Sunday, August 31, 2008

Illegal Police Raid on AntiRNC Convergence Space in St. Paul

"At 9:15 Friday night, the Saint Paul Police entered all doors of the RNC Convergence Space in St. Paul, MN with guns drawn. The Space serves as a community center and organizing space for the upcoming protests against the Republican National Convention. At the time of the raid, people were sitting down to dinner and watching a movie."

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

A bomb from Russia

All of Saturday, I still felt the motion of the train, that gentle swaying back and forth. It was a long trip – nearly 11 hours – from Baku to Zaqatala. But the train ride itself was uneventful and even pleasant.

Of course, not everything is pleasant. The smell form the toilet down the hall, for example. But the people in general are friendly, and I frequently have interesting conversations on the train.

I met one man – a native of Zaqatala – who was returning after working in Baku. My acquaintance was not working in his profession exactly, so he didn’t really regard what he did as a real job. But it was a job.

He was quite open about his criticism of the government’s penchant for hanging posters of the president and the president’s father everywhere. He seemed to have some knowledge about how much each poster cost. I’ve wondered about this myself. He said that a small one costs 300 manat and they go up considerably from there – into the thousands of manat. This sounds realistic, and if you do that math – multiply how many such posters hang around the country – it is hard to escape the conclusion that a great deal of money is being spent on this propaganda.

My traveling companion wondered about different ways this money might be invested more profitably for the population.

Of course, the conversations nowadays nearly always turn to Georgia at some point, and today’s chat was no exception. My friend was full of nostalgia for the Soviet system – the equality, the social spending, the fact that people had reasonable jobs – but he was deeply suspicious of the Russians. In the ‘90s, he said, the Russians fired a missile of some sort at Zagatala, and it landed not far from the train station. Because the earth was so soft, it landed but didn’t explode immediately. The authorities detonated it specially, and it created a huge explosion.

As we rode by, he pointed out the crater. To be honest, I wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise. But the impact it made in people’s minds was deeper than the hole it created in the earth. People remember that Russia sent a bomb into Azerbaijan, and this colors their perception of the country.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Monday, August 25, 2008

Here is the Impeachment Petition by Kucinich

Progressive Democrats are trying to keep this issue alive - despite the best efforts of Democrat establishment. The goal is to collect 1,000,000 signatures by September 10th. We need to make sure Bush is held accountable for his high crimes and misdemeanors.

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Considering the view from Abkhazia

This article includes an interesting interview with the president of Abkhazia.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cheney's Link to Sen. Ted Stevens Corruption Trial

Cheney doing favors for the oil and gas industry? Who'd a thunk it!

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Azerbaijan's delicate position

I have been watching television footage of an explosion that occurred after a train hit a mine near the Georgian city of Gori today. At least 10 railway cars carrying oil are reportedly on fire. This latest event underscores the problem that Azerbaijan is facing. One of the ways that the war in Georgia has most concretely affected Azerbaijan is that it makes movement of Azerbaijan's oil and gas to market more precarious.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline is one of the main conduits of oil from Azerbaijan. About 1 million barrels of crude per day normally flows through the pipeline.

The war in Georgia poses a threat to the pipeline, which has been closed for about two weeks. The immediate cause of the closure, however, was fire set by Kurdish rebels in Turkey. BP officials this week said that the pipeline is now being tested and full operations could begin again this coming week.

The gas exports from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia were suspended for a couple of days because of the conflict in Georgia, but gas exports began to flow again last week. The pumping of oil through the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline, however, remained on hold. Also, an explosion at the Caspi bridge in Georgia meant that more than 1000 containers used to transport Azerbaijani oil were stranded in Georgia. Following the explosion, Azerbaijan suspended oil exports through the ports in western Georgia.

Just for the record, Russia denied any involvement in the bridge explosion.

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan issued a statement last week, noting the damage caused to Azerbaijan's exports. The volume of Azerbaijani oil and gas exports has "dropped dramatically," he said.

This economic sensitivity helps explain the delicate position for Azerbaijan.

On one hand, the Azerbaijanis have fresh memories about the heavy-handed rule of Soviets here. In every small Azerbaijani city I've visited, there is some sort of memorial to Black January. On January 19, 1990, 26,000 Soviet troops entered Baku in an attempt to quash a nascent independence movement. More than 130 people were killed and 700 people were wounded. Unarmed civilians were shot and run over by tanks. Ambulances and hospitals were attacked. The massacres of January 19, 1990 never received that much attention from the rest of the world, but the memories endure here.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan is keenly aware of its strategic position vis a vis Russia and the West. And the same people who decry the events of Black January will also frankly say that things were better under the Soviet Union.

One friend here recently described Azerbaijan as a bridge - neither East nor West. Azerbaijanis can be just as fiercely nationalist as Georgians, but in my discussions with them, the Azerbaijanis portray themselves as less stand-offish than the Georgians. (This not scientific polling, just impressions gathered from many conversations.) I think the implication may be that Azerbaijanis perceive themselves as more pragmatic. Part of this pragmatism may be a recognition of the delicacy of its position. Azerbaijan needs peace and a cooperative partner in Georgia if its current mode of exporting oil and gas is to continue. And it would like the support of the United States to balance the power of the Russians. (I'm not even going to get into the Russian role in the conflict with Armenia!)

