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.

An appeal to step back from the brink

The Civil Society Defense Committee of Azerbaijan has posted an impassioned open letter to the Council of Europe, the Azerbaijan Republic Milli Mejlis, and the President. It's a well-reasoned appeal for the government to step back from its proposed repressive regulations on civil society organizations. If the changes are enacted, the group argues, then Azerbaijan will have reneged on the terms of its membership in organizations like the Council of Europe.

These are all valid points, but I think the rulers of Azerbaijan reason that Europe and the USA need Azerbaijan more than Azerbaijan needs the West. After all, the Russians would be quite happy work more closely with Azerbaijan in the sphere of energy production and transportation. And Russia won't raise any troublesome concerns about human rights or civil society.

Reprinted here is the note from Civil Society Defense Committee of Azerbaijan.

Baku, Azerbaijan 12 June 2009

On 9 June 2009 the in the Milli Mejlis Committee on Legal Policy and State Service a bill including a number of changes and additions to legislation related to the activities of civil society was approved. According to information regarding this, the bill to change and add to the Law on Non-governmental Organizations (Public Unions and Foundations) and other legislative acts will be put up for discussion in an extraordinary session of the on Milli Mejlis on 19 June.

The Civil Society Defense Committee (CSDC) is against conducting any sort of discussion about the proposed changes and additions because such discussions would politically legitimize the entire proposed legislative packet. From this perspective to achieve the complete removal of this document from the agenda and work plan of the Milli Mejlis, we were able to create on 11 June 2009 the Civil Society Defense Committee, composed of NGOs working in various spheres.

The NGOs joined together in the CSDC believe that proposed changes and additions contradict realization of the right to freedom of association envisaged in the country’s Constitution, conventions on human rights that our country is party to, obligations undertaken before the Council of Europe and OSCE, the entire philosophy of civil society and the goal of the “Non-governmental Organizations State Support Concept” signed by President Ilham Aliyev on 17 Jule 2007.

In the last 18 years, civil society brought to Azerbaijan one hundred million manat in resources and these resources have helped to defend human rights, government transparency, business freedom, freedom of expression and independence in other spheres and assisted in the creation of 10 thousand jobs and development of a skilled group of workers. As a result of work conducted in the past by NGOs thousands of people have had their health restored and their skill-levels increased, improving the quality of their lives. Civil society continues its tireless work to promote Azerbaijan’s fair position on the Nagorno-Garabagh conflict in the international community. Unfortunately the proposed bill will be a blow to all of these achievements.

Taking into consideration the fact that the packet of proposed changes and additions is in complete contradiction with Azerbaijan’s obligations before the Council of Europe, we request that Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and Ago Group (Monitoring Committee) start taking the necessary steps now to freeze the mandate of Azerbaijan’s delegation in the forthcoming 22 June summer session. We also request that this issue be brought up before the Venice Commission. In the event that the proposed changes and additions are approved, then this process will meet its logical end.

We believe that these changes and additions contradict the obligations regarding freedom of association undertaken by Azerbaijan within the framework of the OSCE and UN, and that the approval of such a document could, through limiting the activities of NGOs, damage the foundations of political stability in the country. At the same time, if these changes and additions are approved, Azerbaijani civil society will in fact not be able to participate in the European Union Eastern Partnership and European Neighborhood Policy programs

The Civil Society Defense Committee (CSDC) will prepare analysis of the concrete content of the current proposed changes by June 18, conduct a roundtable discussion on this issue on 18 June, and conduct a picket in front of the Milli Mjelis. CSDC is willing to discuss the problems that have arisen as a result of the proposed packet of changes with any government official, including the President and Milli Mejlis.

CSDC calls for the country’s citizens and the international community to defend the increasingly narrow sphere of freedom. There is only one name for extreme government regulation and that is totalitarianism. We call for everyone to raise their voices to prevent our country from once again be ruined by the abyss of totalitarianism.


(I was going to post a link to the Civil Society Defense Committee of Azerbaijan, but on trying to navigate to its site, I get a message that the site is infected with "malware" and that "visiting this site may harm your computer." So - investigate the sites at your own risk! A little sabotage conducted by government-paid hackers?)

Spy trial starts next week

The trial of Ali Karaki and Ali Najmeddin is supposed to begin June 24 in Baku, according to Intelligence Online, a newsletter based in Paris. The two alleged Lebanese Hezbollah agents were arrested as a result of a joint effort by the CIA in Azerbaijan, the Turkish intelligence agency Milli Istihbarat Teskilat, and Israel's spy agency Mossad, according to IO.

