Observations of an American journalist in Azerbaijan, Russia and USA.
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.)