Joshua Foust has a good piece about press coverage of the conflict in Georgia in the recent Columbia Journalism Review. In general, the coverage has been predictably bad, with little attention to the history - which is bloody on both sides.

Now That’s Rich

A concise examination of how U.S. tax policies affect different income groups. Now - if only U.S. voters would cast ballots in their own economic self-interest!

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thinking about global politics at sunrise

At this point in the summer, the morning is not just the best time for walking; it’s the only time for walking. That is, if you want to walk comfortably without being soaked in sweat. At 9 a.m., the temperature is already more than 30 degree Celsius (85 or so Fahrenheit). So, I walk early in the morning.

It’s also a beautiful time for walking, the sun rising, the traffic sparse. On the pedestrian boulevard by the Caspian Sea, the ice cream vendors sleep on benches or next to their stands. The exercise aficionados of all ages walk, run, or roll along the pavement. The fishermen line the pier, tugging on their long poles in the strange hope of landing a fix perhaps three or maybe four inches long. The sun rises. I’ll include here some photos, and also a video clip I’ve put together.

As I walked, I thought about conversations of the previous day. I heard from a friend of mine in Moscow. We had a lively little e-mail exchange. I was curious about his opinion, because he is Western educated, and he was not a fan of Putin when Putin came to power. But in recent years, I have sensed that his opposition to the status quo has diminished. Like many Russians, he shares an understandable sense of being disrespected. In the last seven years especially, the United States has acted too often as if the objections of Russia to US strategic plans do not need to be taken seriously. The war in Georgia put the United States and the rest of the world that yes, Russia does still matter. Quite a bit. (My friend recommended this recent article in The Guardian for an even-handed treatment of the issue.) Here's another article that provides a some different perspectives. It's a bit rambling - but it makes some good points.

I was also thinking about a conversation with another friend – alluded to earlier – about the Russian people being losers in this war too. I think this is true. In fact, as I think about it – the one player who seems to act as if he has won from this situation is John McCain. I was thinking about this especially after a recent NY Times poll about voters and their priorities. If the voters are focused on the economy, McCain comes out behind. But the US public appears to think that he would be a better commander-in-chief. (This perception drives me crazy – because I think he is incomparably worse than Barack Obama in that regard too. To my mind, McCain’s statements on foreign relations have been rash and foolish. We do not need another fool in the White House.) So, creating some sort of international crisis situation plays to McCain’s perceived strength. Also, don’t forget that McCain’s top foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann received more than $730,000 in lobbying fees from Georgia since 2001.

So, it would be in McCain’s benefit if Georgia President Saakashvili felt emboldened to take aggressive action against the South Ossetians and their Russian protectors. The response of the Russians was almost entirely predictable, but it could be worth it for Saakashvili if he understood that the United States would support him.

Of course, Scheunemann couldn’t guarantee that support, and the Georgian people lose in the gamble. But John McCain gets an opportunity to look aggressive in a situation that seems to benefit a hawkish stance. Look at the polls. In the week after the fighting in Georgia, McCain has done well versus Obama. Reuters even produced a poll last week that showed him up by five points over Obama.

In general, I am not a conspiracy theorist. Conspiracy theories tend to make the world simpler than it is. But – secret arrangements in government and between governments occur all the time. Reality can be just as weird as anything dreamed up by Robert Ludlum. (Remember Oliver North?)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I saw a little item in Day.Az today - about the arrest of Wahhabists in Zaqatala this week. They were arrested in connection with an explosion at a local mosque.

This interested me for several reasons.

First, I am going to Zaqatala next week for my last planned course. A friend had told me about a high level of activity by members of the Wahhabi sect in that area. This seems a little strange to me, because another friend has told me that the atmosphere in Zaqatala is "progressive." Men & women can demonstrate affection publicly.My friend - a Peace Corps volunteer - wears shorts. But - this "progressivism" coexists with a high level of activity by the very conservative Wahhabi sect.

Second, the internal conflicts of Islam are interesting to me. Mysterious because the religion is quite foreign to me, despite the fact that I live now in a Muslim culture. The Wahhabi sect is regarded with some hostility by many Muslim here, because the Wahhabi are seen as extreme, giving Muslims as a whole a bad name. The Wahhabis also have a reputation for violence. And the Washhabis themselves regard the Shia - the dominant sect in Azerbaijan - as apostates.

Perhaps I'll do some interviews once I get to Zaqatala. I'm looking forward to the trip.

Here are a couple of photos from my morning walk today. It really is about the only time when it is comfortable to walk briskly. Even at 8:30 a.m., the temperature was about 30 C (85 F).

Monday, August 18, 2008

Would Obama Prosecute the Bush Administration?

I hope so. But this position probably won't help him get elected.

