Friday, October 31, 2008

New law on Internet coming

Yesterday I was talking with two Russian journalists about some new legislation. Apparently, the government will require all sites to register as sources of mass information (known by the Russian acronym as СМИ). The law will come into force at the end of the year. I had to stop the conversation to make sure I understood correctly. I did. A daunting task - to register all thee sites. How with the order be implemented? If I had to put money on it, the law will be enforced selectively. Not being registered gives a wonderful excuse to impose crippling fines. Yet another blow to the principle of glasnost, a principle that belongs to another age.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Signs of crisis?

I'm not sure whether this report is true. I don't use credit cards unless I have to - but I almost want to attempt to verify this report. I do know that many more people talk about the financial crisis here. I had a man I'm working with ask me today if I think the financial crisis will affect a particular grant. I don't think it will. Money gets put into the pipeline - and it would take something really earthshaking to move it out of the pipeline.

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.


People coming and going!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"We can still win this!"

But - it's not over until it over. We need a landslide that Republicans can't steal.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Music etc.

Snippets of street musicians and other scenes in Azerbaijan and Russia.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Moscow street

Just a view of one of the main streets in downtown Moscow.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Waves of crisis

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

Comparing leadership

Needless to say, I had many conversations with Russian journalists this last weekend. Most of them were interesting. This morning I was thinking of one exchange. Somehow the discussion came to the question of the U.S. elections, and I expressed my hope for a change in direction in leadership, bemoaning the incompetent and immoral current administration. The Russian editor laughed - and said there is justice in the world after all. Russia had Yeltsin - and the United States had Bush. I said that Yeltsin wasn't nearly so bad - but they didn't share my opinion. I thought this was interesting in itself. I think many Westerners - myself included - view Yeltsin as a deeply flawed leader, but one who had a moral core. This moral core wasn't so evident to the Russians with whom I was speaking. They remembered his drunkenness- and the chaos of his administration. Well, it was chaotic & he definitely had a problem with booze. But I find it hard to imagine Bush climbing onto a tank and making a defiant and inspiring speech. Perhaps history will judge Yeltsin more kindly than the Russians currently do.

Party with Russian journalists

This just gives you a sense of the scene: many toasts, much drinking, many zakuzki.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Election reflections

I followed the link given by one of the readers of this blog - and read the US reaction to the Azerbaijan election. I don't have the quotes in front of me - but the message was that this was an improvement over the last election. Incredible. Voter fraud was unnecessary - because the opposition boycotted the election. You can argue with the decision to boycott the election - but it's hard to call it a real contested election, where effectively there is only one candidate. Amazing. But does the US retain any credibility in the business of democracy promotion?

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

Same crisis, different reactions

I’m back in Moscow, the first visit here since I left the country at the end of February. I can’t see a lot of change. The traffic jams as bad as ever. It took me two hours to travel from the airport to the apartment where I’m staying, a distance of about 16 kilometers. One difference between here & Azerbaijan, however, is that the financial crisis has registered with people here in a way that seems mostly lacking in Azerbaijan.

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

Election Day

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

On the eve of the election

This town is crawling with election observers. It is absurd. I'm not sure how many total observers there are. Certainly hundreds. I don't think it's silly to have election observers, per se, but it's silly to pretend that the observers grant this election more credibility. How can this election be credible when the main opposition groups are boycotting the election? Why are they boycotting the election? Because they feel that they are systematically repressed. (Some argue that the opposition is ineffectual and disorganized too, and merely are looking for an excuse so that this fact isn't revealed.). The opposition is not repressed in a Stalinist manner. They are not being sent to gulags, although certainly there have been cases of physical abuse of opposition figures and the media. The opposition is repressed politically. The competition is not fair in any sense, and everyone knows this. The Azerbaijani people are not fools.

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.

vendors in the morning

I shot this while waiting for a friend. Interesting to see the merchants prepare for the coming business day.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Rage on the Radio

A well-done piece on hate radio. Not easy listening. The USA is very sick.

read more | digg story

Friday, October 10, 2008

Kate Maltby: Why Blogs Are Bad For Democracy

The author makes some good points. The idea that blogging is necessarily good for democracy should be challenged. Personally, I think well-funded, professional, and independent newsrooms are much more important for democracy than a slew of opinion-spewing bloggers. Unfortunately, well-funded and professional newsrooms appear to be a dying species.

read more | digg story

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bush Now Least Popular President Since Polling Began

With the new Gallup poll, George W. Bush has passed Nixon and Truman, and become the least popular President of all-time.

read more | digg story

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mayor Palin Billed Rape Victims For Post-Assault Exams

Under Sarah Palin's administration as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, the city cut funds that paid for medical examinations used to gather evidence from rape victims. Under Palin, victims or their health insurers were charged the $500 to $1200 cost of the exams.

read more | digg story

Monday, October 6, 2008

US Military threatens to kill pet of deployed US Soldier

This may seem trivial compared to the thousands of people killed by US policies in Iraq - but it also demonstrates the essential cruelty of the whole adventure.

read more | digg story

Sunday, October 5, 2008

He Told Us to Go Shopping. Now the Bill Is Due.

It's widely thought that the biggest gamble President Bush ever took was deciding to invade Iraq in 2003. It wasn't. His riskiest move was actually one made right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he chose not to mobilize the country or summon his fellow citizens to wartime sacrifices.

read more | digg story

Saturday, October 4, 2008

No connection?

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

Buying eggs

Earlier this summer, I gave some advice to an American who was staying here for a few weeks. She spoke very little Azerbaijani or Russian, and hence found the market very daunting. This is understandable, although it's too bad because the market generally has better produce and cheaper prices than the stores.

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

What you won't see in the tourist brochure

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.)