The report from IO says the arrests of Hezbollah members in Azerbaijan is just the one of a string of set-backs suffered by the group, which is deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

I couldn't find any news of the trial in the local press of Azerbaijan, but this isn't surprising. In fact, the trial very well may not occur. Often diplomatic deals obviate the need for spy trials.

That's not to say that the legal system in Azerbaijan has been quiet lately.

According to Trend News, a news agency closely connected to the government, a criminal prosecutor today called for the imprisonment of Mahal Ismayiloglu, former editor of Khalq Qazeti. He's also written articles for the New Musavat newspaper. The prosecutor is calling for a prison term of 3 1/2 years. The charge supposedly has nothing to do with his journalism. The criminal case is based on the complaints of Nasiba Nurush, Ismayiloglu's housekeeper. She charges that her former employer put physical pressure on her and insulted her.

And yesterday a court sentenced members of a radical religious group to prison terms ranging from two to 15 years for their role in planned attacks on the U.S. and British Embassies in Azerbaijan two years ago.

The long history of "bullying"

Interesting editorial in the New York Times today, regarding Russia's "bullying" in the Caucuses as if this were a new phenomenon. The NYT terms the Kremlin's approach "petty" but really it's the same approach that has been followed by Russia for centuries. The Treaty of Georgievsk, which made Kartli-Kakheti a protectorate of Russia, was signed in 1783, for example. (We'll disregard for the moment that Russia soon failed to fulfill the terms of the agreement, which called for the Russians to defend the Georgians.) In Azerbaijan, of course, the Russian involvement was formalized by the Treaty of Gulistan, in which Persia ceded much of Azerbaijan, Eastern Georgia, and Dagestan to the Russian Empire.

So, while the New York Times certainly can call the Russia's approach "bullying," any other approach would be quite remarkable.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Do American conservatives prefer radical Islamic leaders?

Today I read an amusing analysis of the political turmoil in Iran. Written by George Friedman, a conservative political scientist. The piece disparages allegations of vote fraud, and all but announces that Ahmadinejad must have won the election, because fraud would have been to difficult to arrange. Written before the street protests that followed in the days after the vote, Friedman almost seemed eager to maintain the status quo in Iran. It's an interesting perspective. I wonder if the existence of such a radical leader in Iran is quite useful to certain conservatives. With his extreme statements about the Holocaust, for example, Ahmadinejad is a perfect example of the "crazy Islamic leader," against whom all sorts of force is justified. Dealing with a more moderate Muslim leader might actually be more difficult intellectually for some conservatives.

Iran's unrest could have regional impact

The news from Iran is exciting for anyone interested in the progress of democratization. Democracy is unpredictable - and so I don't think anyone really knows what will happen exactly. A cynic might predict that the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will crush the people - and that will be that. Perhaps. But the populace in Iran has showed before that it cannot be disregarded. Ironic that the president, who was a student leader during the 1979 revolution, should now be challenged by a popular uprising against his rule.

A friend of mine in Azerbaijan notes that Mir Hossein Mousavi is ethnically an Azerbaijani Turk, and frequently spoke Azeri during demonstrations. Yet the election results for the city of Tabriz, an ethnically Azeri city, showed Ahmadinejad winning a decisive victory there. Something doesn't add up.

Interesting that the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan, both of whom fear democratic aspirations in their own countries, were quick to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his victory. While quantifying the impact of democratization is probably impossible, political scientists have long theorized about the effect of having democratic neighbors. What does it mean for other area strongmen if a popular uprising shakes the political leadership of Iran?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Alarming news from Azerbaijan

I received a notice today from the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) in Azerbaijan about proposed changes to the law in Azerbaijan regarding non-governmental organizations in the country. The IRFS interprets the proposed changes as effectively leading to the closure independent NGOs. The changes in the law will be discussed in the Milli Mejlis on June 19.

The situation for independent NGOs has been quite difficult for some time in Azerbaijan. I was fortunate that the government interfered minimally in my activities - but my organization was comparatively small and operated for the most part "under the radar." For larger organizations, the government can be quite troublesome. For example, when I was in Ganca, the director of the local branch of Open Society related how the office would likely close soon. Perhaps it has already closed at this point. I haven't spoken with him in months.

The government maintains a facade of "civil society" by allowing non-governmental organizations - as long as they are sponsored by the government. (Yes, you read that right. It's just one of many absurdities in the country.) Of course, one of the largest organizations is the Heydar Aliyev Fund, which sponsors all sorts of charitable activities. This "non-governmental organization" is also able to dispense cash in all sorts of ways that might be more awkward for the YAP (the ruling party) or the government itself to do.

Here are the troublesome aspects of the new legislation highlighted by the IRFS (verbatim from the press release).