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Lessons in real estate

Assisting a friend with the search for an apartment took up most of the afternoon and evening. While landlord negotiations can be a bit tedious, I also felt useful because my friend doesn't speak Russian. And it was interesting seeing what sort of apartments are available for such sums of money. Baku is not cheap. The food isn't cheap. The clothes aren't cheap. The real estate isn't cheap. He finally got a very nice one bedroom apartment for 800 manat ($960) a month. Like most places, the common area of the building is quite run-down, but the interior is nicely restored. The building was constructed in 1856, and many of the original fixtures are still in place. Earlier, he had considered a place for what he thought was $1600. Then - the landlady said that she was talking about manat, not dollars. "Everybody does business in manat now. No one works in dollars, because the dollar changes around too much," she said.

Another observation: the real estate agent said the market right now tightening up considerably. Observers for the elections on Oct. 15 are already renting apartments. So are people who have fled the fighting in Georgia.

In the inevitable waiting periods that are part of the process, the real estate agent told us her own tale, of how she lost her own apartment when she took her son to safety in 1990. At the time, violence between Azerbaijanis and ethnic Russian was escalating. She took her son to her parents in Leningrad, where he would be safe. In her absence, a mob broke into her apartment and seized it, destroying the documents that proved her ownership.

Her family never did recover that apartment. But her son is safe - and is now studying to become a dentist.

(Above is a picture of some boys playing soccer (football) in the streets of Baku.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008


I have not turned on the television news today, but I did listen to the BBC today. The report: that the Russians are not hurrying to move from their positions inside Georgia. Surely this is no surprise. The Russians are looking for further security guarantees. The cynicism would really be amusing - but war isn't funny.

The Washington Post had a good piece today on the conflict. The article methodically mapped out the events that led up to open warfare last week. Good because it paid attention to the role that both parties played. Of course, both parties will complain about the bias - so this is probably a good sign. Yes, the Georgians endured month and months of taunts and provocations - but the fact remains that the evidence appears to show that it was the Georgians who started the shelling of Tskhinvali. Of course, this was exactly what the Russians wanted - a response to their provocation, the excuse to begin a complete invasion.

I remarked yesterday to an American friend that the war has really been a tragedy for all concerned, not least the Russian people. Why the Russians? he asked. I think the Russian people - as opposed to the insiders at the Kremlin - will suffer if the conflict widens or persists. Yes, the Russian government budget sits on a comfortable surplus now, but this doesn't mean that the Russian economy as a whole is healthy. It remains overly dependent on its energy resources. The country needs investment in its infrastructure and its people. And the fat energy revenues mask serious problems in the economy. Corruption and inefficiency are persistent problems. These problems will only be exacerbated if Russia become further economically and politically isolated as a result of this conflict.

But - because the country's leaders do not fear democratic elections, the real interests of the country don't rank very high in the decision-making criteria.

Then again - my own country is supposedly democratic - and I sometimes wonder if its leaders consider the long-term interests of its people.

By the way - here is a blog also written by a Baku resident, also talking about the war in Georgia. It was recommended to me recently by a friend.

On a separate topic entirely, the lunar eclipse was quite visible last night in Baku. I woke up about 1:30 a.m. and happened to notice as the sun's shadow starting easing over the big silver moon. Took a photo or two - but they were really unimpressive. Instead - here's a show I took of the full moon rising over the Caspian last night. And a shot of the "bulvar."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Widely different views of war

Unfortunately, the cynical interpretation taken by Zerkalo a couple of days ago seems to have been validated by recent events in Georgia. The news on Al Jazeera tonight is of the Russians making threatening moves toward the second largest city in Georgia, perhaps as a feint to show displeasure over the recent decision to send aid to Georgia. In any case, the conflict claims primary space in many – but not all – of the newspapers today.

Here are some examples of the front pages:

“Russia marauds, rapes and burns
And the USA sends war plane and ships to assist Georgia”

Novoe Vremya
“Provocations ‘made in Washington’ in the Caucasus are not excluded”

Komsomolskaya Pravda
“Saakashvili in the eyes of a psychiatrist
Capricious puppet or little fuhrer?”

Argumenti i Fakti
“Anti-Olympic games”
(The inside coverage on pages 4, 5, and 6 mostly concerns the assault of the Georgian army on Tsinvali. Also, there is an interesting graph showing the growth of military expenditures in Georgia, marked with piles of $100 bills.)

Not surprisingly, the newspapers based in Russia give much less front-page space to the conflict.

As you can see that the tone of coverage within the Russian language press is far from uniform. But – you have to remember – that Zerkalo and Novoe Vremya are published here in Baku. Argumenti I Fakti and Komsomolskaya Pravda publish Baku editions, but the main company offices are in Russia.

On a side note, I ran across a blog site that appears to be set up to tell the Ossetian or Russian side of the story. Called “Ossetia Truth,” the blog is in English, although the blog owner uses a computer translation program. Sometimes the translation is a little clunky. “Petr” started the blog this month, apparently simultaneously with the commencement of the recent fighting.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Perhaps New England fences – those stone walls of Robert Frost’s poem – are picturesque. Perhaps even white picket fences can have a certain aesthetic beauty. But the fences that have sprouted around Baku are not artful, despite the photos of Baku scenery that are affixed to them.

