Friday, February 27, 2009

What about electric cars and banks?

I’ve been letting responses pile up on the last survey I posted here - but I figure it’s time to move on & create another. So - here it is. Please respond. I like to see what people are thinking. You can see how people responded to the last survey by clicking here.

Anti-referendum activists arrested

These are not the first arrests in a clear attempt to intimidate opponents of the referendum. The measure united formerly divided government opponents, a development that makes the administration nervous. I can picture the event quite clearly. Grab the person & because he struggles, charge him with arrest. Then - slip some drugs in his pocket.

read more | digg story

Azerbaijani Oil Group Suspends Environmental Projects

SOCAR's environmental program said last year that it had cleaned up 500 acres of environmentally damaged property since 2006, a fraction of the total amount of land that requires clean-up. We have wondered where the effects of the economic downturn would be felt first. I guess this is part of the answer. The environment doesn't vote - especially in Azerbaijan.

read more | digg story

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Last Day of Class in Lenkoran

You'll get a lot more out of this video if you understand Azerbaijani!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The great American media!

I am watching the news on TV in the USA. Andrea Mitchell Reports - an afternoon program on MSNBC. How can she seriously and snidely be commenting on the issues of the economy, when she is married to Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve? Not surprisingly, she has so far spoken to five Republicans and one Democrat. Why don't we just call these mainstream media "Republican?" There is no attempt at balance - and no attempt to be honest about her conflict of interest.

Now - she is talking to Orin Hatch, Republican senator from Utah? He says most economists are skeptical of the stimulus package. Not one of his partisan statements is questioned or challenged. She just offers free airtime to Republican propaganda. Outrageous!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Banking on the Brink

Krugman argues: "Why not just go ahead and nationalize the banks? The longer a real solution is deferred, the longer the pain will last." But the problem is political, not economic. Nationalization is anathema to conservatives, and they will use this sensible remedy as a tool to attack the Obama administration.

read more | digg story

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Update on

The case of has has gotten the attention of diplomats & people concerned with freedom of speech in Azerbaijan. As one of the comments posted on the Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines blog points out, was never a font of anti-government agitation. That doesn't diminish the import of its closure.

The latest information I have on the case comes from the site itself. It's not up - but the following information is provided when you try to find the site:

Сайт временно закрыт по техническим причинам.

25 февраля Day.Az возвращается.

In other words, - "The site is temporarily closed for technical reasons. Day.Az is returning on February 25."

We'll see.

Even if it does return, the site has lost thousands of dollars. If does return, it will be changed. Look at what happened with ANS.

In 2006, ANS, Azerbaijan's first private television company, was temporarily closed by the government. Before its closure, ANS carried programs that challenged the status quo in Azerbaijan, carrying material produced by Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). After the closure, the television company remained independent in name, but it was chastened by the experience, and its content now does not stray into any territory that might be perceived to be anti-government.

I expect the same will happen with, if the news portal does become operational again.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Government shuts Day.Az

I learned this afternoon that Day.Az, which is probably the most read news portal in Azerbaijan, has been shut down by the government. My information - from a source who works with journalists -is that the news portal was closed after it published an interview with former Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. In the interview, Berezovsky charged that Putin was siphoning off Russian cash for his own account.

Putin reportedly called the Azerbaijan president personally and demanded the closure of the site.

Of course, I can't verify this account and I can't read the interview. It might be like this one, published by SkyNews. The Day.Az site is shut. On one link, a reader is informed:

В связи с техническими проблемами, причины которых пока выясняются, сайт временно недоступен. Roughly this says -"Because of technical problems, which are still being explained, the site is temporarily inaccessible."

Another link leads to the announcement - Проект прекратил свое существование. Literally - the project existence has ended.

That sounds pretty final - and according to my source- this decision is not a temporary shut-down. Previously, the Internet radio site run by the same outfit ran into some problems with the government - but those were temporary problems.

