Sunday, December 27, 2009

What does unrest in Iran mean for Azerbaijan?

I read this article today, and thought about the implications of the unrest in Iran. Consequences are unpredictable. Will government opponents in Azerbaijan see the tyrants fall in Iran, and think about their own tyrants at home. What about the economic consequences - as a huge oil producer faces domestic unrest? What about the repercussions in countries that are dominated by Muslim fundamentalists? Potentially, the fall of the regime in Iran could affect any number of political and economic equilibria.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Recycling, even in Russia

I came across this piece today on the BBC site. Just a look at a huge problem. I don't think there is anything inherently "Russian" about the problem of implementing a system for recycling waste - except the old Soviet mindset that tended to externalize real costs. Resources are not limitless and the environment can not be exploited endlessly. Western countries deal with this mindset too - an attitude that dies hard.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What do you think about climate change and Copenhagen?

Here's yet another survey to probe readers opinions about current issues of the day.
Click here to take survey

Russia cannot afford its smoking habit

RFL/RFE has a good article about a problem that is not new but merits more attention from journalists and policy makers. Everyone knows about the problem with alcoholism. Less discussed is the problem with smoking in that country. I'm not sure it was worse last year when I lived in Moscow than when I moved to St. Petersburg more than 10 years ago. Probably the quality of cigarettes is different. It more rare to see people smoking papirosi - especially in cosmopolitan Moscow & St. Petersburg. But the "Western" style Marlboros and Camels are just as deadly.

The problem with drinking is evident. Its signs are as clear as the drunk you need to avoid in the metro. Nicotine addiction is much more insidious. Its costs are not so immediate - but they are just as real and the threat to Russia is just as serious.

Daunting, complex, and of primary importance

Mikhail Gorbachev and Aleksandr Likhotal have an article out today in the European Voice. Gorbachev needs no introduction. Likhotal is president of Green Cross International and a member of the Climate Change Task Force (CCTF).

The column is fine - and I agree with its essence - about the importance of achieving real progress to address the problem of climate change. But the authors make an interesting point that highlights just how difficult the problem is. Understandably, they make reference to the critical issue of nuclear disarmament.

"In 1985 during the height of the Cold War, when negotiations were bogged down at the US-Soviet Union Geneva Summit, the negotiators were instructed by their leaders annoyed by lack of progress, “we do not want your explanations why this can't be done. Just do it!” And it was done by the morning. Today's leaders must come to Copenhagen and say, 'We want this done!'"

This is fine - but the analogy is not so apt. In comparison with the climate change talks, the bilateral negotiations between the USA & the USSR look almost simple. We had two principal actors in the negotiations. There were tangential economic issues, but they were not driving the argument against nuclear disarmament. The issue of reparations or compensation did not exist. The arguments about the certainty of scientific predictions were not relevant.

It's enough to make you nostalgic for the Cold War!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Economy as a science

This afternoon I came across this news blurb on ITAR-TASS. Funny. A big conference where more than 1,000 papers on the Russian economy will be presented. The fundamental problems of the economy are not so mysterious or technical. Excessive reliance on raw materials, especially oil & gas. Corruption. And a lack of democracy that allows this corruption to survive and even thrive. The problem is not knowing the technical problems of the Russian economy. The problem is getting the people who benefit from the current state of affairs to relinquish their privileges for the sake of the country as a whole. It's a mess. I wish them every success - but it will take more than conferences to fix Russia's economy.

Day of Mourning in Russia

Russia has declared a day of mourning for the victims of the nightclub fire in Perm. This tragedy has had a big impact on the country, which has suffered so many disasters in its long history. Is the proximity of the coming New Year's celebrations a factor? Perhaps. Some first person accounts of the tragedy can be found here.

Power of the bloggers

This is an apt comment from an Azerbaijani artist. You don't need to understand Azerbaijani to get the point. The power of the state versus bloggers trying to discuss the problems of their country openly.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


How do you feel about the new policy announced by President Obama last night? Here's your chance to offer an opinion.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Yes, that's right.

I don't write much humor here - because writing humor is not my talent. It's not that I don't have a sense of humor, but writing humorous material is about the most difficult assignment I know. I'd rather perform maximum likelihood estimation equations.

But - just because I don't write it, doesn't mean I can't present it here. This afternoon I was looking at the website of my friend Jonathan Caws-Elwitt. He's a multi-faceted writer. He does write humor. Here's a link to part of his website.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Artistic Interlude in Atlanta

I travelled to Atlanta, GA, last week for the first time in 13 years. When I was in that city in 1996, I was impressed by 1. the heat, 2. the traffic, 3. the urban bleakness. I was in the city on business, and didn't know a soul there. This time, I was staying with friends, who showed me some interesting neighborhoods. Here's some of the art I found out and about . . .

Friday, November 20, 2009

Who Fears a Free Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

The New York Times asks this very sensible question in this article to be published in the Sunday NYT magazine. The answer to the question might seem obvious - the people who fear Khodorkovsky are the same people who imprisoned him. Putin & Co.

Perhaps another question might be so obvious. Namely - "What does it matter?"

In my opinion, it matters quite a lot. I don't have strong feelings about Khodorkovsky the man. I've never met him. From what I've read, he is a man of strong will & character - who followed a familiar path toward amassing his billions of dollars. In other words - he used connections & some unscrupulous means to get his fortune started. All the oligarchs did.

He differed from the rest, however, in that he tried to stay & fight Putin & Co. Obviously, he badly misjudged his foes.

All this matters for Khodorkovsky, obviously, as he sits in his prison cell. But might not be so obvious is how it matters for Russia. As long as he sits in jail, we cannot possibly talk about the rule of law in Russia. We cannot talk about a level playing field for doing business. All this matters for Russia because without a functioning legal system and a predictable environment for investors, economic development in Russia will continue to be quite shallow. The country can continue to live off its oil and gas revenues, but this is not a growth strategy. If Russia is going to develop economically and politically, Khodorkovsky must be freed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What do you think?

After a long hiatus, I've decided to start polling the public again. If you've been reading these pages at all regularly, then you are familiar with the case of Adnan and Emin.

Here is a poll about their situation, and about the political climate in Azerbaijan generally.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Shame on the government of Azerbaijan!

The sentence of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade should not be a surprise. Two years for Adnan; two and a half for Emin. Everyone knows that the the government of Azerbaijan is not afraid to jail journalists. In the last 10 years, the government has jailed numerous courageous journalists and even has been implicated in their deaths. What that government does fear is its own people. The government of Azerbaijan fears its own people because it abuses them. This is the reason for the harsh sentence for two young men who were guilty of promoting democracy in a country where this concept endangers those in power.

I am not optimistic that there will be some reprieve for Emin and Adnan, although such events occur. This allows the president to act magnanimously after the kangaroo courts have done their work, intimidating journalists.

