Saturday, January 31, 2009

Conversation at the market

When I was buying vegetables in the market yesterday, a young man asked me in English where I was from. I replied at first in Russian, but it was clear the man spoke English well and wanted to practice the language, so we began to speak in English. I never do this in the market. For one thing, I very rarely meet anyone who speaks English. For another, I don’t like to be a more obvious foreigner than I am. So - I usually just speak a mixture of Russian and Azerbaijani.

Perhaps out of habit, the young man invited me into his store, but I joked that there didn’t seem to be much there for me. (A gay array of multi-colored bras hung in the window.) Yes, he acknowledged, the shop is mostly for women.

The young man spoke excellent English. He had earned a master’s degree in economics four years ago. I didn’t ask why he was working in a little lingerie shop in a run-down shopping area. The fact is that there are scores of well-educated Azerbaijanis who cannot find good work in Azerbaijan and can’t get the necessary visa to emigrate.

We chatted a bit about the nearby retailing areas, the high prices in some of the other places. Prices are better in this little bazaar area, we agreed.

Working in the shop, he said, is just a part-time job. Something to do, to get some experience.

(Above are a couple of photos taken during a long walk through Baku on a uniformly gray day.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Where do we draw the line?

After reading the news this morning, I was thinking about my previous post re: prosecution of Bush officials. I was reading two articles about a recent press conference held by Ken Salazar, the new Secretary of the Interior.

Salazar pledges to clean up the waste and fraud that has beset that department for years. Yes, even before the Bush Administration. But in the last eight years, that department has really become a scandal heap. (Does the name Abramoff ring a bell?) So - where do we draw the line about prosecution of wrongdoing? Is it OK to prosecute in the Department of Interior but not in the Department of Justice. Or OK in the Department of Justice but not in the Department of Defense?

Cheery thought for the day!

The case against prosecuting Bush & co.

In a recent Boston Phoenix article, Harvey Silverglate, a prominent Boston-area lawyer, tackles the problem of whether the crimes of the Bush Administration should be prosecuted. (I saw this thanks to Dan Kennedy and his Media Nation blog.)

Silverglate doesn't argue that the administration is innocent of wrongdoing. In fact, he deplores the so-called "torture memos" that seemed to give legal clearance to human rights abuses. But from a legal point of view, Silverglate warns against pursuing indictments against members of the administration, because he thinks a jury couldn't be persuaded to convict.

I'm not a lawyer, and I respect Silverglate's professional opinion. But I agree with one of the comments on the article, that he has the cart before the horse. How can we know whether a jury would convict until an investigation is begun? This is not a fishing expedition. Aside from the issue of torture and war, there is prima facie evidence that crimes were committed in the area of illegal wiretapping and the politicization of the Justice Department.

Yes, the Obama Administration has many other tasks before it, but this doesn't mean the crimes of the last eight years should just be forgotten.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Solid evidence of political shift in US

The accompanying map shows party strength by state for 2008, ranging from states that can be considered solidly Democratic (a Democratic advantage in party identification of 10 percentage points or more) to those that can be considered solidly Republican (a Republican advantage in party identification of 10 percentage points or more). This shift has been discussed for awhile, but this is most comprehensive treatment I've seen of the subject so far.

read more | digg story

Fun and games and economics

Here's a little opinion poll/quiz I created in honor the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Click Here to take survey

And you can find two previous polls here or here.

Economic crisis? Where?

I have been watching the snow fall - in Davos, Switzerland. That is - I’ve been watching the television coverage of the meeting from the comparatively balmy Baku. It’s just gray and drizzly here.

And the economic news also seems less cold here. I’m not sure why. Azerbaijan’s financial system may be less integrated into the world system than, say, Russia’s. I know that when I was in Russia last fall, conversation about the global economic crisis was unavoidable. A Russian friend last week told me that the situation there has become, if anything, worse.

Another friend of mine, a native of Azerbaijan, recently made an interesting remark when we were standing in a bank together, watching the currency exchange rates flash across a screen. The Azerbaijan government is devoting excessive capital to propping up the Azerbaijan currency, he said. Could be. I haven’t made a detailed study of this currency, although I did live through and later study the Russian ruble crisis of 1998. The recent financial news doesn’t look so promising either. Russia’s international reserves recorded their second largest drop on record last week, falling by $30.3 billion. The ruble is roughly 30 to the dollar today. When I lived in Moscow last year, the rate was about 24 to the dollar.