I have met dealt with the owner of the site, and found him to be an extremely astute businessman. In my first interview with him, he pointedly referred to himself as a businessman, not a journalist. And his site usually walked a careful line- printing material that was critical of the government - but not too critical. Elnur was only too aware of the power that the government could exert on his operations.

People who don't work in the field sometime think that journalists who publish on the Internet have some sort of invincibility, some sort of magic cloak that protects them from repression. They don't. The journalists themselves can be attacked or killed, as we have recently seen in Russia. If the outfit is run as a business, then it is vulnerable to boycotts. And apparently it's not that hard to shut down the a site.

The political implications of this are yet unclear. While Day.Az was widely read, my impression is that it was not a mass-market source of information. Nonetheless, one has to wonder how the president's decision will resonate. Russia is not regarded as some sort of friendly big brother here. More often, it is regarded as a former colonial occupier, resented for its role in fomenting the Nagorno-Karabakh war. How does it look for the former Russian president to be dictating media policy to the Azerbaijan president? How would Mexicans, for example, feel if President Obama ordered the closure of some media outlet in that country?

We'll see. For the meantime, the Day.Az project has ceased to operate.

(By the way - just in case you're interested in how the site used to look - here's a page from October, 2007, fetched from the archive maintained at the "Wayback Machine.")

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My last class

A beautiful new set of Azerbaijan postcards has been introduced to the stores in downtown Baku. It's a welcome addition to a postcard selection that previously was composed solely of photos from Soviet days. These cards were amusing & quaint - but really not that scenic. The new ones, however, feature scenes from the deep mountains and remote villages, places that probably 99 percent of the tourists will never see.

No surprisingly, no scenes from the stretch of land from Lenkoran to Baku are included on these new postcards. I returned from Lenkoran today - returning from teaching my last group of students in this country. This stretch of land makes the middle of Ohio look scenic. Mile after mile after mile of flat salt marsh and scrub land. It's not on the postcards - but it's real Azerbaijan too.

I'll include a couple of shots from the trip - and also a less scenic but very gratifying shot of a newspaper. This is the newspaper article that one of our students published in the local newspaper. Each of our students has to complete a video project, maintain a blog, and write a newspaper article. This is definitely the best newspaper article to come out of this term. To be honest, however, I asked him to delay publishing it because I wanted to see more documentation.

The article is about corruption at Lenkoran State University. The headline says roughly "An open bazaar behind closed doors." We talked quite a lot about the article yesterday. After the article was published, all his sources were summoned into the office of the university president or dean. (I'm not sure which.)

Will one article change the climate of corruption in the educational system? Of course not. But - perhaps such articles might get people talking about the subject more openly. And corruption shrinks from public examination. So - if the forbidden layers that surround corruption are peeled away, perhaps the problem will become less pervasive and powerful.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Not Even the Afghans Know How to Fix It

You know you're in trouble when a failed Soviet invasion looks good by comparison.

read more | digg story

Two interesting pages

The Gallup organization recently released results of a poll of Russians. Some interesting results - although on the whole they are predictable. For example, people who are relatively less educated and more poor favor the Soviet system. But - as the accompanying article points out, the results do contradict recent assertions that the opposition to the democratization has come from the elite. The results appear to show the contrary is more likely.

My other find is more arcane. It's the page that the Institute for Linguistic Studies put online. It seems to be great source for Russian language info, although to be honest I haven't thoroughly explored it.

streets and buildings

Just a quick walk down some side streets of Baku, Azerbaijan.

What do you think?

Yes, I probably do have a little too much time on my hands, or else I’m too actively procrastinating. But I’m interested in people’s opinions about some of the problems that seem so daunting. Sometimes I ask questions and I have an idea about an answer - but often I just don’t know.

So, here is the latest little survey I drew up. I’ll include some of the results in a subsequent posting.

And here are some findings from previous surveys:

There is strong approval for paroling Dick Cheney to work with orphans in Iraq.

People are evenly divided on President Obama’s aura. It’s either blue, red, purple or orange.

A sizable majority feels that oil is the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

Eighty percent of respondents feel that Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai will make either no difference or only a slight difference in the country before being forced from power.