And I am not optimistic that pressure or reaction to the sentence from Europe or the United States will be able to sway the government of Azerbaijan toward leniency in general. With this decision, the government put its repressive stance on the record. For the rulers of Azerbaijan, control of Azerbaijani citizens is much more important than any sense of justice. To any casual observer, the case against these two young men is clearly evident as a farce. It was a show trial, but the government of Azerbaijan is not ashamed to conduct such travesties. Such procedures have nothing to do with justice, truth or fairness. They are about naked power and intimidation of the populace.

I write these lines before dawn in the United States. At this hour, the weather here is dark and rainy. Though the day is later in Baku, it is much, much darker there.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Yet more repression in Moscow

The author of this interesting post suggests that Western leaders are still hoping for signs of liberalism from Medvedev. I hope that they are not so naive - but I suppose that it's possible.

The post itself is disturbing. Two more human rights organizations coming under pressure from Russian authorities. Nothing really new, over course. But these two organizations are quite prominent, and the fact that the authorities move against them with such impunity is discouraging.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The screws tighten even on the faithful

Radio Liberty has a small piece today about what seems to be a minor request by the authorities in Baku: Turn down the call to prayer!

Many of those who have lived in Azerbaijan and other Muslim countries know this sound - in the morning and the evening most notably. I remember being awoken by the electronic muezzin in Lenkoran at what seemed to be an ungodly hour. I was staying near the Iranian-supported mosque, which may have explained its volume.

In Baku, I rarely noticed the muezzin, although I lived right next to the Old City.

I find it very hard to believe that the authorities are responding to any complaints for residents. The idea that authorities would respond to citizen complaints in general is just laughable. They are asking for the mosques to turn down the muezzins in a direct expression of power. They are asserting their dominance over the religious establishment. Religion should serve the state. Those who are involved with religious matters should not forget this fact.

Gas glut?

This morning I saw this article in Financial Times about the world forecast for gas supplies. I have nothing personally against the billionaires in Russia, but I think the more their power is weakened, the better for Russia, the better for democracy in Russia, and the better for the world in general.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thinking about the media and governance

This morning I was reading this amusing and disturbing column by Maureen Dowd, and I was thinking about a conversation I had a couple of days ago with my students in the class I teach about ethics.

I had given the students a reading assignment, and after I re-read the material myself, it seemed that there was not much to discuss. But - of course - this is not usually the case, and even here I was able to take what seemed to be unpromising material and turn it into a substantive discussion. The column the students & I read concerned observations of a newsman on coverage of a political campaign. He opined that journalists should just get out of the way. Enough with the puffed up opinions!

Why is it, I asked the students, that the trend is to more & more partisan coverage of the news? Consumers on one hand have an increasing number of news outlets, but the news that is presented tends to be increasingly partisan. And how does this trend intersect with the journalistic responsibility to provide information necessary for democratic governance? (I think this is the responsibility of journalists because I am a democrat and I am a journalist.)

I made reference to the work by James T. Hamilton and Markus Prior, two scholars whose work I greatly admire. The work of both concerns this very question - how the media is becoming increasingly partisan and what the impact is on the media audience. Frankly, I think that I lost my students when I began talking economic theory, upon which the work of Hamilton in particular rests.

The conversation turned out well. One student admitted that she loves watching Glenn Beck because he is "hysterical." I agreed that he is hysterical, but I didn't think this psychological condition was an asset. My point was that this increasing partisan media system is harmful, leading to increasing cynicism, voter apathy, and general disengagement from democratic governance. At the end of the class, I asked who hoped to be involved in government in any way.

No one raised a hand.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Poland's shame

I saw this piece by Radio Free Europe yesterday. A shameful piece of pandering by the Polish government. I wonder what other quid pro quo was involved. I used to think that such symbolic honors were empty, but now I think they do have some significance. Every element that lets a repressive government claim legitimacy is important. A repressive government should be faced constantly with reproach for its repression. It is only through such consistent pressure that incremental change is possible.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

EU calls on Russia to explain trade plans

European Voice: EU calls on Russia to explain trade plans

Shared via AddThis

To me, this is not very surprising. Russia does not want to be bound by the restrictions that would come with full membership in the WTO. Negotiations have been ongoing for more than a decade, but membership in the WTO would hamper the Kremlin's ability to use its domestic subsidies for domestic political purposes.

Old habits die hard. How necessary these subsidies are may be questionable, but clearly the government thinks they are needed as a lever to maintain power and control within the country.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Smuggling and activism frowned upon in Russia

I prefer not to think of my perspective as jaded. But often events can appear so completely predictable. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the concerns that the municipal elections in Moscow would be rigged. Human rights activists were concerned about this, and quite a few protested, according to news reports. "Quite a few," of course, is a relative term. Considering the inherent risks of any sort of anti-government protest in Russia at the moment, anything more than half a dozen qualifies as quite a few.

About 50 activists were arrested by police. Predictable. And now comes word that they are still being held. Also predictable.

Slightly surprising was word about the arrest of Valentina Shadrina.

The director of the Altyn jewelry company was accused of smuggling precious stones and jewelry. Since its start in Kazakhstan, the company has developed an international chain of jewelry stores favored for low prices on jewelry.

It's hard to believe that someone would have forgotten to pay off the necessary official, so the arrest could indicate some power shift within the FSB.

Finally, on an idealistic note, the St. Petersburg State University has organized a contest for young journalists. The Russian language details are here. The suggested themes of the contest are: "helping senior citizens, homeless children, former prisoners, cleaning trash, volunteering during the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, healthy lifestyle and others."

Nothing too much objectionable, assuming that the pieces are written "correctly."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bread and Puppets

This guerilla theater troupe came to Boone, NC, yesterday. They spent a few hours rehearsing with students and members of the community, and then presented this show. I've only included the "fun" parts here. A very moving piece about Gaza was just impossible to capture because the lighting was so low.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Students foretell the future of the media. It's not rosy.

Today I discussed with my class the ethical obligations of journalists. I was left unsatisfied by our last conversation, which ended with an incomplete link between actions of the media as a whole and the maintenance of a democracy. I have my own beliefs about the importance of the media in democratic processes, but I don't want to just dictate my conclusions to my students. I do want to explain my beliefs, to make the connections between "x" & "y."

By the end of the discussion, some students were ready to admit that journalists possess some ethical responsibility to tell the truth. But this was an ethical responsibility that had to be balanced with the need to get a paycheck. So, really it came down to situational ethics. If a journalist felt that he or she could quit the job after being pressured by the advertiser, then that journalist should quit the job. But - that would be a choice that few would make.

I guess that's par for the course. In fact, most journalists don't make that choice. I did once, but I was young at the time.

Overall, I found a high level of cynicism in my students. One summed it up well. The young man didn't feel much ethical responsibility to be honest, he said, because no one believed the media anyway.

I was at a loss for words. He had a point, albeit a grim one.

Before they left, I conducted an impromptu poll. How many people don't consume any news, get no news at all except second-hand, through conversations? One young woman raised her hand. She the news was depressing. Can't argue with that either, I guess.

How many get news from the TV?

About eight raised their hands.

How many get news mainly from the Internet?

The remainder raised their hands.