These fences are now very common. While I have not done a scientific survey, these fences seem to enclose every single park in the city center. Why this profusion of fencing? The official word is that these parks are being reconstructed. But in general no activity is perceived to be occurring behind the fences. No sign of workers coming and going.

Last night, I was walking by one of the fenced in parks, and for some reason the gates were open. People, naturally, were using the park as usual. In the summer, this is the time that the parks should be open, after all. No sign of construction equipment or indeed of any repair effort was evident behind the fences.

Official explanations aside, it is possible that a more political reason for the fencing exists. Parks are places for people to gather. A place for families and friends to gather. A place for political groups to gather. By eliminating these public places, the government immediately eliminates another venue for any demonstration.

You might think this is an overly cynical interpretation, but just this week I learned of some activists who were arrested here. They had planned to protest the decision of the Azerbaijan government to purchase a French horse for 2 million euros. The horse supposedly is being purchased for the Azerbaijan Olympic equestrian team. Because of the normal venues were vulnerable to police presence, the youths intended to buy tickets on one of the ferry boats that regularly leaves from Baku, and then stage a “flash protest” on the boat.

The protestors never got on the boat. They were arrested before they could buy tickets.

The New Face of Fascism

While the news yesterday was of the ceasefire in Georgia, the news today was of ceasefire violations. I had lunch with a journalist today who was talking about how the city of Gori continues to be held by Russians, despite the pledge of the Russians to return to their previous lines. When I listened to the BBC later in the day, I heard confirmation of this report, with a journalist on the scene describing tanks still in the town, while South Ossetian forces looted the city.

The Azerbaijanis I’ve spoken to here are not comforted or mollified by the ceasefire. Anger against the Russians runs high. I’ve included a photo of the front page of today’s Zerkalo, one of the leading independent newspapers in Baku. The headline reads “The New Face of Fascism.” The subtitle roughly reads “Putin’s Russia very painfully reminds one of Germany in the 1930s.” The article begins with a discussion of Nazi Propaganda Chief Joseph Goebbels injunction that people will believe lies if they are big enough and told often enough. (Actually, the article misstates Goebbels original quote, which can be found here.)

(Actually, the Goebbels quote is quite interesting, bringing into sharp contrast the needs of the state and the needs of humanity. The last part of the quote is “ …for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” Goebbels was a sociopath, but he makes an interesting point. Truth is the enemy of the state. There's something to chew on.)

I’ll spare you a translation of the whole article in Zerkalo, which is long and freely mixes “analysis” with news. But one of the main points is that the announcement of the ceasefire is itself a lie. Also, the author says that the Russian claims not to be seeking regime change in Georgia are false. And finally, the article argues with the Russian claims about the thousands of civilians killed in the assault by the Georgian military.

A number of articles about the conflict are found on the other pages of the newspaper. Here are some of the headlines: “Russia needs a wide-scale war on the Southern Caucasus.” “Russians recommend that Azerbaijan not make sudden movements” The text of the articles conveys generally the sense that while the incursion of Russian forces occurred in Georgia, its shock is quite clearly felt here in Azerbaijan.

You have to remember that Zerkalo is a Russian language newspaper. I'm not sure exactly what the Azerbaijani newspapers are saying today - but, an Internet news portals that carries its news in English, Azerbaijani and Russian, has articles with similar viewpoints. One of the articles on the site today has the headline: "Russia may use Karabakh the way it used South Ossetia." Another article is headlined "The visit card of Russia's external policy are (sic) military actions against other countries."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Peace breaks out?

This afternoon I met with an independent journalist who has been working here since the Soviet period. I heard from him the news about the ceasefire announced by the Russians. This journalist is an optimist – and perhaps also a realist. He maintains that the Russians had certain limited objectives, and it achieved those objectives. He called the conflict not so much a real war as a war of publicity. Russia was able to visibly flex its military muscles, demonstrating for neighbors the perils of NATO membership. The Russians were able to effectively punish Georgian President Mikheil Saakashviili.

But to actually occupy the country would be very expensive in every way. The Russian budget is rich from energy wealth, but Russia still needs Western expertise to develop its economy. Also, enough Russians have traveled in the West to have some taste of how the rest of the world works. They do not want to turn the clock back to the isolated days of the Soviet Union.
According to this journalist’s interpretation, the course of this conflict was scripted at the highest levels – even to the point of a tacit agreement between Bush and Putin – about how far the Russian incursions would go. I don’t know. I wasn’t present at that conversation.

Anyway, these were the journalist’s points. They have some validity. I just read the articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times about the ceasefire. Let’s pray it holds. War is a tragedy for all involved.

Soldiers shooting civilians

This morning, I talked with a taxi driver who had driven up to the Georgian border town of Krasny Most with some journalists. The journalists are still in Georgia. The taxi driver came back. He didn’t see bombs, but he smelled them. Also, saw many refugees. Not all of them Georgian. Many Azerbaijanis live there too. People unfamiliar with this area don’t realize how many ethnic groups exist, all mixed in together, without regard to national borders.

