Friday, August 8, 2008

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 The posters of Ilham have come down, and they have been replaced by the pictures of his father, who has been styled by the current government as the “father of the country.”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.