So - this is the future of the media apparently. The information that serves as "news" for these students might be a mixture of Facebook info, Drudge Reports, New York Times articles or posts by Perez Hilton. The students as a whole have little regard for ethical responsibilities of journalists and nearly no trust in any information they consume. What does this mean for our democracy?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What are ethical duties when confronted by injustice?

Teaching has its moments when you lead students to a certain point, and you may have made your conclusion, you might think that the conclusion is quite clear, obvious even, but your students just don't want to make that leap. When it comes down to it, they don't agree with you. They don't see it your way. Perhaps they are from a different generation or just have not seen the world your way. Perhaps they never will.

I was thinking about that today as we discussed Out of the Picture, a report by Freepress on the ownership of television stations by minorities and women. The report, not surprisingly, paints a pretty bleak picture of the situation in the United States, where the vast majority of stations are owned by white men. Even areas that are quite heavily populated by minorities are not served by stations owned by minorities.

We discussed the issue, and discussed the implication - and then I asked the critical question: Does this have to do with ethics? I can make the connection, because to me it concerns issues of social justice. But the students didn't see it that way. The white men own what they own because they are well connected. Sure. But this is legal, right? Nothing wrong with being rich.

I pointed out that the broadcast spectrum is really a public good, to be allocated so that the public benefits. But these children of Reagan Era have a different perspective. Anything hinting of affirmative action is bad. And having a policy that gives some sort of preferential treatment to minorities is bad.

I did not ask my students this question, but it intrigues me. How is this situation ever going to change, unless the government takes some action to remedy the imbalance?

I'm not out to convince them of anything - per se. But I want them to really see the reality of the media world around them, and ask themselves if it is really a just situation. And if it is not just, what is the ethical response? What is the ethical response to injustice?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist receives prestigious award

Eynulla Fatullayev, the editor of Realny Azerbaijan, is one of three journalists being awarded with a 2009 Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Also receiving awards are journalists from Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

Of course, Eynulla's joy at receiving the award may be mitigated by the fact that he is sitting in jail. This is not that unusual. Being a good and courageous journalist is quite dangerous in Azerbaijan. The main threat comes from the government. Currently, two bloggers are on trial on outrageous charges. Eynulla's offenses also were purely fictional, a case constructed by the government to put him behind bars.

The real offense was that in trying to find out who killed his colleague and friend, he uncovered facts that were uncomfortable for certain powerful people. Imprisonment was his reward for seeking justice.

Here is a synopsis of his story.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not such a crazy idea

In an article on the RFE/RL website, Dmitry Sidorov presents an interesting hypothesis that I don't think is as whacky as some of his initial commentators think it is. He points out that it could be in the short-term interest of the Kremlin (i.e. Gazprom) for a war to erupt in Iran. Such a conflict would surely boost gas and oil revenues dramatically. These revenues are central to the operations of the Kremlin. Therefore, war is in the interests of those who rule Russia. (The Russian version of his article is found here.)

As the article points out, war might be in the short-term interest of the Russian government, but it does not mean that a war in Iran would benefit Russia in the long term. In the long-run, it could easily further degrade Russian power.

Of course, we have to understand the distinctions between the interests of the Kremlin and the interests of Russia. By implication, if not strictly by definition, the less democratic the country, the more the interests of its leadership and its people diverge. This is not a phenomenon limited to Russia. I remain convinced that it was no in the interests of the citizens of the United States to start a war with Iraq. It was, however, in the short-term political interest of the Bush Administration. It was in the interest of the military contractors who are so generous with their campaign contributions.

Likewise, a war in Iran could help the profits of Gazprom and Lukoil, the extractive industries linked with the Kremlin through interlocking directorships. What would be beneficial for Russia as a whole would be to reduce its dependence on these industries and to become truly democratic.

Unfortunately, I think a war in Iran is more likely than the democratization of Russia.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Football with a German soundtrack

For those of you who wonder what American Football is like, here's a taste. Football on a September afternoon at a medium-size US university.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rare good news from Azerbaijan

I heard a couple of days ago that my former student Perviz Azimov won his court case in Azerbaijan. Perviz had been expelled from the university because of an article he wrote while he was in the journalism class I was teaching in Lenkoran last year. The article was a stinging indictment of the pervasive corruption at Lenkoran State University.

At the time, I had very mixed feelings about the article. On the one hand, I admired Perviz's courage in confronting an issue that deeply concerned him. On the other hand, I feared for the consequences if his article was published. I recommended that he pursue publication slowly - in order to double fact-check everything. As it turned out, by the time I made this recommendation, he was already getting the piece published.

Ah well.

Not surprisingly, the school authorities reacted sharply to the piece, which detailed the pattern of corruption from top to bottom. (Remember - the pattern of corruption begins at the very top. The boss of a company or a country sets the standard.) Before too long, Perviz was accused of starting a fight with another student, grounds for his expulsion. But - he didn't accept this fate quietly. He and his friends began noisy protests in Baku. He challenged the expulsion in court.

And - as we see - in the end this strategy was successful.

So far, the strategy of engaging in noisy protest has not freed Adnan and Emin. But - there's still hope!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sept. 2 demonstration in London

Such demonstrations may seem frustratingly small - but they have an effect. Without publicity about the case, Emin and Adnan don't have a chance.

Monday, September 7, 2009

They expected democratic elections?

Radio Free Europe has a little article about the complaints of the Right Cause Party in Russia regarding the elections for the Moscow Duma. Apparently, the election process is blatantly unfair.

I am very sympathetic but very unsurprised.

Did Stalin hold free elections for city government during his reign? Does the opposition win municipal elections in Azerbaijan? In autocratic systems, there may be variation between how closely elected representatives hew to party orthodoxy, but free competition will not be tolerated.

Certainly a free election in the capital city would be unthinkable.

I'm not sure what the best strategy is for democrats in Russia. I don't see any free elections on the horizon.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Don't cede the essentials in health care debate!

The New York Times has a good editorial today about the effort to change the health care system in the United States. One fundamental point: it is a mistake at this point to cave in to Republican pressures. Democrats win elections by being Democrats and standing firm on their agenda. They lose elections when they try to be Republicans. Obama was elected to bring change to the USA. The electorate did not vote for the status quo - and I remain convinced that a majority of US citizens want change. The Republicans own a potent noise machine but the Democrats are backing an agenda that benefits the majority of US citizens. This agenda includes more controls on corporations, more equity in distribution of wealth, and a better services for the population.

If Obama cedes an important part of this agenda, then he also deserves to lose a large part of the support that put him in office.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Rally in front of Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington D.C.

It might seem to be a large rally, but it's a start. International pressure might appear to be ineffective at this point, but it's one of the few tools available to press for human rights in Azerbaijan. Azadliq!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Trial of bloggers begins

So Azerbaijan begins its latest show trial today, as Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade face judgment for their crime of "hooliganism." It is tragic for the two young men, of course, but it is even more tragic for Azerbaijan as a whole, that its rulers can act contrary to common decency and even common sense with such impunity.

For the few readers who are unaware of the situation, Global Voices Online has a good summary, including tweeted updates here.