The situation in Russia is different than what we face here, but it’s possible that the current exchange rate of the manat will become unsustainable in the coming year. If anything, the Azerbaijani manat has been growing stronger against the dollar over the last three months.

While Azerbaijan seems quite economically secure on the surface, the news today from Davos is that no corner of the globe will be spared economic pain in this global recession. Global job losses could total more than 51 million, according to figures released today by the International Labour Organization. The developing world may be especially hard hit, because many of these countries don’t have the “safety nets” to assist the unemployed, warns the the International Monetary Fund.

But all of this grim news still seems far away from us at the moment. The leading Internet news portal in this country has an article today about falling prices for commercial real estate in Baku, but few people outside of the real estate business are probably concerned by this fact. The big news from Davos that concerns Azerbaijan is that the president of Azerbaijan and Armenia had a private meeting there.

In the picture, they aren’t shaking hands.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Boehner to GOP: Vote against stimulus

The GOP leadership has realized that the best thing for it politically is to screw things up even more. They can't allow Obama to succeed, because then their economic policies will be discredited decades to come.

read more | digg story

New poll

My first attempt at polling didn't do too badly. Thirty four respondents in less than 24 hours. Not exactly scientific results and I think I could have crafted at least one of the questions better. One person remarked that it wasn't challenging enough - so I'll try to fix that in future polls here. You can read the results of that first poll by clicking on this link. If you have an additional 30 seconds to take another poll, please check out this one. It's a little more quirky.

New music

I'm leaving this country in a few weeks. It seems like getting ready for leaving a place, especially a foreign country, engenders a certain sweet melancholy in me, and I can get hung up on certain music. When I left Russia more than decade ago, it was Rain Dogs, a Tom Waits album. This time, I've been listening to an album by hope for agoldensummer. When I was back in the States a month ago or so, I saw the two sisters who form the core of the group perform. They have some really magical tunes and beautiful voices. If you're leaving a country soon, you might want to check it out.

New media

As a journalist and also someone who studies the media, these times can be scary, exciting, and disorienting. Last week, a friend e-mailed me a link to to a start-up that hopes to make a business printing blogs. Today - I have something in my in-box about a photo contest run by Demotix. I have no idea which ideas will take off - and that's the thing - I don't think anyone does.
But I do like the look and feel of Demotix so far...

The People vs. Dick Cheney

A sort of disturbing article. Is justice possible?

I found this paragraph particularly depressing:

"Perhaps the biggest question, though, is one of political will given that Americans, it seems, really aren't that upset about what has happened. A recent University of Maryland poll found that tolerance for torture of suspected terrorists has actually risen in recent years, from 36 percent in 2006 to 44 percent last June."

Yes, Obama won by a landslide in '08, but US public opposition to an illegal war and the abridgment of civil liberties during the Bush years was weak at best.What has the USA become?

read more | digg story

Monday, January 26, 2009

Your opinion?

I just completed a survey given by survey monkey and was inspired to create my own survey. I've been meaning to do this for more than a year - but tonight I had nothing better to do for half an hour - so I finally got around to it. If you have five minutes, please take this survey. I'd be interested in your opinion. Maybe other people would be too.
Click Here to take survey

The Carousel of Corruption?

It seems a bit curmudgeonly to complain about a carousel - but I will. The carousel pictured above is certainly one of the most elaborate ones I’ve ever seen. Certainly more elaborate than the ones in Central Park, NYC.

The carousel is part of a never-ending renovation process on what is called the “Bulvar” or boulevard, the well-used walkway by the Caspian Sea in Baku. I’ve seen the carousel in the process of installation over the last month or so - but today was the first time I’ve seen it whirling around.

So, what’s not to like about a carousel? It’s a beautiful attraction, after all. Good clean fun. And the whole renovation process keeps people employed - although many of the laborers seem to be Chinese - not Azeri.