He also said that witnesses spoke of Russian soldiers shooting civilians. Just shooting everybody.

Another Azerbaijani with connections inside of Georgia told me today that the Russians have taken Poti, a city near one of the factories of SOCAR, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic. Gori is now without Georgian troops, and many Georgians are trapped within their own country, unable to get to Tblisi and unable to get to safety.

I have e-mailed one of my contacts within Tblisi, but I haven’t heard back from her yet.

People in Azerbaijan are taking this very seriously. It's not like they are expecting an invasion exactly, but they recognize the naked flexing of power by Russia. It is familiar. And the situation looks terrible for the Americans. They have been shown again to be faithless and untrustworthy. Georgia had been doing everything it could to qualify for membership in the community of Western nations, but in the end, Georgia’s Western friends could not or would not help it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pravda: Russians as saviors

This is a good example. It reminds me of the coverage of Pravda back in the 1980s when Russian tanks rolled into Afghanistan.

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Russians read one-sided coverage of war

The objectivity of even a free press is tested in war. When the media is controlled, it becomes a critical tool for propaganda in wartime.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Georgia on my mind

I was going to write about my experience with piti here. Not pity. Piti is much more tasty. A lamb stew with chick peas and saffron that is a specialty of the Sheki area. But in the last 36 hours, the attention of this region of the world has been drawn to the human suffering and danger that is lying across the border in Georgia. While the eyes of much of the world were focused on the Olympics in China, a much more important contest was beginning in in the break-away region of Southern Ossetia. This is occupies our attention in this part of the world. The situation is perceived generally as yet another invasion by Russia, another attempt to subdue the independence of countries on its periphery.

I am a Russian-speaking American - but I have quite a few Azerbaijani friends at this point and I can understand their perspective. While Georgia is entirely distinct culturally, Azerbaijan and Georgia do share some elements of history, mainly a history of Russian domination. While I was planning to visit Georgia, I have not visited there yet - but from what I hear that country is even more anti-Russian than Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijanis have special reasons for resenting the Russians, because they are perceived to be the essential backers of the break-away area of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijanis believe that without Russian support, this conflict could not have occurred. And while other ethnic conflicts in this country do not come close to breaking into the news, there are other ethnic groups that the Russians are perceived to bolster in the hopes of weakening Azerbaijan. The Lezguins in northeast Azerbaijan and the Talysh south of the country both have been named as receiving Russian support for their separatist aims.

I also have many Russian friends, and I've already heard from one of them - defending Putin's actions. I know that in the Russian media, the situation is being painted as a genocidal act of the Georgians against an ethnic minority that sought political union with Russia.

At this point, however, I think most people outside Russia can see the import of the Russian action. Whatever its original justification, the Russian military are now well positioned to achieve a more important goal than the protection of any ethnic minority: the subjugation of a neighboring republic that was acting far too independently. So, Georgia will be subdued, and the control of Russia over the energy supply to Europe will be strengthened.

As an American, my primary regret is for the role of my government. The U.S. government has been saddled for the last seven years with an immoral and incompetent administration that has squandered its material and immaterial resources. Because my country has been consumed by fighting a war that the Bush administration chose to start, it is in no position to offer real support to the Georgians. Its energy policy is bankrupt. The country's economy is foundering. The US military is overextended. And the United States policy has been so blatantly hypocritical about defending "democracy" that even the most optimistic of its friends see its claims as hollow. So, the Georgians are yet another group to suffer from the unintended consequences of George W. Bush's adventurism.

There are a lot of other people writing on this subject at the moment. Here's one link to some blogs:

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Washington Times Lies by Inflating Bush's Approval Ratings

In an editorial, The Washington Times asserted that President Bush "had very high poll ratings (80 percent to 90 percent) throughout his first term" and went on to say that during his tenure, he "reduced unemployment to still record-levels." In fact, Bush's approval ratings peaked between in September 2001. The unemployment rate was inaccurate too.

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Fixing the menu

Last night I had a funny experience, something I suspect that many travelers fantasize about. OK, maybe not many. But often when you’re traveling, you’ll see really funny translations into English. So last night, as I was having supper at my usual restaurant, the manager said he had a request. Could I tell him the right English word for a dish containing mashed lung and heart of sheep?

We finally arrived at the phrase “organ meats” to delicately describe this dish. But there were all sorts of other errors on the menu, so we ended up reading through the entire work. As printed, the menu used interesting and appetizing phrases like “guts,” “turkey cock,” “uild boar,” “root salad,” and “spirituous liquids.” The manager got a kick when I told him about the dual meanings of the word “cock.” Personally, my favorite translation was “dil salad.” I had foolishly assumed that “dil” was just a misspelling of the “dill.” Actually, “dil” means tongue in Azerbaijan. So, I can imagine the surprise of a poor herbivore ordering this salad, and being presented with some fleshy Azerbaijani concoction.