In Washington and in London, protesters have denounced the repressive policies of the Azerbaijan government. But - in Azerbaijan itself? What reaction will there be?

An Azerbaijani friend of mine wrote me today about the situation in his country. These are dark and dangerous times for people who are vocal in their support for democracy, he said. For people who just remain quiet, however, it is not so dangerous.

So - how long will the people of Azerbaijan remain quiescent? Until the oil runs out?

In a side note - I saw that the president of Turkmenistan has invited the president of Azerbaijan for visit. How nice! They can compare notes on repression. Maybe Ilham Aliyev can learn some new techniques.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A tale of two cities

Last year at this time, I was teaching a small class of journalism students in Zaqatala, a small and beautiful city in Azerbaijan that is located in the mountains, not far the borders with Russia and Georgia. Now, I am teaching university classes in in a small and pretty city in the mountains of North Carolina, USA. I teach two subjects: research methods & ethics.

Teaching has its moments that are interesting, frustrating, rewarding and boring. I also find that the activity can be disturbing. For example, several years ago I was teaching at a different university when the Bush Administration's policy of torturing suspected terrorists was completely operational. I was teaching a class on politics, so perhaps the subject wasn't directly relevant, but I brought it up anyway. I was appalled that no one in the class would condemn this policy. I was teaching a class of young people who were completely prepared to acquiesce with an official policy of torture, even if this meant that innocent people were tortured. The mantra "9/11. 9/11, 9/11" had its desired effect.

This last week, I described some hypothetical situations for my class on ethics. The class is really about ethics in communication, but we are just getting started, so I am talking more generally about ethics. I posed the question: If a cashier mistakenly gave you an extra $50 in change, would you return it?

I wasn't surprised that not everyone would, but I thought it was interesting how the students who planned to keep the money rationalized their decision. They reasoned that if the cashier made a mistake, then it is the cashier's fault and so the cashier deserves to suffer.

The rationale and the attitude was so wonderfully American. If you are poor, you deserve to be poor. In this understanding, America is not the land of opportunity; it is the land of survival of the fittest. You deserve all the loot that you can get, and if you don't have loot, you don't deserve it.

I note that not all the students opted to keep the money, and some said they would return the money, even after I changed the conditions to make keeping the money more attractive and returning it more difficult.

Nonetheless, I could not help thinking about the change in attitude and locales - my sweet and motivated students in Zaqatala, who write me still and were so grateful for the brief time I spent in their mountain city. And my American students, who possess so much more material wealth but who may be much poorer in some other ways.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Senator Feingold Calls for Timetable for U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Very sensible points made by Sen. Feingold. Discussion of withdrawal from Afghanistan should not be taboo. The US needs to soberly assess what are its goals there and how can they be achieved.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What sort of victory do elections in Afghanistan represent?

The article in the European Voice is ironically titled "A milestone for democracy?" Of course, that is how the election in the Afghanistan is being presented in the US press, but this conclusion requires a fairly tortured understanding of the word "democracy."

An AFP article presents some blunter assessments, including one analyst's opinion that the Taliban were successful in their effort to restrict the turnout for the election. Because the voter turnout was so low, it's questionable how much a mandate any winner can claim.
As the article makes clear, the main objective is to preserve what stability there is at the government, in order to allow the military to impose stability on the ground. To me, this appears to be one of those situation while there are surely individual heros on all sides, none of the forces can claim strong moral high ground.

While I am have not interviewed Taliban members, I have read enough interviews by journalists I respect to conclude that they are, in fact, brutal toward the Afghani population and their purported foes. The Americans have committed their share of atrocities, often through sheer stupidity and hubris. The Europeans have not assumed their share in finding a solution to a problem that has large implications for them, not just the Americans. The Russians are out of the current fight, but they committed innumerable war crimes in their last foray into Afghanistan. The current government of Afghanistan is thoroughly ridden with corruption, and the so-called "army" of Afghanistan has demonstrated little ability and less inclination to oppose the Taliban.

I doubt a military "victory" can be achieved here, not in the conventional sense. Even some American military experts and lawmakers have voiced this opinion. So what is the solution? What type of accommodation is possible with a foe so reviled, and that hold views so inimical to Western thought? On the other hand, is Afghanistan really where we should be fighting? We want to protect ourselves from Al Qaeda, but is Afghanistan the right place to accomplish this goal. And can total war be waged against a foe that is not clearly distinguishable from the supporting population? Do we have to destroy Afghanistan to save it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Song in support of freedom in Azerbaijan

I really don't know about the situation in Azerbaijan now. This video is full of images of revolution, but real progress has seemed unlikely in that country. On the other hand, sometimes situations can change very quickly. And sometimes martyrs can play an important role in galvanizing movements.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Assessing hopes for change in USA

Here we are in the last week of August. President Obama is taking a vacation on Martha's Vineyard. Every day brings news about forces mobilizing against real health care legislation. Military leaders are talking about the need to further increase troops in Afghanistan. While signs point to economic recovery in the United States, this has been a discouraging summer for those of us who had hoped that the election of President Obama would mean more fundamental change in the United States. The reactionary forces in the United States are, in fact, quite strong and all the more bitter and dangerous because of their defeat last November.

Yesterday's column by Paul Krugman reflects this discouragement. The multiple myths that underpin the political thinking of the United States are apparently unassailable. The fact that the economic doctrines and approaches of Reagan and the neo-conservatives lack both supporting evidence and logic does not apparently detract from their political power. It's discouraging because I believe that the path to the future for America is to be found in an economic approach that is both more realistic and better designed to benefit all classes of people, not just the wealthy

I can hear the chant of conservatives first voiced more than four decades ago: "America. Love it or leave it!" But I refuse to believe that those of us who do not agree with conservatives are not American. We are citizens too, and America cannot be claimed as the possession of conservatives only. I'm not leaving. (Yet.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Nationalism intrudes on the sphere of music

As an American, the whole Eurovision song contest phenomenon seemed quite odd when I lived in Azerbaijan last year. The Azerbaijan entrant to the contest that year was broadcast non-stop on the radio and television. (In all honesty, I thought the song and the performance was overwrought - but I'm not much of a pop music fan.) This year, the whole contest has gotten even weirder. First, Georgia's entry into the contest was an open slap at Russia. Now, the Azerbaijan authorities have harassed people who had the audacity to "vote" for the Armenian entry in the contest.

Of course, it was unrealistic to expect that nationalist politics would not invade such a contest. After all, chauvinistic nationalism pervades so much of society in the region. Global Voices has a nice update of the current controversy, with some interesting comments from readers.

One question comes to mind. If people cannot freely vote in a song contest, how can anyone think that last year's presidential election was fair. It's fine for the Azerbaijan authorities to lie, but no one should pretend that these lies have any relation to reality.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The writing is on the wall!

Journalist escapes prison in Azerbaijan

Radio Free Europe carried this brief article about Novruzali Mammadov, who died yesterday in prison at the age of 68. He is free now. He has left this world behind.

Mammadov was one of roughly half a dozen journalists imprisoned in Azerbaijan, which has ranked at or near the top for European countries imprisoning journalists. This spring, two journalists were released, leaving five behind bars.