A majority of people surveyed here think that President Obama should abandon the pretense of bipartisanship in favor of pursuing an agenda backed by his supporters.

An overwhelming majority (93.3 percent) think that the U.S. spends too much on its military.

And most of you think we should skip the outrage about Michael Phelps taking a bong hit. He deserves a spread in GQ.

In the interest of scientific disclosure, here and here and here are the links for the surveys mentioned. Those survey are now closed. This one is still open. Drop by and share your opinion if you feel like it. (I've responded to one person - who wanted a "don't know" option. There you go, Keith!)

Old and the new

Several weeks ago, I was driving through a Baku neighborhood with an Azerbaijani friend. He remarked that the area had been built overnight. This doesn’t mean that all the buildings were built at one time overnight. Rather, many of the houses in the area had been constructed literally at night - under cover of darkness - because building a private residence was contrary to socialist principles as interpreted by the Soviet Union.

Often old and weathered materials were used in the construction of these dwellings - so that if the construction came to the attention of city authorities, the owner could say - “But this is an old building. Look at this old door frame, etc.”

As a consequence of this mode of construction, the streets in that area are crooked and the overall appearance of the neighborhood is a bit chaotic. But - people were able to own their own houses.

Today, I was thinking about this conversation, as I meandered through the city on an aimless walk. Just enjoying a warm afternoon after a string of gray and cold days. Many of these rapidly built houses are being torn down now, to make room for high-rise apartment buildings. These buildings also seem to be built rapidly. And will the people who used to live in these self-made houses be able to afford dwellings in the new buildings?

I honestly don’t know the answer, although I can make a guess.

(Above are some photos - juxtaposing old construction and the new buildings that are going up everywhere in this city.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Some straight facts on the budget bill

I've had some time for surfing around different news sites today - and I'm really surprised at the venom generated by the passage of the stimulus bill.

I shouldn't be surprised - I know - because the people foaming at the mouth are getting their news from sources like Rush and Fox News, sources that repeat falsehoods ad nauseam. My favorite canard is the $30 million supposedly allocated for mice in Nancy Pelosi's district. The Huffington Post has a nice little piece to set the record straight. But the Republicans really aren't interested in accurate information; they want to make political points - and the little mouse in Pelosi's district made a nice headline for the Washington Times - despite its inaccuracy. But when did sources like Rush, the Washington Times or O'Reilly care about accuracy?

If you really are interested in learning about the bill, ProPublica just did a nice distillation of the legislation. It lists both the tax cuts and spending allocations of the bill.

One of the first lessons for my students is that good journalism requires hard work. This is a good example. Not flashy, but necessary. And much more constructive than the so-called patriots who bemoan the U.S. drift to socialism!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Who killed the general?

The headline asks the obvious question.

Who killed the general?

The general in question is General-Lieutenant Rail Rzayev, who commanded the country's air force before being gunned down while getting into his car yesterday morning. His chauffeur, who was in the car at the time, was uninjured.

Not surprisingly, the murder is leading to some serious questions about power struggles within the government. Just because the government is not democratic doesn't mean that it is monolithic. Individual ministries have their own centers of power and compete with one another for influence and resources. Also, the people commanding the different ministries also have different financial interests. The murder could also be the result of some sort of business conflict involved with these financial interests.

The speculation about the assassination is heightened because it comes just a little more than a month before a referendum is to be held that would remove term limits on the president. The murdered general was perceived by many as an ally of the president, responsible for ensuring presidential security.

It is not only democrats who would have a reason for opposing this measure. Anyone who is hoping for a chance at the presidency would also have a reason to oppose this measure.

