plan, displaying their independence from an administration that begs for their support. Where - the commentator asked - was this independence six years ago, when the Bush administration was drumming up the case for war? In that case, independence would certainly have been a good thing. Perhaps if the Congress had not been so servile, we would not be mired in the aftermath of a tragically failed foreign policy. Now - members of the House of Representatives - especially Republicans -demonstrate their independence - and risk causing even greater harm to the economy. Very perverse.
(I see plenty of problems with the bailout bill - but I think there is a strong case to be made that the cost of inaction outweighs the demerits of the legislation.)
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Saturday, September 27, 2008
This is a short film, showing my students interviewing on the streets of Sheki. The sound quality isn't good - and unless you know Azerbaijani, you won't understand anything beyond the facial and body expressions. Beyond the merits or demerits of the film, I think the student's assignment was useful, and I hope to repeat it in the future. Interviewing strangers on the street is great practice for beginning journalists.
Friday, September 26, 2008
Today I had a much briefer conversation with a cab driver. The initial pattern of the conversation was familiar.
1. Q. Where are you from?
Oh - America! (People tend to be surprised about this because at least 90 percent of my conversations are in Russian.)
2. Q. What are you doing here?
3. Q. What do you think about Azerbaijan?
4. Q. What do you think about the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict? (Worded in in one way or another. This question is asked at least 75 percent of the time.)
5. What is the average income in the United States?
To be honest, I didn't know the answer to this question, so I guessed at $2,000 a month.
This is a lot for Azerbaijan, and it seemed reasonable to me. I've since checked and learned that the real figure is roughly double that. But incomes vary widely from state to state. What really impressed the taxi driver was the existence of poor people in the USA. Yes, poor people exist in the United States of America. Many, I told him. He simply couldn't believe this - but I told him "I'm an American. I know about this. Yes, there are many poor people there."
His sister lives in Brooklyn, so I'm not sure what she tells him. Last time I checked, there were poor people in Brooklyn too.
But it reminded me of one of the basic misconceptions about the United States. It's a wide-spread misconception that all Americans are rich. When I lived in Russia in the 1990s, many Russians were in the thrall to a silly soap opera - Santa Barbara - which I had never seen before moving to St. Petersburg. For many Russians, then living in the grim period of transition from communist rule, Santa Barbara was a wonderful vision about how capitalism could help make everyone rich.
Oddly enough, this summer I got to know an Azerbaijani woman who moved from her country to Santa Barbara. She hated it.
(Above is a picture of Capwell clan of Santa Barbara fame.)
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I perceive the fevered pace of public works in Azerbaijan in the context of the coming election. People can look at the new lamps going up on the boulevard by the sea in Baku and think – “Oh, there’s my government at work.” They can be happy with the shiny new ride installed for the kids downtown. A small army of street sweepers is employed to scour the public areas around the center of the city throughout the day. It would be interesting to count how many are employed every day during this pre-election period, and compare it with the post-election employment. Hmm. That’s a possibility.
Today I took a long taxi ride – and hence had a long conversation with a taxi driver. The conversation spanned the gamut from geopolitical questions to local politics. His take on the elections was predictable – nothing will change. But his read on the current political climate was even darker than most people I talk to. His conclusion: If you criticize the government aloud, you put yourself and your family in danger. The man wasn’t talking about writing a letter to the editor or something. (That option doesn’t really exist here.) Even making open criticism at the market, for example, could be dangerous. People get killed for it. Just disappear.
The driver said he wouldn’t have expressed this opinion to other Azerbaijanis, but I’m an American, so he felt safe talking about the situation.
Whether or not his dark view is justified, I think he was being sincere in expressing his fears. In itself, this is disturbing. Repression works through fear. Actually going to the trouble of physically repressing all dissenters is quite labor intensive. But all you need to do is inspire enough fear, and the dissent will be manageable.
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Sunday, September 21, 2008
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The election season has begun here - with posters similar to the one above plastered on walls around the city. The posters remind me of those that I saw in Russia before the election there, depicting "ordinary citizens" who are apparently going to exercise their civic duty and go vote.
The president also has some posters up, just a photo of himself and a short phrase that identifies himself as candidate. I haven't seen posters for any other candidates.
By chance, my path crossed that of the president earlier in the week. He was coming to Sheki as I was leaving. In preparation for his visit, the authorities had closed the only road to the city. Very inconvenient. My first taxi driver turned back - with a defeatist attitude. I'd just have to spend another day in Sheki, he said. I wasn't resigned to this - and was able to find a driver that had a pass through the police blockade.