Then, of course, Emin and Adnan were arrested earlier this summer. They continue to languish in prison on trumped up charges, despite the international outrage caused by their arrests.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bombing provides rationale for harsher approach

The New York Times today reports another terrible example of violence in Russia. The bomb blast, which killed at least 20 people, occurred in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia. The article portrays the bombing as another attack on the administration of Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the president of the republic. Yevkurov's approach has contrasted sharply with the policies of Ramzan Kadyrov, president of neighboring Chechnya. Kadyrov has become notorious for the human rights abuses that have occurred during his administration.

The writer of the NYT article appears to assume that the blast was a crime of insurgents. Perhaps it was. But I have a deep distrust of Russian security forces. I am still not convinced that the FSB was not connected to the series of blasts in 1999. The bombings preceded the first election of President Putin, who was able to use the violence as a rationale for an increasingly autocratic and repressive regime.

So - this latest bombing in Ingushetia is already being used as a reason for increased repression there. Very convenient.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Robert McChesney explains the current crisis in newspapers

This is a nice explanation of how the newspaper business got in its current state. Corporate consolidation is directly related the problems that journalism and democracy face today.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I had a flashback yesterday. No, it had nothing to do with use of LSD or any other hallucinogen. It concerned taking a course in negotiation at Syracuse University.

Off and on through the afternoon, I had been conducting an on-line “discussion” with a conservative distant relative. The discussion was centered around the health care legislation that is before the US Congress. I am in favor of very substantial changes in the system, even more substantial than that called for in the legislation. He thinks the system needs to be tweaked, at most.

The scope of our disagreement was clear before we started corresponding, but toward the end, perhaps from weariness, we found our area of agreement. He posited that he believes that government is simply too big, too powerful and too intrusive. I could agree with this in general, although we probably disagree about in which areas it’s too big and too intrusive. I posited that I also believe that private corporations are too big, too powerful, and too intrusive. And he agreed with that.

My flashback occurred when I realized that we unwittingly had followed instructions that I learned in a university classroom nearly a decade ago. First, find the areas of agreement. Then expand them. This approach is much more constructive than the demonizing and anger that is so seductive.

(One of the textbooks for the class, by the way, was Getting to Yes. I highly recommend it!)

As I was thinking this morning about the experience, however, I wondered what can we do when our negotiation partners do not cooperate in a constructive approach. This is a very real possibility, and I think we face that situation in the current debate over health care. (Two chapters of Getting to Yes, in fact, are entitled What If They Won’t Play and What If They Use Dirty Tricks.)

In the course of this on-line debate yesterday, for example, I visited Rush Limbaugh’s web page. I read the diatribes and distortions, and thought about their purpose and effect. I thought about motivations. I don’t think that Rush Limbaugh really cares much about anything ideologically. The main - and quite understandable - motivation is to make money. He makes money selling hate. And the people consuming his content get a rush from indulging in the hatred he sells. Years ago, I remember a young man trying to live without cocaine. He wasn’t doing cocaine, but he used his anger like a drug. Rush and others like him sell anger, just like Larry Flynt sells pornography. I don’t think either product is socially constructive, but anger may, in fact, be more destructive.

One of my favorite quotes came to mind when I was thinking about this:
“I let no man drag me down so low as to make me hate him.” - Booker T. Washington

This is good advice for contentious times. I must recognize hatred and anger for what they are, but I must also recognize that these are not entities that are separate from myself. I have that a capacity for anger and hatred too. It’s my choice whether I want to cultivate that capacity within myself or not.


On a completely different subject, I haven’t posted any random links here in awhile. No reason, really. Anyway, here are the sites of Dianne Hodack, a local painter; Matt McGuire, a local writer; and Seth Feinberg, who is an animator who is not local.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Innovative uses of the army

Ali writes in his blog today about the case of Agasif Shakiroglu, a young man who was first jailed for evading the draft. When this charge was rejected for its manifest absurdity, Agasif was simply inducted into the army. The mandatory service remains a real fear for many young men. I don't think it's that they are unpatriotic or opposed to serving their country. But the army in Azerbaijan - from what I have heard - still functions along the Soviet model. Abuse of soldiers is routine. At the very least, they are subjected to mind-numbing boredom. In some countries, mandatory service can be a time when soldiers receive a technical education. Perhaps this happens in Azerbaijan, but that's not what the men I talked to described.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Riding a bicycle to Baku

I remember seeing a guy riding a bike toward Baku, as we were nearing Ganca, the second largest city in Baku. We were finishing a long & extremely monotonous stretch of road in January. And there was this guy with his bulging panniers stuffed - riding alone down this very poor stretch of road.

My first impression was surprise. My second impulse was sympathy. But - I have to assume he did his research and knew what he was getting into.

The Telegraph is running a series of articles about the newspaper's correspondent, Douglas Whitehead, bicycling through Europe. One of his latest articles details his experience on the road to Baku. I've bicycled my share and I've traveled around Azerbaijan too. His impressions ring true to me. I easily can imagine the scenes he describes - the honesty of the people and the cultural differences about personal space and boundaries, the simultaneous hospitality and awkwardness.

Monday, August 3, 2009

ДДТ и Юрий Шевчук- Когда Закончится Нефть

Онень смешная песня. (Спасибо, Али!) Да, он прав. Когда закончится нефть, мир станет лучше. Я просто надеюсь что мы переживём до этой эпохи.

When the oil runs out, you will be with me again. When you gas runs out, you will return to me.

Yes, all these good things will happen - when the oil and gas run out. Until then.....

Funny and pointed little song. Such petrochemical wealth is a very mixed blessing. I think many people understand this instinctively. The mineral wealth most often fosters corruption, not sustainable development. And yet, to ignore these riches is impossible.

A video from jail

Adnan got this note out from jail, where he and Emin await trial on charges of hooliganism. His friends put it together as a video.

Friday, July 31, 2009

This smells fishy

Gallup has a new poll out about approval ratings for countries of the former Soviet Union. At the bottom of the list is Ukraine. At the top ...... Azerbaijan. According to the poll, 77 percent of the population approve of the the job that the county's leaders are doing.

I want to know with whom they were talking. What language were they speaking? Did they have a government-supplied translator? I did not do any scientifically valid polling when I was in Azerbaijan, but I did talk to a lot of people. I certainly not say that more than 3/4 of the people I spoke with were supporting the leadership of the country. Of course, people didn't talk loudly about their dissent - but in private conversations they were quite honest about their dissatisfactions.

The recurring theme, however, was that people perceived that no realistic alternatives to the current regime existed.

Will demographics resolve issue of Karabakh?

EurasiaNet Insight has published an interesting article about the dwindling pool of potential conscripts for the Armenian army. One plan to address the problem would remove university enrollment as reason for exemption from military service. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has been growing in military strength.