I guess the thing that bothers me is that when I see such expensive attractions and renovations, I think about meager pensions and salaries. I think about the stipends for students that are promised and not paid. And what is the economic or political principle that means funding such high-profile public works projects is more attractive than investing in less grandiose infrastructure improvements? Is one type of expenditure more easy to divert for private gain? Why?

I have my hunches about the answers to these questions - but really answering them could be difficult - or dangerous.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Referendum approaches, and opposition grows

The signs are going up. Yes, in a couple of months, Azerbaijani citizens will have the chance to voice their approval of a measure that would remove the two-term limit from the president. But while President Ilham Aliyev was credited with reaping 89 percent of the vote in the November election, the proposed constitutional changes are stirring up real opposition.

The opposition to Aliyev has been fractious in the recent past, although the real opposition groups did agree to boycott the last election (hence - contributing to the Ilham’s landslide). Now, however, the referendum to remove term limits appears to galvanizing opposition groups, who might not see eye to eye on much but can agree that an limitation of the current regime is a bad thing for democracy.

But - as always the case, expressing opposition in Azerbaijan is costly. A reminder: the trial of human rights activist Leyla Yunus is scheduled to begin today. She is accused of "insulting" the ministry and causing "moral damage" to the reputation of the police after she questioned the conduct of a kidnapping trial in which a defendant had alleged police involvement. Human Rights Watch is calling for the government to drop its charges. But the prosecutor charges that she caused “moral damage” to the police by her comments during an interview.

It’s a reminder for journalists who are used to working the West, that our conventional understanding of libel laws aren’t really applicable in most countries. Truth, for example, is not a defense.

Leyla has been chosen to lead a coalition opposition groups called the Civil Movement for Karabakh and a Democratic Republic. The opposition is even growing on-line, with the creation of the Lale Movement, named after a little girl holding a sign in a recent protest. The group now has its own Facebook and Yahoo groups.

All of this is encouraging for those of us who favor more democracy in Azerbaijan, but the opposition is likely to face considerable pressure from a government that appears increasingly less tolerant of dissent. Earlier this week, seven activists were arrested after 20 members Musavat protested a government policy that closed BBC and Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasts on Azerbaijani frequencies. Here's another little article with a photo.

(Above is a photo of little Lale - and a photo of one of the many signs advertising the referendum.)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Olbermann | Bush Years: 8 in 8 Minutes

A nice summation. But - he didn't do this alone. The majority of the American people acquiesced.

read more | digg story

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Inappropriate changes

I've been traveling so much lately, that this evening I felt the need to explore my own neighborhood. I hadn't really taken a walk on the perimeter of Icheri Sheher (Old City) in weeks. Since my last walk in the area, much fencing has come down, revealing freshly completed construction projects.

Some of this is nice. A new fountain. Some landscaping. It's certainly more scenic that the ubiquitous fencing that surrounded so many parks in Baku this summer. But I have a few aesthetic quibbles.

Perhaps my major complaint is with this clock pictured above. The Icheri Sheher is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. So - how does this neon colored clock fit? It doesn't. I'm not sure where it would be appropriate, but certainly not on these ancient walls.

And while I personally am glad to have a functioning metro station near my residence, the newly-opened and renamed Icheri Sheher station also looks completely inappropriate for the site. Two people have complained to me about the expense of the facility - which was reportedly more than $10 million. I can't get verification of the cost. Couldn't find any reference at all to the cost in any Internet-listed sources.

I did find a news reference that confirmed what I heard - that within days of the metro opening, severe leaks were found in the roof. The ticket sellers took refuge under umbrellas, according to my source.

Remarks on Torture Could Lead to Legal Changes

This quote says it all: “It would be contrary to the principles of the criminal justice system for the attorney general to say he believes a very serious crime has been committed and then to do nothing about it.”- Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch

read more | digg story

Friday, January 16, 2009

Looking ahead

I will not be attending Barack Obama's inauguration this week. Even if I were in the USA, I doubt I would attend. Too many people. But I am following closely the changes in Washington, DC, as hopeful as anyone about what a new administration could mean. It's not too difficult to ascertain my perspective on a variety of issues that the new president will face. On the issue of criminal investigations, for example, I'm hopeful that when the new administration is in place, people in the Bush Administration who committed crimes will be prosecuted.

