Sunday, November 30, 2008


Buying a snack in Baku...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death

A crush of shoppers tore down the front doors and thronged into a store in suburban New York, killing a temporary employee.

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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

Taza Bazaar

A taste of the scene at one of the main markets in Baku.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Recent conversations

A few observations from recent conversations:

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.

Chess and personal space

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

Perpetual labor

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

EPA Fail: Plan to Make Polluting National Parks Easier

Agency is finalizing new air-quality rules that would make it easier to build coal-fired power plants and oil refineries near national parks. Nice touch. Leaving a legacy for future generations.

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Cleaning up the mess

I don't usually think much about my apartment building. I've lived in worse: a rat-infested krushchovka in St. Petersburg, another cockroach infested krushchovka in the same city. At this point, I've gotten used to the concept that the common areas of apartment buildings in the former Soviet Union look decrepit and dirty, although the individual units might be very nice.

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....)

The Seven Deadly Deficits

What the Bush years really cost us, and how President Obama can get the economy back on track.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News: A Look at Media 2009

Now that the champagne has been put away, it's time to realize that while disastrous members of Bush & Co. are heading towards the exits, the disastrous members of mainstream media remain firmly in place. Ignore the problem at your - and the nation's - peril.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Neil Young: How To Save A Major Automobile Company

The Big 3 are looking for a bailout. They should only get it if they agree to stop building autos that contribute to global warming now.

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Back to Baku

I'm back in Baku - after a month in Moscow. Uneventful trip back. Easy - in fact.

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.

The Moose Stops Here - Frank Rich

The post-election Republican soul searching has featured a convenient amnesia about the party’s race-based “Southern strategy.”

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Depression Economics Returns

The United States economy has entered the realm of Depression economics, in which the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply.

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The ruble slips

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

Docs show how 2004 Ohio voting routed through GOP servers

Newly obtained computer schematics provide further detail of how electronic voting data was routed during the 2004 election from Ohio’s Secretary of State’s office through a partisan Tennessee web hosting company. A network security expert with high-level US government clearances says the documents raise troubling questions.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Crisis? For real?

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

For Many Abroad, an Ideal Renewed

It is hard to overstate how fervently vast stretches of the globe wanted the election to turn out as it did.

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An optimistic morning

I had the pleasure of watching Obama’s victory speech this morning, dubbed into Russian. As an American, I did feel the excitement – and the hope that “yes, we can.” And yes, it did make me feel proud to be an American. When a system is democratic – even imperfectly – the possibility of correcting gross mistakes exists. We must clean up the mess of the Bush administration – no mean feat – but we are not compelled to endure Republican misrule for another generation.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The wrecking ball

Cheney, Bush and the White House cabal are busy issuing regulations which favor their friends, at a pace unheard of in history. Who is going to check this process?

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Democracy in Azerbaijan Forum

The government of Azerbaijan is shutting down the station that broadcast this forum - so I'm posting it on the Internet - so people have a sense of what is being censored there.

Watching the US election from Moscow

Coverage of Election Day in the USA today dominates the airwaves in Moscow. This morning, I saw a wonderfully detailed explanation of the Electoral College, and thought how much better served the American public would be by having the media provide such basic civic information than subject the public to the flatulence that passes for political discourse in the United States. There was a clear map & numbers to explain the system – which I’d venture about 10 percent of US citizens understand.

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

Russians protest US foreign policy

Last night I watched a fairly long report on the Russian news about a demonstration Halloween night at the U.S. Embassy. This didn’t make any newspaper that I’ve read over the newspaper. The Russian news report said several thousand people turned out for the march on the embassy.

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

Waiting for the clampdown

Colleagues write me disturbing news from Azerbaijan today. The Azerbaijan government will shut down Azerbaijani-language broadcasts by Radio Liberty and BBC in 2009. Voice of America broadcasts will also be shut down. The explanation?

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.

Saw Scene

Just one of the many musicians playing in the Moscow metro.

Language as a tool of evasion

A few interesting conversations yesterday. First, I was talking with a veteran Russian journalist about a training program we’re setting up. We were talking about the various lectures, and he remarked at one point that a good command of the Russian language is essential for a journalists.

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.