It makes me wonder. Wouldn't Armenia have been better off negotiating from a position of strength? The country's military position is bound to weaken, given demographic factors and Azerbaijan's continuing petro-dollar fueled investment in military hardware. What sort of agreement will Armenia agree to when its hand is weaker? Or will internal politics in Azerbaijan move its rulers to force the issue? Nothing like a good war to distract people from corruption at the top!

EurasiaNet Eurasia Insight - Armenia: Military Planners Confront Conscript Shortfall, Mull an End to College Exemption

And here is an article about the current stalemate in peace talks.....

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A short film about Emin Milli and Adnan Hacizade

This film has just been posted on YouTube. Emin and Adnan now have spent more than 23 days in jail. The government of Azerbaijan is effectively ignoring the protests against the imprisonment of these activists.

Where is this going?

Radio Free Europe has a nice opinion piece today about Azerbaijan's "steady descent into authoritarianism." I have written about this subject repeatedly on this blog. I did not have the perspective that natives of that country have, because I only moved there last year. I did, nonetheless, talk to many Azerbaijanis, and I understood that the repression has steadily increased in recent years.

I continue to be both confounded and fascinated by the question of democratization. Too often, it appears that the rather deterministic views of Carles Boix, Daron Acemoglu, and James A. Robinson have the bulk of supporting evidence. I cannot do justice to their work here. Suffice it to say that they all focus on the impact that economic resources and distribution of wealth have on the democratization of societies.

Azerbaijan potentially has many different sources of wealth, but in recent history its primary source of income has been from petroleum and natural gas. These are resources that are immobile. The oil in Azerbaijan may be depleted, but it will not decide to emigrate because of repressive government policies. When the source of wealth is intellectual, however, the rulers of the country must act more carefully. Factories can be moved. Trading offices can be closed and re-opened easily. If the rulers of a country want to hold onto this type of wealth, they must be careful not to enact policies that will cause the sources of this wealth to move.

Where does this leave Azerbaijan?

Not in a good place. The rulers of Azerbaijan control the wealth of their country. It's not going away quickly. In fact, because of Azerbaijan's delicate position between Russia and the West, the rulers of the country are trying to play a delicate game, flirting with both sides in order to achieve maximum freedom of action within their country, while picking whatever benefits they can from Russia and the West. The winners in the game - so far - are the rulers of Azerbaijan, while the bulk of the population in Azerbaijan loses as the country becomes increasingly autocratic and the distribution of income becomes increasingly skewed.

The sad thing about the analyses of the above political scientists is that even revolution does not change the situation that much. When the wealth is immobile, the succeeding regime is likely to be just as undemocratic as the one it replaced.

Russia is a wonderful example.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The importance of smashing idealism

OL! has a nice little interview with Ziya Aliyev, senior investigator of the Sabail Region district. Aliyev is the fellow supposedly investigating the case of Adnan Hajizadah & Emin Milli Abdullayev. As you recall, the two activists were arrested earlier this month, and were last week sentenced to two months pre-trial detention.

Their sentence came despite the fact that according to witnesses, they were the ones who were assaulted. That's the way it works in Azerbaijan. If you are a critic of the government, you are likely to be assaulted, and then be arrested for committing the assault. It's as logical as the rest of the governance there.

Since the arrest of the two young men, the action of the Azerbaijan government has been condemned by the representatives of the European Union and the United States. But this apparently has not changed the course chosen by the Azerbaijan government. They assume - probably correctly - that the fuss will settle down, and then sufficient punishment will be inflicted on Adnan and Emin to further intimidate the opposition with Azerbaijan. And the people running the country can proceed with their corrupt practices within their long-suffering country.

When I was working in Azerbaijan, I observed that corruption is useful to the authoritarian rulers in at least two ways. Most obviously, corruption personally enriches them. A huge chain of corruption has been built, and the top representatives of the government are the greatest beneficiaries. But secondly, corruption works to sap the strength of any opposition. If corruption is all pervasive, then even the opponents of the government can be snared in the sticky web. For this reason, true idealism - which is found most often in the young - can be the greatest threat to such a regime.

The persecution of Adnan and Emin may seem to be completely disproportionate to their offenses or the threat they posed - but their persecution is not directed at just two individuals. The rulers of Azerbaijan are intending to teach all young activists a lesson. To all those idealistic youths who took to the streets this spring, the Masters say, "Look at Emin and Adnan. This fate could be yours. Behave!"

Monday, July 20, 2009

Here's what really happened, according to Azerbaijan government

In case you wanted to read how the case of Emin and Adnan is being presented in the official press, here's a link to the Azeri-Press Agency (APA). Amazing. In this account, Emin and Adnan are depicted as ruffians, drinking and swearing in a restaurant. Babek Huseynov and his associates were just some peaceful guys who wanted some peace and quiet, so they approached Emin and Adnan, asking the guys to quiet down. You can read the rest of it in the article. The fact that Emin and Adnan were pro-democracy activists is not mentioned in the article. Of course.

Now, I have never met Emin or Adnan personally and I was not in that Lebanese restaurant that night. I have, however, eaten in that very restaurant. It was noisy when I ate there. I find it incredible that Emin and Adnan were being that much noisier than anyone else. So much noisier that these fellows came over to ask them to quiet down. Why did these fellows have to take matters into their own hands? If Adnan and Emin were so out of hand, would the management allow them to be so disruptive? Perhaps if Emin and Adnan had been well-connected government officials, this might be possible. But they are not and the scenario described here is completely implausible.

No, the story published here doesn't smell right at all. It isn't even logical. But logic has never been an essential ingredient for government propaganda.

Of course, the primary reason for not believing this account of the incident is because it is the official line of the government of Azerbaijan. If the official word is that something is blue, you can be nearly certain that it is any color but blue.

By the way, just for the record, the APA, established in 2004 is "an independent, private information agency." That's according to its website.

Independent. Right.

Appeal of bloggers rejected

The news via Twitter is that the appeal of Emin Milli & Adnan Hajizade has been rejected. Not many more details available at this point. On the Facebook pages this morning - expressions of disgust & frustration. The natural regret for hoping against hope that an undemocratic government would respect human rights. But the face of the Azerbaijani government is unmistakable. It is not democratic. It is not concerned with human rights. It is not concerned with fairness or justice.

One question was posed: What now? Someone suggested that the voting rights of Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe could be rescinded. I am by no means an expert in this - but this seems technically possible. Politically possible? That's another question. The government of Azerbaijan still seems to be successfully using its position between Russia and the West to its own advantage. Of course, also using its power as an energy exporter. While the government in Azerbaijan uses all its tools to cling to power, the people of the country endure a rule that is undemocratic and increasingly harsh.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Compilation of dissent

Here is a new site that's been set up to advocate freedom for Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli. I should have posted this earlier. It's a nice collection of articles from around the word that address this issue. (Thanks, Ali!)

Does this international publicity help their cause? The experience of groups such as Amnesty International shows that such publicity, in fact, can put pressure on governments. If attention is really turned to the actions of Azerbaijan's government, plenty of more offenses against the people of Azerbaijan will be seen.