I think most people understand at some level that a really fundamental reassessment of the past is necessary. How did things go so wrong? I came across one explanation today in an article by in The Atlantic. The author makes some very good points about the failings of the presidency as a legal institution. He's certainly not the first to note these failings. For example, Larry Bartels, who in a recent book documented the systematic bias of Republican administrations to favor the wealthy, has also written a lot about this issue.

But - many of the changes discussed by Garrett Epps and others require constitutional changes. These would be difficult to contemplate at any moment, and at the moment such matters are likely to be fairly far down the "to do" list for most Americans. Too bad, because the systemic problems of US governance are what allowed Bush the power to do so much damage.

Forgive and Forget?

If we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years, this means that those who hold power are above the law and can abuse their power.

read more | digg story

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A beer with Bush

Here's to electing our drinking buddies!

Another sunrise in Baku

Just another Baku sunrise, as the song might go.

The phrase 'war on terror' bad for war on terror

This article highlights the simplistic, misguided and dangerous view that the Bush administration had on terrorism. In essence, terrorism can never be defeated by military action alone but must be fought by championing the law and human rights. Terrorism is a "tactic not an institution or an ideology".

read more | digg story

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lenkoran Market

Note: this is just the food part of the market. There is an adjacent section where clothes, hardware and everything else is sold.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Talking to the non-elites

(Monday evening, Jan. 12, 2009)

I’m watching the last press conference of President George W. Bush. That God - his less press conference. He’s answering a question about the moral standing of the United States. He says that the moral standing isn’t damaged. It’s just a matter of the opinions of “elites.”

Wow. I don’t talk to elites. I talk to taxi drivers and fellow passengers in trains or to people I meet in tea houses. I talk to people selling vegetables. I don’t think these people are members of an elite part of society. And they talk about the moral standing of the United States. Not in those terms, but they talk about the stupid war, for example. They talk about the unconditional support for Israel. And it seems to them that the United States is weaker, not stronger, than it was a decade ago.

Speaking of conversations in trains, I had an interesting one this morning. I was talking with a middle-aged man who shared the sleeping compartment with me. (I took the train down to Lenkoran on Sunday night.) Two young men also were there - but they didn’t speak Russian.

For some reason, we started talking about medicine, and how doctors don’t always know best. We agreed on this point. He had some personal experience to share. His wife had some sort of rheumatism in her neck, leaving her stuck in a stoop. The doctor prescribed fistfuls of pills, but she didn’t take them. Instead, he applied honey to her neck and all down her spine. He then covered the area with Scotch tape and let it sit overnight. The next day he ripped the tape off (ouch!) and her neck was all better.

The doctor was amazed.

Perhaps it was a matter of curing a headache by banging on your toe with a hammer.

(By the way, Paul Krugman has some good comments about Bush's job creation claims. The link is on the right.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An impassioned plea

read more | digg story
I include this item from "digg" not because I support its contention per se. Of course, most people are horrified by the deaths of innocents occurring in Gaza at the moment. Whatever the justifications and posturing on both sides, these killings are to be deplored.

I include the item because I think it makes an important point about the complicity of consumers, one that has troubled me for years. In fact, to ensure that your money is not used by some nefarious cause somewhere it would be necessary to withdraw nearly absolutely from the world. The cluttered presentation of corporate logos makes that point pretty effectively. Don't burn gasoline, certainly. Don't drink Starbucks coffee. Don't read the Times. Hell, you probably shouldn't even use the Internet.

I first became seriously bothered by this during the US war on Nicaragua. I deplored what my country was doing in that region, but in fact I was supporting it by paying taxes. Really eliminating personal support for the policy would endanger my own personal freedom. I was unwilling to take that step, and instead responded by becoming more politically active in opposing the war in Central America.

Of course, some people do sacrifice their freedom for a moral cause, and I respect them for it. I have friends who were imprisoned, for example, for their non-violent resistance to the Iraq War. Another friend was recently jailed for protesting at Fort Benning, known in the movement as the "School of Assassins." But when these protestors rejoin our so-called "civilization," they too are bound to contribute in some way to activities that they deplore.