(On a lighter note, if you want to test your knowledge of dog breeds or share views on the Middle East, click here to take survey If you want to check out the results of the last survey, click here.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pictures are worth a 1,000 words

I came across this graphic illustration that compares the current recession and other recent ones. I've read the numbers and the descriptions, but this puts the situation in good graphic terms.

read more | digg story

Sunday, February 8, 2009

My favorite bakery

This is where I buy my bread in Baku. Many Azerbaijani cities are dotted with small bakeries like this. They bake bread and sometimes prepare chicken or fish too in their ovens. These ovens are gas fired. That may be not completely traditional, but the bread is still really good!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Quiet on the streets, anger in the hearts

This morning I was watching the coverage of the protests in Venezuela. The streets are filled with people opposed to a measure that would remove term limits from Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. And here - where a very similar measure is coming before voters.

Quiet. At least relative quiet.

What few demonstrations occur seem to be quashed quickly by the security apparatus. They merit a few lines in the press - barely.

My informal polling - talking to mostly to ordinary folks such as taxi drivers, pensioners, vegetable sellers, and shoe shine men - shows a general mood of resignation. Not apathy. People do care and they are upset with a system that seems to reward the well-connected while leaving the majority struggling and uncertain of their livelihood. But there is resignation that change is possible. It's that hard to imagine.

Yesterday I had a long conversation with one of my oldest friends here. She knows I'm leaving soon. She asked me the question I have been asked since I arrived here: "So, what are your impressions of Azerbaijan?"

(I think this question is asked so often because the Azerbaijani people are genuinely hospitable, and it's meant in that spirit. But I think the question is also asked because the country is still relatively new - although the culture is ancient. There is that bit of insecurity. I've only lived for any extended period of time in one other foreign country: Russia. And that question was asked much less frequently. I don't think the Russians cared that much what I thought of their country. )

My friend grew up in the Soviet era, so our conversation quickly changed into a monologue as she decried the changes since the dissolution of the USSR. Uncultured people in the streets. Worthless and late pensions. Lack of respect for education. I replied that while things are unquestionably bad for many people in Azerbaijan, I think part of this has to do with the contrast between Soviet and post-Soviet life. For probably at least 75 percent of the people who grew to adulthood in Soviet times, life is worse. This is a conservative guess. They lost their secure jobs. They lost their pensions. They lost their security.

For younger people, the situation is not so clear. Many are frustrated by a dysfunctional educational system. Often, they are trapped in this country, unable to emigrate but unable to make good use of their talents here. And then there is a certain set of young people - well-connected, brilliant, or just lucky - who have opportunities far greater than would have been possible under the Soviet system.

I pointed out that Azerbaijan is relatively wealthy when it is compared to many countries. Many people are well educated. People have clothes. A friend of mine recently moved to East Timor, and he describes poverty that is much worse than anything I've seen here.

Of course, I'm doubt this made my pensioner friend feel better.

(By the way, if you have a sentence recommendation for Michael Phelps, click here. If you want instant gratification, you can check out the results of the survey here.)

Friday, February 6, 2009

On the Edge

Washington has lost any sense of the reality that we may well be falling into an economic abyss, and that if we do, it will be very hard to get out again. (I know that there's a link to Krugman's blog on the right here, but this is a good column. I especially what he says about bipartisanship. This isn't the time for catering to the demands of the Republicans. Their policies got us here. This is the time for decisive action.)

read more | digg story

New and improved page for glasnost group

A colleague recently sent me a link to the new web page for the Glasnost Defense Foundation. This is an organization that has been trying to protect the rights & lives of journalists in Russia since 1999. I was working with the group this fall, helping it set up a training program. The people in the organization are wonderfully dedicated, working under challenges that most Western journalists can only imagine.

I was very pleased to see the new training program advertised on the web page, and pleased to see the revamped site. It's a big improvement. For one thing, it isn't riddled with computer worms and viruses. Yet. I believe the new site will also be a target for hackers who object to the GDF's mission of protecting free speech.

On a completely different subject, if you're interested in sharing your thoughts on the current budget battle in the USA, click here. If you want instant gratification, you can check out the results of the survey here.)