While the president was in the northern part of the country, he supposedly visited a whole bunch of stuff that has been on hold for months, waiting for his visit. A new stadium, culture club, and hotel in Zaqatala, to name just a few projects. In Sheki, the scene was characterized by feverish activity, as people of all ages were painting, weeding, and cleaning along what I presume was the route of the presidential entourage.
The election, of course, isn't much of a contest, but that's not to say there's nothing to write about.
The last issue of Zerkalo carried on page two an article that depicts the contrasting situations for the the New Azerbaijan Party (the ruling party) and its opponents. YAP, as it is known from its Azerbaijani initials, held its meeting in a stadium. Attending the meeting thousands of government workers, who were essentially required to attend.
The opponents of the governments, however, were only able to get permission to meet at a remote location.
Friday, September 19, 2008
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Thursday, September 18, 2008
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Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Monday, September 15, 2008
Nonetheless, the school that employs her is still in business and still making plans for the coming year. Life goes on. Earlier in the week, I met an American who is planing to move to Tbilisi, captivated by its open intellectual atmosphere - quite different from the atmosphere in Baku, I might add.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
Of course, I've talked to numerous local citizens who are fairly cynical about the visit. People aren't stupid. They know that Azerbaijan has much natural wealth & they wonder why they don't see more of that in the hands of ordinary citizens.
Nonetheless, I'm sure many people are excited about the visit, if only because of the many new projects that connected to it. Of course, Zaqatala isn't alone. This set of ceremonial openings is coordinated across the country, as the nation prepares for presidential elections on Oct. 15. Today I was reading Baku Worker, a government paper written in Russian. The entire paper is devoted to speeches given at these ceremonial events.
The coverage brings new meaning to the words "boring" and "synchophantic." Here is a picture of the president cutting a ribbon. Here is a picture of him at the podium. Here is a picture of him cutting another ribbon. The speeches - particularly the speeches welcoming him - are really embarassingly effusive.
So, these are the examples of journalism with which my students are familiar. I'm not saying it's not journalism - but it is a completely different activity than what I teach.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Life is surprising. The beauty of clouds drifting over a mountain can surprise me. The question asked by a student may surprise me. The peripatetic Christian rock band that plays a set in front of the Zaqatala Culture Hall can surprise me.
This band was playing yesterday evening in the main square as I was hurrying to get some materials translated. Otherwise, I would have lingered, not so much to listen to the music to observe the interaction between the musicians and the singers. And there was an audience. You can see from the photo above. They appeared to be listening politely, interested if unmoved. The lyrics concerned the resurrection of Jesus, God’s love, and similar nice sentiments. OK. I didn’t stop to listen for more than a minute, so I’m not completely certain of this – but these subjects are pretty much the standard fare of Christian rock.
The visitors didn’t seem to be bad musicians. A black woman in a flowing skirt was dancing around the stage as the musicians played. This must have seemed very exotic also for the locals. A few Chinese merchants sell plastic toys door to door, and ethnic minorities like Georgians and Avars have lived in this area for centuries. But I doubt the region is often visited by African-Americans.
I heard from a Peace Corps volunteer that the band had played earlier in the day in a small city down the road. I’m not sure where they were headed next. I’m sorry that I didn’t have more time to spend in square, to talk with the audience and the musicians. I would be interested in the visitors' impressions of Zaqatala. I know there is some evangelizing that occurs in this area, and it is in general met with official hostility. Not long ago, a pastor in this area was charged with gun possession, a charge that supporters said had been entirely fabricated.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Yesterday, we added a dozen more bloggers to the Internet. My students here in Zaqatala say they plan to write about subjects such as soccer, local history, journalism, and local current events. The process of getting them all registered and signed up for blogs is a little stressful, because not all of them are very computer savvy. But it's worth it.
I should note that the main lecturing and instruction on blogs is provided by Emin of Transitions Online. He's been visiting my classes since Baku, and I'd like to think we've improved our approach since that class in the late spring.
We've learned a few things. One is that the young students are more receptive to learning these new forms of communication. They are less likely to be intimidated or bored. And we've learned that the theory needs to have real application. It's not just about telling the students about what blogs are. They sign up and get started blogging during the class.