Here are a few recent photos from Sheki. The old streets are an endless source of amusement for me. Meeting random children. Examining the old houses. As I came back from a morning walk today, a woman I’ve chatted with before asked why I didn’t take a picture of the old church.

“Old church? Where?”

She pointed at the courtyard next to her house. From the street, it was not at all evident that it was a church. I asked if she’d let me see the building. She agreed and her grandson opened up the metal gate.

The church is supposedly Albanian. Could be. It looks very old. And very much in disrepair. Not much was visible from the outside aside from the top of the window arches. Some cabinets were stacked up in front of the structure. The woman next door said “they” are going to repair the building. I don’t know when. Judging from the other things that need repair in this town, I don’t think it will happen soon.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Independent journalism takes another hit in Russia

A reminder that just because you publish on the Internet doesn't mean you can't be repressed.

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Empty gestures for free elections

Yesterday I saw the direct evidence of presidential power in action. The day before, I heard from a friend about a new decree that all the posters of the current president, Ilham Aliyev, were to come down. The president ordered this move in order to guarantee a free election.

People are inured to such absurdities at this point. Everyone knows there is no meaningful opposition to the president in the Oct. 15 election. Any opposition has been thwarted in numerous ways – from the de facto restrictions on the free press to the actual physical abuse of dissidents. Nonetheless, the president is graciously taking down the posters of himself in the couple of months prior to the election in order to guarantee a free election.

So, a friend of mine asked yesterday – “Whose picture do you think will replace the posters of Ilham?” I was pretty sure of the answer. But I also thought- “No. They can’t be that blatant. Perhaps the posters will be replaced with some completely non-political statement like the desire for international brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Of course, this was silly. My friend knew the answer & I did too. The posters of Ilham have come down, and they have been replaced by the pictures of his father, who has been styled by the current government as the “father of the country.” So, now, instead of being reminded of the benevolence of the current president, we are merely reminded of the benevolence of his father.

And, coincidentally, replacing the hundreds of thousands of billboards and posters spread throughout this land is quite a large task. It should keep thousands of people employed, always a good thing at election time.

The two pictures are of the same billboard, in the “old town” of Sheki. One was taken last week. One was taken last night.

I’ve mentioned that one of the things I love about teaching here is the window that the students open for me on life in this country. Today was the last day of class, so we were going over the articles that the students had written. It was lot of work, and we were talking for about 45 minutes after the class was supposed to finish. The last student I met with is writing a story about the price of bread. Earlier in the summer, the price rose sharply. Now – she was writing about the price going down.

The article began roughly with the statement: “People are glad that the price of bread is going down.” Yawn! I let her read some more and stopped her after a few sentences. We talked about the subject, about what was the point of the article. And just when I was beginning to despair about sharpening the focus, she mentioned that while the price has gone down, so has the size of the loaves. So – people are happier because they think the price has gone down. But actually ….. it hasn’t!
I’m sure this practice was probably discovered not long after the first commercial bakeries began to function. Mesopotamia? Nonetheless, it’s a nice twist and gives the story an interesting focus.

Aside from the billboard pictures, I’ll include a few shots of an old graveyard clinging to the steep hills above the city.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ex-CIA official: WMD evidence ignored.

Tyler Drumheller, the former highest-ranking CIA officer in Europe, told "60 Minutes" that the administration "chose to ignore" good intelligence, the network said in a posting on its Web site.

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OK. Now I have seen them. Well, not them. One. A big rat. I think the thing that bothered me was that it was quite bold. Just ambled across the kitchen floor by the sink. Ambled is the verb. Not scurried. It wasn’t in a hurry. I’m not sure where the hole in the wall is – but I then heard its little tail whipping around and its paws clambering in the wall.

I’m not going to eradicate the rats or even catch them. I might not even complain about them. I’m living in a house in a poor neighborhood that is empty most of the time. It’s not surprising that it has rats. I did thump on the wall with a variety of kitchen implements. This at least quieted them down a little. I don’t think rats like to be bothered with noise. Who does?

I was thinking about the rats and my earlier notes about the garbage problem. This is the natural consequence. In fact, it’s remarkable that I haven’t seen more rats here. I saw some scurrying in the gutter in Sheki. I’ve seen one alive & one dead in Baku. In Baku, there are more cats. This might control the problem a little.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Suskind: Bush Administration Paid 'Hush Money' on Iraq WMD

Last night on MSNBC, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Ron Suskind revealed to Keith Olbermann more steps the administration took after Wilson’s op-ed. In 2003, the Bush administration tried to bury statements by head of Iraqi intelligence, Tahir Jalil Habbush, that Saddam Hussein had no WMD.

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Thinking about corruption

“What is corruption?” This is the question that I asked to begin the Wednesday’s class discussion of the subject. It’s always important to clarify the definition of the subject, especially in the case of corruption, by its nature a murky topic.

The answers to the question were various – none wrong, none right. The first thing I told the students was that while I have some answers, I do not have all the answers. And the process of finding the answers is much more important than the answers themselves.