February sea

If you have just under a minute, and want to soak in a walk by the sea, check it out. Just the Caspian Sea in the morning by Baku.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Your opinions and thoughts

My experiment with surveys continues. I have just closed this one, but the second survey and third survey are both still open. Yes, I have studied statistics and I realize that the amount of people polled here is not sufficient the selection process not random. So, these polls are just for fun.

That said, a majority of respondents:

• Think kindness is more important than honesty.
• Think investigation of serious crimes by the Bush Administration is either important or very important.
• Think the global recession will continue through the end of next year.
• Favor snowball fights at Davos.
• Have not read a single book by John Updike.

This population seems absolutely equally divided about the aura of President Obama. (blue, red, purple, or orange)

A minority knows how much the national debt comes to if divided per capita. ($37,000 is the right figure.)

And more than 70 percent of respondents are optimistic about the next four years.

Keep hope alive!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Drinking tea in Lenkoran. (Chayxana means essentially "tea house" in Azerbaijani.)


I returned with one of my colleagues from Ganca today - making the requisite stop at a "tea house" on the way. This was my last visit to Ganca for the foreseeable future. Because I'm preparing - mentally and physically - for my departure home, I've been looking at my surroundings even more attentively lately, soaking in the ambience, trying to hold onto what really can't be held.

The tea house, for example. To Western ears, "tea house" may have a faintly demure or effete ring. In the US, drinking tea often is associated with older society women, for example. In what seems another lifetime, I was once a journalist in a community that had a "tea house" that was the pinnacle of social respectability. Only women belonged to this society. (Needless to say, the membership was 99 percent Anglo-Saxon.) And, yes, the tea house did serve cucumber sandwiches.

The tea house where I stopped today was quite different. Tea houses like this are stops in the road for travelers. There much more similar to truck stops than they are to the Wenham Tea House, for example. There are, of course, tea houses also in towns and cities. These are in general only patronized by men.

I have heard women here complain about their men hanging out in the tea houses. And, yes, surely the men do waste a fair amount of time there, chatting, smoking cigarettes, playing backgammon. But I think it's probably preferable for the men to be wasting their time drinking tea, than to be wasting their time drinking beer and vodka, which is the custom in some other countries where I've lived.

(Above is a picture of the tea house where I stopped today. Note the fresh meat hanging outside. I think the guy is fanning flames to cook something. I'm also including a short YouTube clip I shot in one of the tea houses in Lenkoran, so you can a sense of the sounds. The guys to right of the frame are playing dominos. In back of me, the guy with the raspy voice looked to be about 100 years old. I didn't want to be obtrusive in filming him, however. I may get the dialog translated at some point.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Winning through obfuscation

It's really common sense. If you have a potentially controversial item, you don't bring this question up by itself. This principle applies whether you are a teenager negotiating with your parents or if you are putting together a vote on changing a nation's constitution. If the issue is controversial, it's best to obfuscate the matter.

I was thinking of this after reading the text of proposed changes that will be before voters on March 18 this year. In all, 29 articles of the Constitution will be affected by 41 specific changes. The most controversial and highest profile question concerns the removal of term limits for the president. The only other item I knew about before tonight concerned erecting further barriers for journalists doing their jobs.

(OK - this is my interpretation of a change that would make it illegal to photograph or otherwise recording anyone before obtaining written permission. I just imagine the reporter coming up to cop swinging his stick at a protestor: "Excuse me, sir. Would you mind if I document this police brutality?")

But included in the referendum are many slight changes in wording of the Constitution, such as:

20. In the Article 96:
In the Part I the words “to 40 thousand citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan enjoying suffrage” shall be added after the words “to the Supreme Court” ; and “of 40 thousand citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan enjoying suffrage” shall be added after “of the Supreme Court”;


26. A sentence with the following content shall be added to the Part IX of the Article 130:
"The decisions of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan shall be published."

I won't bore you with more of this legalistic verbiage. The point is that finding the most controversial element is very difficult. I suppose a certain amount of voter education may help - but the voter education will be carried out by the government - which is putting the measure before the people. The "agitation" as it is called here - will be done by members of the ruling party, who will be pushing for the questions to pass.