Does this have a political impact? Perhaps. Several of the students told me they intend to write about what is happening in their community. This is news reporting, even if it's not done for a newspaper. And it is far less likely to be censored than a newspaper. Like most political change, the change created by these blogs will mostly occur slowly. But that doesn't mean that it is less real.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Zagatala is not off the map, of course. It’s right by the border that Azerbaijan shares with Georgia. But it certainly not on the main route followed by tourists. In my opinion, this has more advantages than disadvantages.
Yes, it may be impossible to find a postcard in the town. (I haven’t looked – but I’m told that the mosque used to sell old Soviet cards.) Only two bank machines serve the town- and their operation at any time is far from a certainty. At this point, only three hotels serve the town – as far as I can tell. I’m not counting the grand hotel that is scheduled to open after the president visits next week, or something that may or may not be a motel down by the bus station.
But the advantage to its remote location is that you can feel more of a sense of discovery when exploring the place. Yesterday, I went up with Ivan and Emin into the woods, to an ancient Albanian fort of some sort that Ivan showed me last week. Ivan, 16, loves the woods and loves to share his knowledge of the woods. He showed us the bones that he has found inside the fort. And we found an apple tree that produces star-shaped fruit. It is these simple but satisfying discoveries that aren’t so likely when the whole area has been commercialized by a successful tourism industry.
Later, we visited an ancient Albanian church located in a nut grove. No plaque marks the spot. The site is mainly protected by a nearly impenetrable tangle of thorny vines. To see the church itself takes an act of imagination, because most of the structure has collapsed. But the six-foot thick walls remain. And underneath, surely there are archeological riches. At the moment, however, the site is excavated only by wild animals.
Above is a shot of the tower, Ivan holding the star apple, and the back of the covered church.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
I had a few people warn me against going to Georgia, but they were far away from the area. The area I hoped to visit was far from the fighting, so I assumed that life wouldn’t be too affected at this point.
I was right.
I crossed over the Azerbaijan-Georgia by the Azerbaijan town of Balakan. On the other side of the town is Lagodekhi. The guidebook I’m using calls Lagodekhi “soulless.” That seems harsh, although I can’t say I saw much compelling there. The nature reserve that it borders sounds quite beautiful, with populations of chamois, mountain goats, bear, and wolf. But visiting the reserve takes considerable planning. You can’t just drop in and go hiking.
After crossing the border quite easily, I caught a taxi to Tsnori (40 lari, or about $20). Tsnori had less to it than I imagined. A run-down commercial area, and run-down Soviet-style housing. So I wandered through the back streets until I found the road to Signaghi. Rather than pay for another cab, I decided to walk the whole way. After the first 40 minutes of the walk, I began to question my decision – but I had made the choice and there was little chance of flagging a cab at that point, even if my pride had allowed it.
On the positive side, I found an old Georgian church on the way. It was ancient- but not abandoned. Inside, people evidently still burned candles in front the icons. But I’m not sure if the bats sleeping on the ceiling were Christian.
And when I got hungry, I found snacks growing on the blackberry bushes and pomegranate trees by the road.
People have lived in the area now occupied by this little town since pre-history, but the town itself only developed in the lat 18th century. Perched on a bluff above a broad plain that stretches to the Caucasus Mountains, Signaghi has been has home to many musicians and artists over the years. I could understand this, given its scenic location.
At the moment, the town seems is still completing a renovation project, financed by some U.S. grants. Maybe some World Bank funds too. (I can’t remember the details from the signs. While some people might argue that the grants make the place look less “authentic,” for the most part the renovation seems to have been very tasteful. It’s nice to see houses well-kept and painted. And I loved the baskets for throwing litter away. They were very common – and appeared to be used. Of course, out of the town, people still dump their trash by the side of the road, but at least within the town it’s quite neat.
The style of the architecture in the town is quite different the houses in Azerbaijan. The houses were almost Italianate, brightly painted with red tiled roofs. After strolling around the center, I headed toward what is referred to as “the monastery.” Now, this place is a convent, and the black robed nuns were working outside on the beautiful grounds. In the church lies the tomb of St. Nino, the saint who brought Christianity to Georgia.
You may notice that the word “war” doesn’t occur in any of this description. No refugees clogged the roads. No smell of cordite in the air. The war was alluded to in a conversation I had at the local tourist center. But no one spit at me when I asked if Russian was understood. And in fact, most of the people I spoke with did speak Russian. The most extensive conversation I had about the war was in the taxi on my way back from Signaghi. He said that Georgia has good relations with all its neighbors. Except for Russia.