It is the paradox of the globalized world in which we live. On one hand, we are more aware of all the injustices and cruelties in the world. On the other, we are effectively bound in a system where we must fund these cruelties and horrors - to a greater or lesser extent - whether we like it or not.

The Wolf Moon

So, I caught the little news snippet about the moon yesterday and at sunset, I went out to see if the moonrise was really going to be that impressive. I have seen some impressive moonrises here - the full moon large and golden rising over the Caspian Sea. But last night was not one of those times. Yes, it was a full moon - but the moon did not look all that special as it floated serenely above the docks. Nonetheless, I photographed it. And the Wolf Moon was a nice excuse for a stroll at sunset.

Of course, the moon occupies a special place in people's psyches. This morning, while looking for the original news item that prompted my stroll to the docks, I came across this little commentary attached to a news article that someone had chosen to "digg."

"The US George HW Bush Aircraft Carrier is being Commissioned today under the Wolf Moon, illuminated with 1000 Points of Light. Symbolic Timing? Will a special event happen in regards to Israel, Gaza & Iran this Sabbath, on the Historic Eve of 1-11-9, 11 days before Obama is scheduled to take office? A Preemptive Strike on Iran Nuclear Program?"

Hmm. I'll guess I'll have to turn on the news this morning and find out.

In any case, the sun rose yesterday, the sun set. And the moon rose. Here is photographic evidence of these events.

More restrictions

I heard some more bad news from a friend of mine. She works for one of the few independent news organizations here.

I knew about the measure to allow unlimited re-election for the president. I knew about the closure of the BBC and Radio Free Europe. Now, it turns out that as part of the referendum on the term limit measure, voters will have the chance to approve an unrelated law that will make it potentially illegal to take a picture of someone without that person's consent.

While this may sound benign to a layman, it has some serious implications. This is not about protecting people from invasion of privacy. Rather, the law is bound to be enforced selectively. For example, how can you get the written permission of every person participating in a demonstration? Basically, the law would give police a reason to arrest any photographer trying to shoot something that is potentially embarrassing.

Azerbaijan appears to be moving quite steadily toward increasing authoritarianism.

Friday, January 9, 2009


That's it. A sunrise. Today's sunrise. January 9, 2009.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Grim prognosis

OK - not quite the trip from hell. But not very pleasant either.

I returned last night from Ganca, a harrowing seven-hour trip. Why was it harrowing? Where do I start?

Perhaps the first place to start is that yesterday was the Muslim holiday of Ashura. (I mentioned this in a previous post.) Nearly all commercial activity was closed until 2 p.m., and not much happened after that either. Among the activities affected was the transport between Ganca & Baku. Buses ran, but the regular fleet of vans that shuttles between the cities was absent. I had an appointment on Thursday, and I really didn't want to take a bus that got me into Baku at about 4 a.m., so I opted for the outrageously expensive option of 50 manat (about $60) for a private vehicle, which I shared with two men.

The first leg of the journey was fine. I'm used to the maniac style of driving here. But we unexpectedly stopped in a small city south of Ganca, where the driver was looking for something.

It turns out, he was looking for another driver, who was taking us the rest of the way. A nice, older gentleman with a big fur hat, he seemed competent enough. I settled into my seat and prepared for a quick trip home.

This was a mistake.

The first indication of trouble was the sound of a coughing engine. I was to get very familiar with this sound over the next six hours. The driver - Karim - stopped, swore a little, opened the hood, fiddled with the engine. Gunned the engine. The car filled with gasoline fumes. The engine started, roughly. He gunned it again and it ran a little more smoothly. He swore again. He slammed the hood of the car & we started again.

This process was repeated at least nine times over the next six hours. Sometimes the interludes lasted a couple of minutes. Sometimes 10 minutes. Sometimes he stopped by the side of the road. Sometimes he stopped in the rare gas station. I have an appetite for adventure, it's true, but I really didn't relish the new experience of being stranded on a cold, dark highway in Azerbaijan. Hence each of these interludes provoked some anxiety, which I treated with a strong dose of acceptance. I didn't know what was going to happen, and until any potential disaster actually occurred, there was no point worrying about it.