I did offer them my own rough definition of corruption. It’s not original – but I can’t remember the first source where I saw it: Corruption: the betrayal of public trust for private gain. I like this definition particularly because it does not involve breaking the law. The point I wanted to make to my students is that journalists can be – and are – corrupt when they betray public trust for private gain. This is an important point here and in many other countries where the free media remain relatively undeveloped. Journalists are known to threaten people with the publication of false and damaging information, unless they are paid off. They write articles in exchange for payment. They misuse the privileges of their job, using “press” stickers on their cars to evade traffic and parking restrictions.

The discussion that followed really was wonderful. The students – all young people between the ages of 16 and 30 – have great experience with corruption. When we began talking about the subject, they could easily offer concrete examples of how it affects their lives. One student told how a decision by the ministry of education virtually guarantees the sale of diplomas. Another student, one of the brightest in the class, told how entry into a university is essentially impossible without the payment of a bribe, even if he excels academically.

I concluded the discussion by asking them their opinions about what is the solution to the problem. I received answers that fell into two main categories: the solution to the problem lies with the individual and the solution lies with the government.

Both of these answers could be judged correct. We all bear individual responsibility for our correct behavior. We are responsible for our own morality, and a society composed of individuals who refuse to participate in corruption will not be corrupt. But a government ideally will aggregate the wishes of its subjects. If the people really do not want corruption, the government should respond to these wishes and effectively implement anti-corruption measures. In Azerbaijan, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the government effectively encourages corruption with a number of policies. The policy that grants economic monopolies to connected individuals is an abuse of public trust for private gain. The bidding process for contracts with the government is widely acknowledged to be completely corrupt. The list goes on and on. If the government depended on democratic consent to hold power, it would change such policies. But it does depend on democratic consent, so it won’t change its policies.

Nonetheless, discussions about such issues can be useful. I encouraged my students to begin blogging about the subject. I will be interested to see what they write.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


I received a little political lesson yesterday, but I am still not sure how to interpret it. During class, my Azerbaijani interpreter told me that one of the students needed to talk with me. As it turned out, the student needed to talk to me because she said a journalist she knew wanted to talk to me. I was unenthusiastic about the vague invitation to talk with him. Frankly, I anticipated some sort of nationalistic diatribe. But it seemed impossible to evade this invitation and after dinner my colleague and I met with the “journalist.”

As it turned out, Sabir was not so much a journalist as a businessman and a politician. Business and politics are closely linked in many countries, and the two fields of activity are very tight in Azerbaijan. I am convinced that it is impossible to become wealthy without accumulating political clout first.

Sabir is also the leader of a pro-government party. Of the pro-government parties, however, he said it is the most critical of the government. And – he was quite open about his criticism of some people surrounding the president.

The lunch was curious for all sorts of reasons that I won’t go into here, but the political lesson seemed to be that some level of criticism was possible, if the critic somehow sweetens the criticism. In this case, the criticism was accompanied with incredible devotion to Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current president. Sabir appeared to genuinely adore Aliyev, and because he is so vocal about his adoration, perhaps he is allowed more freedom to be critical of the current government.

Or – perhaps his criticism is a facade too – useful for the current government in one way or another, but really ineffectual.

On a less speculative note, the trainer who has been working with students on blogs had his last day here today. Wonderful energy! Crazy and frustrating sometimes – but good energy. So, our students in Sheki now have a group blog page and each one has an individual blog page. It’s educational for them just to learn about navigating around the Internet – but this step might also be in the direction of freedom of expression. In this country, the print and broadcast media are tightly controlled – but controlling the Internet is not so easy.

Included is a photo of our lunch with Sabir yesterday. There I heard many stories that are not appropriate for this forum.

Twin “Cities of Light” by Tarek bin Laden

What is the real point of this project?

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Senate bill would restrict Bush from secret executive orders

The President will no longer be able to change published executive orders in secret if a bill introduced to the Senate Thursday becomes law.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Litter and collective action

Everywhere you turn in Azerbaijan, collective action problems confront you. “Collective action problems” is a term describing situations where behavior most advantageous for individuals produces results that are the worst for the group. The over-fishing of the oceans is a good example. Everyone suffers, but no single individual has an incentive to change his or her behavior. Even it is in the individual self-interest of a fisherman to keep fishing, even while the fishery as a whole is collapsing.

Azerbaijan is not unique in its level of collective action problems. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that many such problems that had been “solved” suddenly needed to be addressed in a new way. The old order – which imposed a solution on these problems – has fallen away. And the new order is unwilling or unable fix the problems.

The latest example came up yesterday as I was strolling with an Azerbaijani friend through a park area. It was quite lovely: woods, a steep mountain side, a view of the mountains on the other side of the river, and a view of years of accumulated garbage left behind by the people using the place for picnics.

My Azerbaijani friend remarked on the scene. He deplored the readiness of people to leave their garbage spread around the scene. But he also noted that there were no trash barrels. So, even if an entire troop of enterprising Boy Scouts came in and scoured the place, picking it absolutely clean of trash, the people still would have no place to throw their picnic debris.