Yeah, I guess.
(Above is a shot from the interior of an old church. And a shot of Signaghi.)
Friday, September 5, 2008
Thursday, September 4, 2008
In Zaqatala, it won’t take you long until you hear about the nut factory. Nuts, as we know, grow on trees. The factory processed those nuts. So, people call it the nut factory.
The nuts to which they refer are what English-speaking people call hazelnuts or filberts. Very tasty. The bush-like trees grow well here. Sometimes it seems like they grow wild.
In the days of the Soviet Union, Zaqatala was home to one of two “nut factories” in Europe. I think the other one is in the Czech Republic. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did the business of the nut factory.
This is just one of countless examples around the former Soviet Union. You will find these examples all over. The factory that used to produce machine parts, but the orders stopped coming after the Soviet Union collapsed. The large farm that grew cotton, but then the demand for the cotton plummeted after the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s difficult for Westerners who have not traveled in this region and really thought about it to understand the depth of the impact caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, when the Western politicians crow about the West “winning” the Cold War, it’s hard to feel very good about this when this means that the West’s “victory” means mass unemployment and despair for your town.
In Zaqatala, some Turkish investors have recently built a new nut factory, but it’s much more modest in scope than the old Soviet plant. It comes nowhere near to meeting the economic needs of the community.
I’ve been thinking even more about the collapse of the Soviet Union lately because I’m about half-way through “The New Cold War,” by Edward Lucas. It’s a timely book, although I’m sure it strikes many people as a fear-mongering and alarmist work. I’m not sure it’s unduly alarmist. I’m thinking about my recent conversations with Russian friends. And thinking about conversations with people who have traveled in Russia very recently. One friend recently remarked that she was alarmed at how nationalist her friends had become.
In many ways, this nationalism is entirely predictable. I lived in Russia during the Yeltsin years. I remember very well the crash of the ruble, the final economic crisis that was the beginning of the end for Yeltsin and his administration. It is easy to understand how those are shameful memories for Russians – and how Russians would be happy to support a nationalistic administration that appears to have brought order and pride back to Russia.
Many people will argue, of course, that nationalism - whatever the nation - isn’t a bad thing. Pride in one’s country or village or family is natural and good. But I am opposed to nationalism – whatever that nation – if it is an excuse to neglect self-criticism. If we love our country, then we should be brutally honest about its shortcomings. If we are not honest about these faults, we cannot improve them. So, I am quite frank in my discussions with foreigners and other Americans about the aspects of the United States that I consider shameful – its health care system, its materialism, its foreign policy, its economic inequality, its violence, its racism, its religious intolerance, its poor education system. But I am an American, and as such, I have am responsible to some extent for this large and powerful country. I cannot make excuses for it.
And I cannot make excuses for the foreign policy of the United States, that in some ways made the rise of Putin possible. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the politicians and businesses in the West badly managed the situation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it’s equally hard to expect that they could have managed it well. Following a policy that might have avoided the current dangerous situation would have required much greater wisdom than could be expected from elected leaders and businesses. Politicians revel in triumphalism. And in a capitalist system, entrepreneurs will always seek quick profits.
I would summarize the mistake of the Western powers as a failure to consider Russia a real negotiating partner. In negotiation, we must exercise our imagination in order to consider as fully as possible the perspective of our negotiating partner. We must attempt to view the world through that partner’s eyes. To understand his fears, his desires, his motivations. Because the West - particularly the United States – considered that it had “won” the Cold War, it failed to treat Russia as a negotiating partner. The Soviet Union, after all, had been defeated. The perspective of its former rulers was not relevant.
And now, we are shocked to learn that the Russians are not embracing the democracy of the West. Many Russians consider that they tried democracy. It brought them economic chaos and few concessions from the West. Better for Russia to apply a more familiar authoritarian model of government and rely on its own natural resources to command the respect of the West. I think this is an entirely understandable position.
Of course, this will not help in the long-term economic development of Russia. The country’s reliance on its energy resources means that broad economic restructuring can be avoided. And Russian foreign policy informed by resurgent nationalism already has made the region more dangerous, as the Georgians recently discovered. But the response of the Russian leadership – and of the Russian people who support those leaders - is completely understandable.
And in Zaqatala, perhaps the Turkish investors will be successful. Perhaps the country will remain at peace, despite the Russian troops a few hundred kilometers away. And perhaps a nut factory will again employ many of the population here. Inshala.