As it happened, as the journey progressed I began to worry more about the driver and less about the car. When we were perhaps two hours from the city, the road split, with one side going north to the interior and the other going to Baku. He took the road away from Baku. I attempted to be calm, and asked him - "Oh, so this is a different way. A short cut?"
He said yes, and then - when the road rapidly deteriorated, turned around and took the road to Baku.

"You were right," he said.

Perhaps this acknowledgement should have been gratifying, but it was not confidence instilling.

Later, as we rolled ever closer, the road split again. This time, he opted to take neither choice, instead driving right toward a median between the two roads. This time, I did not contain myself.

"What are you doing?" I asked, using the familiar form of the verb.

He did not answer, but he did direct the car onto the right road to Baku.

After this, I did not allow myself the luxury of closing my eyes. Later, I wondered whether the fact that he wore a seat belt was, in fact, a bad sign.

Nonetheless, it appeared that our progress was inexorable, so when he stopped near the outskirts of the city to thoroughly wash the car, I could not help remarking to another passenger - "It seems like he just doesn't want to arrive."

This passenger didn't speak Russian too well, but he also was alarmed by the behavior of our driver, and when Karim got back in the car, the passenger began to berate him in Azeri. I don't understand much Azeri, but the gist of what he said was: The bus only takes six hours - and this is taking about seven. What the hell are you doing?

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Nonetheless, suddenly I was recognizing buildings, and realized that we were very near the center, very near my dwelling. It was also very clear that the driver had no idea of how to get around Baku. We passengers gave him directions, and when we were within half a mile of my apartment, I insisted that he stop the car. I could walk from here, I informed him.
He seemed grumpy - but he stopped the car, and opened the trunk to get my bag out.

"Bye," he said, somewhat rudely.

"Good luck!" I said, very relieved to be back on familiar turf.

I made the rest of the way back to my apartment without incident, and walked in the front door almost exactly seven hours after the journey had started - a journey which one of the other passengers had told me at the start would last about four hours.

I drew two principal morals from the experience.

1. Never expect to get what you pay for.
2. Be glad after any journey that you arrive safely.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Express train to Ganca

Here's just a taste of what the "express" train to Ganca is like. It's a distance of about 300 miles - so the average speed seems be less than 50 miles an hour.

Holiday in Ganca

A gray January day. Need I say damp and chilly? I went out this morning to buy a scarf, and discovered the town was oddly quiet. I was not surprised that the shops weren’t open before 10 a.m., but even the bazaar seemed unusually still. No activity within, although people were selling herbs, cheese and lemons outside the locked gates. Some people were making tea in the cafes, but tables were set outside. The places seemed to be for friends, not for outside customers. Unusual. I believe this dearth of commercial activity is because of the Shi’ite holiday today - Ashura. commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. I was surprised by the store closures, because I didn’t think of Ganca as a very Shi’ite city, but honestly I don’t know the city that well, having only stayed here two times before. (Sunni Muslims also regard the day as special, regarding it as the day that Moses fasted to show gratitude for the deliverance of the israelites from Egypt.)

I’ll include some photos here.
A typical apartment block in the downtown.

The carvansaray opposite my hotel room. The carvansaray, a meeting place for traders passing through town, was built four centuries ago.

A small mosque by the bazaar. It bears special decorations because of the holiday.

Statues of famous Azerbaijani cultural figures. These are located at the front of the local scientific institute. The creation of the First Azerbaijan Republic was declared at this location on May 28, 1918.

A crowd gathered outside the main mosque downtown. Men were ritualistically flogging themselves with little black switches. Not really flogging themselves - more like a symbolic gesture.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Online journalism is not panacea

While my journalism education efforts in this country pay special attention to the potential of the Internet, it's important to remember that the Internet does not provide journalists immunity from government repression. Far from it, as this recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists makes clear. In fact, last year Internet journalists represented the majority of journalists imprisoned for doing their jobs. This is the first time that the Internet journalists have been a majority of jailed journalists since the organization started compiling its census 10 years ago.