Of course, you might say that the government should provide trash barrels, but this government does not provide for such services that benefit the collective. The government provides services that benefit well-connected individuals, but does not invest in sectors that benefit the general society. So, education and health care, for example, suffer from severe under-funding, while millions are spent on projects such as the museums glorifying certain leaders or Olympic-size athletic facilities.

When it comes down to it, such collective action problems are generally solved by governments. For example, no one individual has the incentive to educate the children of society. As a society, we acknowledge this, and so we pay taxes to fund this effort. No one individual has an incentive to collect the trash at these public places or to provide trash barrels. So, this service should be provided by a government.

But – this government does not. And when the government is not accountable, then it will not step in to solve these collective action problems. The trash problem is striking throughout Azerbaijan – but it is not simply a matter of mentality. No one likes to live around garbage. But because the government is not accountable to the people, it is not forced to respond to ordinary problems such as trash disposal, education, and health care. And the common areas used by ordinary people continue to be fouled by garbage, while the wealthy can build walls around private estates that presumably are cleaned by a private cleaning staff.

On a side note, I did learn a useful phrase that sounds very musical to me: Bura zibilidir. (There’s trash here.)

Included are a photo of trash and a view of the mountain valley, down the hill from the trashed picnic area.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Good site for checking political allegations this season.

McCain is telling more than his share of whoppers - but this site looks at all suspect claims.

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On the road to Zaqatala

Just a brief entry today – because it has been such a long day. We left early this morning from Sheki, taking a taxi to Zaqatala. It’s a 1 ½ hour trip – but we made it last something like six hours – stopping at old churches and other points of interest along the way. By the end – we were getting a bit jaded but really the trip was gorgeous. Sometimes, our information about the churches was quite limited – and they were not all ancient – but they were all evocative. We stopped for a stroll through the town of Ilisu, a charming little town, down the road from a small but very steep waterfall. Getting to the water required a long trudge up a dusty road and then a scramble over slippery piles of slate, but it was worth it. After lunch, our time was getting short, so we began to stop less frequently. We did stop in the village of Lekit, which holds a couple of church ruins. We found the ruins of the 7th century Albanian church. We’re told it’s of circular design – but this would be hard for someone with untrained eyes to see. The vine-covered ruins are evident, but their design isn’t. Still, it was peaceful to stand in the grove of hazelnut trees, listen to summer insects, and imagine the scene – 1400 years ago. Finally, we did make it to Zaqatala, which itself was worth the trip – and worth a return trip. I plan to come back to conduct a training in this small city in September. Zaqatala has a mountain atmosphere, and it’s сlear that Zaqatala is on the edge of Azerbaijan. The customs seem a little less conservative. For example, we saw young females and males spending time with each other in public, something that is not so common in other regions. I’ve included a shot of a couple, sitting under one of the enormous plane trees in the old part of Zaqatala. These trees are reputed to be 700 years old. They are certainly old and very large. And beautiful. Other photos include one of a Georgian church on the road to Zaqatala, a clip of what the church bell and the insects around there sound like, some of the ancient stones of the Albanian church ruins, the sidewalk market in Ilisu, and a view of the valley from the waterfall above Ilisu.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bush Unveils Overhaul of Spy Powers

The White House is expected to roll out the largest rewrite of intelligence power in a generation, bolstering the power of the director of national intelligence. Some on Capitol Hill were frustrated that the administration kept Congress in the dark on this historic overhaul. "They did not consult Congress at all," said one congressional official.

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Today was thankfully short on work, and long on fun. I spoke to the students in the morning about their stories - asking which sources they were going to interview for the articles they are writing. Some, not surprisingly, had not given the matter much thought, but some had - and had a good list of sources to interview. It is difficult - because most of these students don't have press credentials. This limits their access to officialdom - but I tell them to try anyway. The worst that can happen is that they are denied access. But - you don't know if you don't try.

While one of my colleagues talked with the students about webcasting, I strolled up to the old town of Sheki with my colleague Chuck. He's never been to Sheki - and he was up for a hike. Good thing - because most of the walk to the old town is uphill. We stopped by a hat shop I had visited before - and chatted with the proprietor, who has been making hats for 40 years. Who will make these hats after he is gone? I don't think this is a craft that teenagers are learning nowadays. Chuck bought one hat & I will probably return next week & buy one myself.

We dropped by the Caravanserai - a restored building that used to shelter traders passing through Sheki - a prominent stop on the Silk Road. The lodging is quirky - no heat or air conditioning - but because of the construction - quite comfortable for much of the year. I've included a shot of the arches in the building.

In the afternoon, we went up to the ruined fortress of Gelersen Gorasen - which is roughly translated as "Come & see." This refers to the challenge of the Chelabi, local khan when confonted by the demands of Persian invaders in 1740. He said - come check out my fort & see if you can make bend. The fortress withstood the onslaught - but the local town didn't.

Now - the fort is in ruins - but many of the walls remain. It's a wonderful hike - and easy to imagine soldiers trying to scale its daunting walls.

Tomorrow - a road trip to Zagatala.