Speaking of publicity, there is a strong editorial in the Washington Post today about the murder of Natalya Estemirova. The Russian government apparently believes that such crimes carry no consequences for itself. This belief is mistaken. The Russian people as a whole suffer as their government conducts or condones brutal repression against crusaders for justice and human rights.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Defending his honor?

I just read in an article that Ramzan Kadyrov will sue Pamyat because of the leader of that group alleged that Kadyrov was behind the murder of Natalya Estemirova. I think defending his honor has little or nothing to do with it. Instead, this is a wonderful opportunity for the president of Chechnya to further intimidate and oppress those who care about human rights in the country.

It's a cynical and shameless maneuver - not the defense of anyone's honor.

Shameful scene at funeral shows who holds power in Russia

While Russian President Dmitri Medvedev expressed indignation about the murder of Natalya Estemirova, his outrage has a hollow ring. Actually, I would like to think that he is a decent man, but he does not really control the government. The reins of power - to the extent that they function - are still in the hands of Vladmir Putin.

If there was any doubt about this, the scene yesterday in Grozny should have been sufficient evidence about the real dynamics of the situation. Police broke up the funeral procession for Estemirova - because the mourners did not have a permit! The police, I'm sure, were just following orders from their superiors in the government. It is not in the interest of the thugs running Chechnya to grant a respectful burial ceremony for the murdered human rights activist. After all, while Chechen President Ramzan A. Kadyrov may not have ordered the killing, it certainly could not happen unless the killers knew that they would be shielded by him. And Kadyrov cannot hold his position without the support of Putin.

As the old Russian proverb states: A fish rots from the head. And Putin is still the head of the Russian government, no matter the results of last year's sham election.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Two Germans back opposing plans for European gas supplies

This appointment was interesting, and as the Italian analyst noted - a little ironic. In his new position, Fischer will be facing his old boss ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Fischer’s appointment makes sense, as the author of the RFE article point out, for a variety of reasons. One important point is that he has consistently supported Turkish membership in the the EU, and Turkey’s participation in Nabucco is absolutely essential.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, is being noncommittal about favoring one option or another, as a previous article by Pannier points out. That said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Azerbaijan under its current leadership align itself more closely with the Gazprom. The Russian government is less likely to raise bothersome questions about human rights and democracy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New York Times following our discussion!

As it happens, the New York Times posted a video on its site that is relevant to the little "conversation" we had here about the value of Facebook for democracy activists. Interesting discussion. Both parties make good points and the final word has certainly not been said!

Support for Adnan and Emin spans the globe!

The support for Emin and Adnan takes a new form as bloggers make videos to support their colleagues in Azerbaijan. Here are the instructions included with this video:

What can you do?
1. Take a camera
2. Introduce yourself: My name is ... I am from...
3. Send your support message to Adnan and Emin
4. Finish your video with the words: I call on Azerbaijani government to end this lawlessness.
5. Upload this video to Youtube with subject Support to Adnan and Emin
6. Send the link of the video to

Bike Polo

While polo played on bikes is considerably cheaper than equestrian polo, the players become just as tangled. There is also an element of risk, although I don't think it's nearly as dangerous as equestrian polo. (Now I can say that I have photographed both variations.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Free press, gas pipelines, and jailed activists

I came across a provocative post on this blog today, following a link from Facebook. You can read it for yourself, but the author states her position clearly in the headline: Why Facebook Hurts Democratic Movements. She objects to the recent activity on Facebook, as sympathizers protest the arrests of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada.

I have to disagree respectfully with the author. I believe that in the struggle to improve democratic governance and safeguard human rights, every peaceful tool should be used. It appears that the author of the post believes that the activists of the Internet are not incurring enough risk to validate their activist credentials. In fact, as we can see the young people who are using the Internet to discuss democracy in Azerbaijan do incur significant risk.

Every peaceful tool should be used if we are to effect political change. We don't know which ones will be most effective. Also, not everyone has the same tools to use. For some people, attending a demonstration in Baku is possible. For others, circulating information about the human rights abuses in that country is a more feasible action.

In other news, I was glad to hear about this agreement being signed, even though many of the details remain to be ironed out. I am a supporter of democrats in Russia, and so I am all for creating some competition to Gazprom. Azerbaijan pay provide gas for the pipeline. It is one of the many details for Nabucco.

Finally, I expect to be reading this report tonight. The report was produced by Free Press, a media reform group started in 2002 by media scholar Robert W. McChesney. The article that John Nichols and McChesney wrote for the Nation earlier this year was thought-provoking and well argued. I expect that the new report will contain some similar suggestions.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Case of Emin and Adnan gets attention of bloggers

I'm not sure it will help, but I don't think the publicity about the case of Emin and Adnan will hurt. Among the websites carrying information about this case are OL!, Elites TV, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights House.

In other news, a businessman was convicted in U.S. court of conspiring to pay bribes to late President Heydar Aliyev and other government leaders. What is unusual about the case is that it actually went to trial! Will the case have any repercussions in Azerbaijan? I doubt it.

Victims jailed and the guilty parties walk

Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada have been sentenced to two months "pre-trial investigative detention." Presumably this is for investigation into the incident where they were both assaulted and seriously injured. Confused? You should be.

There is a movie called Absurdistan. Azerbaijan is perceived to be the model for the fictional country. It is such incidents that cause such perceptions. Yes, if you are assaulted in Azerbaijan, you will be jailed and your assailant will go free.

Of course, this is the case if you are a trouble-making activists like Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada. Emin Milli was agitating on the Internet, using Facebook to get the word out about protests and the conditions in Azerbaiajan. Adnan Hajizada was one of the founders of OL Youth group. This group also used the Internet to publicize the problems that young people in Azerbaijan face. Radio Free Liberty has an article about the case. Global Voices and Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines write about the case as well.

Officials from the US Embassy & the Norwegian Embassy are objecting to the persecution of the activists - but I don't hold much hope that external pressure will change things. To me, the case is a reminder that even authoritarian governments are not monolithic. Within the power structure, there may be different elements that have different agendas. Some people in Azerbaijan breathed a sigh of relief last month, when legislation concerning NGOs was not as restrictive as feared. As it was - it is plenty restrictive - but perhaps it was less than some hard liners wanted. Here is an example of the hard line elements in the government taking off their gloves - and showing human rights activists - and the populace in general - that they better not make noise about the thieves who are running their country.

Friday, July 10, 2009


This little resident of a pond in North Carolina - photographed by me last week - now gets to travel around the world!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Emin Milli and Adnan Haji-zadeh at Police Station

Here is the ANTV clip that shows an interview with one of the two activists beaten by thugs in Baku a couple of days ago. No charges brought against the people who beat them. Of course, the activists who were the victims are the ones who are presumed to be guilty. As one of my friends in Baku remarked, "Nothing new here."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Azeri vs. Azerbaijani

I came across this video today - which confirms what I had been told by an Azerbaijani friend.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull in Yerevan, Armenia

For some reason, I find this amusing.

(Picked up from Onik Krikorian's blog. Thanks!)