Eyes on Gaza

I’ve just turned off the news coverage on Al Jazeera. It appears there is only one news story for the station - the conflict in Gaza. Al Jazeera’s coverage makes little pretense of objectivity but I don’t find this surprising. What I do find disturbing, however, is the sense that the residents of the United States again are not able to fully appreciate public opinion across the world because of the news media in the United States.

Scanning across the major newspapers in the United States, I see the war in Gaza gets coverage above the fold (if one can use that term for a website) but the worldwide protests get very little coverage or are not mentioned at all. What about the 700,000 people demonstrating in Istanbul? I’m assuming that Al Jazeera is not conjuring up that demonstration. If such crowds are demonstrating in a country that is an important US ally in the region, it bodes ill for US policy. Likewise, the demonstrations in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, are not mentioned in most of the papers I read.

I can understand Israel’s point - invading to stop rocket fire - but its justification appears empty to many across the world and the carnage of the invasion will only sow more hate. From these seeds of violence will grow more fighters driven by hatred of Israel.

US citizens who receive their news through the US news media are unlikely to grasp the horror of this war, or to understand the worldwide reaction to it.

Off the air

I have lost my morning companion. For the last nine months or so, I’ve had the habit of turning on the BBC while I make my tea and breakfast. Yesterday, I tried to find the station. I couldn’t. Just a variety of music stations. A couple of talk shows, broadcast in Azerbaijani, of course. But no BBC.

A talk with a colleague in the afternoon confirmed my hunch. The station is off the air. The government had threatened this action more than a month ago, and apparently it has followed through with its plan. The Azerbaijani language broadcasts - which included English lessons - had been the most objectionable for the government. But apparently the people in charge decided to just remove the whole station.

My colleague, a journalist, said the Radio Free Europe station - also affected by the government action - is still keeping its office space and employees, devoting its resources to developing its website. But a website is not a replacement for a radio station. I can’t drag my computer into the kitchen so that I can listen to a podcast while I make breakfast.

And what of all those students who depended on the stations for the English language lessons? Is diminishing the educational opportunities for Azerbaijanis really in the national interest?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Welcome back to Baku

I arrived back in Azerbaijan in the early evening yesterday. Uneventful trip, in general. The most wonderful part was flying over the Caucasus. The snow covered peaks were painted pink by the sunset. I don’t think I’d ever seen them so clearly. Really beautiful and striking how relatively unspoiled they are - not dotted with ski trails, for example, like so many mountains in the U.S. West.

Upon my arrival, I went through the regular routine. Taxi? Taxi? I had expected a friend, but because of a communication snafu, I did finally take a taxi from the airport, and was reminded of the stories I so often hear in this country.

The driver and I chatted about this and that - language, the weather, what has occurred in Azerbaijan in the last three weeks, the new US president. At one point, I asked him where he was from. Karabakh. And the familiar story ensued. He had two houses there, but they were destroyed in the war with the separatists. He and his family fled to Baku in 1993. He remains homeless. (I think in the sense of not owning his own house.)

Naturally, he railed against the perfidious character of the Armenians. And he noted that he is a observant Muslim, praying five times a day. Allah will not tolerate such injustice, he said.

I was thinking about the conversation this morning, as I read “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” by Chris Hedges. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time, and finally got around to buying a copy while I was in the States. The book is essentially Hedges’ reflections on his more than 20 years as a correspondent covering war. The title of the book sums up the thesis - that war provides humans a unique emotional reward - even as it destroys them. He doesn’t write about the Nagorno-Karabakh per se, but his observations are equally relevant to that conflict. Here in Azerbaijan we see exactly the same phenomenon that he describes in Croatia, Serbia or Palestine. The corrosive effect of nationalism, the demonization of the enemy, the political uses of war.

The story of my taxi driver could be re-told in any number of war-torn countries. The story of the internally displaced families, struggling to survive. The story of bitterness and resentment that will fester for generations.

Hedges’ book differs from so many of the books I read on war while studying political science at the university. It does not analyze particularly why there are wars - unlike work by Bueno de Mesquita or Kenneth Waltz, for example. But Hedges brings his rich experience to bear in crafting a penetrating and disturbing work.
(Photos: juxtaposition of woman cleaning up melting snow and Father Christmas and the Snow Princess; dawn of Jan. 4, 2009.)