Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Freedom and order

When I was in Car, I had a conversation that exemplifies for me the internal conflict that many Azerbaijanis have. I was having tea in a restaurant there and an older local gentleman sat down at my table and began to chat. The usual questions. 1.) Where are you from? 2.) So, what do you think about Azerbaijan? Honestly.

I gave my usual answers. 1.) I’ve been around a lot of Azerbaijan. I’m impressed with its beauty and the way that different regions are quite distinct in their character. 2.) The people of Azerbaijan are very hospitable. 3.) The gulf between the rich and the poor is quite large.

He didn’t argue with me on the last point, but he did offer some perspective. You don’t know how it was before, he said. Before we had strong leadership in the government. Things were chaotic. You didn’t know if the bus that you took to Baku would arrive at its destination. Now, the people in charge know that strong leadership is needed. They have given this leadership. There is order.

I listened. I said that I understood, that I heard about the stories about banditry, about the period when each individual region of the country seemed to be controlled by a local strong-man.

Later, we left the table. While we were walking, he asked me about democracy. Is democracy possible in such a place like this? No, I answered. I don’t think it is possible, when posters of the president or his father adorn every street corner.

Right, he said. It is impossible to live freely in such a place. And people need freedom, he said.

Both points of view are completely accurate and not necessarily contradictory. People need freedom and people need order. It is that delicate balancing act that is never perfect. At the moment, the balance in Azerbaijan weighs more heavily on order than on freedom, but that may change.