Monday, June 29, 2009

More scenes from the mountains of North Carolina

Another analysis of Iran

Dilip Hiro has written interesting analysis of the situation in Iran. Surely some people will object to some elements of his piece, but I think he makes some good points, especially about the demographic factors that are influencing the situation in Iran.

The fact that he comes from a Hindu background might be seen as an influence on his understanding of Islam. Personally, I think that any theocratic state is bound to be undemocratic - Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or Muslim.

Looking ahead to the Moscow Summit

The analyst tends to speak from right-wing "realist" perspective. I don't agree with everything he says, but he makes some good points. The Russians understandably desire a "sphere of influence" to buffer their borders. Is it in the US interest to overtly thwart this desire?

New report details brutality in Azerbaijan

A new report by Amnesty International describes a persistent pattern of abuses by authorities in Azerbaijan. The report looks in particular at several cases of individual journalists who have been persecuted by authorities.

The report comes a day before the parliament votes on a set of measures that will make operation of independent NGOs in Azerbaijan nearly impossible. (I've shared information about these proposals in earlier posts.) I have listened to friends in Azerbaijan who say that they doubt that the parliament will pass such extreme measures.

I'm not so sure. It seems that in recent history every repressive measure that has been proposed has, in fact, been adopted.

If these measures are adopted, it will probably mean more brutality by authorities against the journalists of Azerbaijan and against the population of that country in general.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The problems at home

Student blog from Azerbaijan

Here's a new resource for people trying to keep a finger on the pulse of young people in Azerbaijan.

TƏHSİL XƏBƏRLƏRİ is written by students in Azerbaijan. The title means roughly "Education News." There is a "button" to provide an English translation of the site, although the translations are really brief summaries of the articles. Translating is a lot of work! Nonetheless, if you check it out you'll get an idea about what educated young people in Azerbaijan are doing. In my experience, they have a lot of idealistic energy, much of it frustrated by the government.

Even the summaries can give you a flavor of life there. For example:

"Head of press service of Tefekkur University Shirmammad Khanmammadov was arrested while selling forged diploma."

"Students of Chemistry faculty of Azerbaijan State Pedagogical University (ASPU) are forced to bribe."

"Illegal actions are continued at Baku State University (BSU)."

I commend the young people of Azerbaijan for persisting in their efforts to bring greater democracy and honesty to their society!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Remembering a conversation with an Iranian

I was thinking this morning about Reza.

I met him nearly a year ago in a train compartment that smelled like an old shoe. Most of the sleeping berths on the Azerbaijani trains have this smell. It's not so bad. The ones next to the lavatory smell like ... the lavatory.

Reza was drunk, not obnoxiously drunk. Just happy drunk. He entered the compartment minutes before the train was scheduled to depart, and then sat next to the window, waving to his friends and sharing some last words with them. He also opened a final beer for the long night ride to Lenkoran.

This train ride, in fact, was just the first part of the journey home for Reza. He was going back to Iran, regretfully. He was able to communicate this to me in broken English. I do not speak Farsi and Reza spoke no Russian. I think we exchanged a few words in German and Azerbaijani, but mostly we managed with English.

He was very eager to talk with me, and to share his dissatisfaction with the ruling regime in Iran. His complaints were varied - but generally he was very unhappy about the lack of freedom there. One reason he liked coming to Azerbaijan was to drink and go to discos, for example. I think his dissatisfaction, however, was deeper than that. Reza worked as some sort of small businessman. I forget the details. The regime also made it difficult for his business.

At the time, George W. Bush was still the president of the United States, and we talked about U.S. politics. I lamented the course that foreign policy had taken under Bush, and also regretted that relations were not better between the United States and Iran. He agreed, and we toasted to international friendship, Reza drinking his beer while I drank my bottle of mineral water.

I had met Iranians before, but only emigrants and exiles. For me, it was quite educational to talk with someone who was currently living in the country. Some people in the United States pride themselves on the country's "free press," but in fact there are gaping holes in the press coverage provided to U.S residents. Iran is one of those subjects that is covered quite poorly by the U.S. press.

As I was thinking about Iran this morning, I was also thinking about history and historical cycles. There is a theory in political science that politics in the United States exhibits periodicity. The conventional understanding of these cycles is roughly 30 years. It's interesting to think back to the tumultuous period of the Iranian revolution. The revolution occurred nearly simultaneously with the ascendency of President Ronald Reagan and the conservative revolution he led. (Some people would argue that this was not a mere coincidence.) Both Reagan and the Mullahs led socially conservative forces. Perhaps we are seeing the natural end of that cycle? I don't mean that the current uprisings in Iran will lead to a re-vote, but the authorities have clearly seen their power and legitimacy compromised. Do they really think that they can force this genie back in the bottle? And what effect will the uprisings in Iran have on the Muslim world in general - if the quintessential Islamic republic is shown to disregard both morality and the will of its people?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Photo break

The world may seem to be a vale of tears, laden with conflict, and yet natural beauty can be found if we look for it.

I acknowledge - I think it's a little easier to find this beauty in the mountains of North Carolina. Here is some of the beauty I've found lately.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Civil society groups protest proposed restrictions

I received a message via Facebook today with the following information:

Yesterday more than 50 NGO representatives demonstrated in front of the national parliament building to protest changes legislation restricting independent NGOs. . Baku city officials didn't give permission for the picketing, but it was held anyway. The protestors were not able to get into the parliament building, but Gubad Ibadoglu, a prominent dissident economist, was somehow able to enter and present this statement from the Civil Society Defense Committee.

Baku city 19 June 2009
We, the non-governmental organizations united in the Civil Society Defense Committee, condemn the proposed changes and additions to Azerbaijan Republic Law Non-governmental Organizations (Public Unions and Foundations) and strongly object to their adoption!

We declare that these amendments directly contradict Azerbaijan's professed political course, these changes, the Constitution and Azerbaijan's international commitments, and restrict significantly the fundamental human rights of freedom of association and expression!

We consider that these changes and amendments are intended to create serious restrictions for the establishment and work of non-governmental organizations and are a severe blow to the civil society!

Taking all of these things into consideration, and believing that the changes will be damaging to the international image of the government, we say NO to these changes and amendments and call on parliamentarians NOT TO VOTE them!

We declare that if the proposed changes and amendments are approved, we will use all legal and civil means to abolish them!

Trend News reported the existence of the picketing - very briefly:

Azerbaijan, Baku, June 19 / Trend News A. Huseynbala /

Azerbaijani NGOs failed to hold unauthorized piquet in front of building of the Parliament.

Police did not allow participants of the action coming closer building of the parliament, Trend News correspondent reported from the place of incident. Participants of the action protest against additions and changes in law bill NGOs.

Despite the action failed, economic research center chairman Gubad Ibadoglu was allowed submitting statement of members of protest to the Parliament.

Law bill on changes and additions to law bill NGOs was added in agenda of meeting of the Azerbaijani parliament on June 19.

They envisage limitations on cooperation of local NGOs with foreign ones.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Turtle Visitor

This turtle and I communed for awhile after he crawled to my front door. He wasn't interested in the lettuce and apple that I offered. After filming him, I moved him from my porch to more suitable habitat.