- the proposed change to outlaw the activities of NGOs that have more than 50% of their resources from foreign sources (Article 24.2)

- the proposed ban on the activity of NGOs until they receive state registration (Article 16.4) – a process that can take months or even years

- the proposed prohibition against people who are not permanent residents of Azerbaijan and people without citizenship acting as founders of non-governmental organizations (Article 9.4)

- the proposed new criteria for classification NGOs that will require “nationwide” Azeri NGOs to have branches and/or representations in 1/3 of Azerbaijan’s 59 administrative-territorial regions

- the five year ban on founding a new NGO that can be placed on founders of non-governmental organizations that are closed on the basis of a court decision for law violations

A cursory reading of the changes makes it clear that these changes would effectively close all or nearly all NGOs. Just read the first item. Maybe there are foreign NGOs that receive only 50 percent of their funding from foreign sources - but I don't know of any. The foreign NGOs depend on foreign support. They aren't being supported by the Azerbaijani government or by fundraising within the country.

The second item also would be quite effective to close all NGOs. Anyone who has tried to operate in this sphere in Azerbaijan knows the absurdities of registration process. It can take years if you are not a favored organization. Years of filed paperwork that then must be re-filed when it is lost or perhaps a bureaucrat decides that the documents are incorrect. The details are irrelevant. Registration is a fool's errand - but provides substantial income to the lawyers who supposedly "assist" in this process.

In short, the changes are so extreme that they would effectively shut-down the foreign NGO community if they are implemented. Perhaps an optimist might say - "well, the government would never do anything so silly and draconian." Unfortunately, recent history shows that the trend is toward increasingly harsh measures in an authoritarian country that is dismantling one by one its meager elements of democracy.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bird Brain

The highlight of my day was watching a pileated woodpecker hunt for bugs in a burned out stump down the hill from where I now live. He was large, larger than a crow, with the distinctive brilliant red crest. He rooted around energetically for more than five minutes, while I just watched, marveling. Then, hearing another woodpecker nearby, he looked up. Alarmed? Jealous of his territory? And flew off in the direction of the potential rival.

The New York stock market went up today, slightly. Conservatives in Europe gained more power in elections. Hezbollah lost power in an election in Lebanon. The North Korean government sentenced two journalists to hard labor. All these are important and interesting events. But I’m not sure knowledge about these developments enriched my life more than just watching that bird eat bugs for five minutes.

Woodland Birds

This is how the upland forests of North Carolina sound in the morning.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Poisoned troops?

Here is a news brief from Radio Free Europe.

Azerbaijanis Say Soldiers Had 'Colds,' Not Poisoned
June 02, 2009
BAKU -- The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry says 164 soldiers hospitalized last week simply "caught colds" and were not victims of poisoning, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.

The ministry said on May 30 that bacteriological tests proved the soldiers suffered from a "stomach ailment."

Officials said that 158 of the soldiers who required hospitalization last week were released after checkups.

Azer Maqsudov, the head of the toxicological department at the Clinical Hospital, told RFE/RL that nausea, headaches, stomach pain, and high temperature -- symptoms that the soldiers experienced -- sounded more like symptoms of food poisoning, not colds.

A couple of thoughts came to mind as I read this brief. First, my bet would be that what sickened the soldiers was food poisoning. Military service in Azerbaijan is required, so I spoke with many men who had served in the army there. Very few had anything positive to say about how they were treated. (Actually, I can't think of anyone who had anything positive to say - aside from repeating patriotic slogans.)

I also remembered how many young men who had their lives derailed by the military service requirement. I knew several who had promising educational options waiting for them, but the requirement for army service was unavoidable. The men I spoke to described the experience in the army as profoundly boring, with no meaningful training.

Yes, I know it's dreaming. But how much better we all could live if we didn't have to devote so many human and material resources to the cause of organized violence.

The absurdities of US politics

Reading the pronouncements of Newt Gingrich and other Republicans on the new nominee for the US Supreme Court prompts several reactions from me. I suppose the dominant reaction is incredulity. The whole "reverse racism" claim is so absurd that it's hard for me believe that anyone takes such bullshit seriously. I belong to the privileged class in this society - white and male. Just like Newt Gingrich and Rush. For anyone in this class to claim there is some sort of "bias" against him is just crazy. But those claims are aired in utmost seriousness on much of the nation's corporate news media.

This prompts another reaction: anger. I'm angry that this country has a media system that is so ready to defend the status quo and to ignore the serious problems that afflict this country. Racism is a huge problem in the United States, and when clowns like Newt claim that white men are the victims of racism, they distract attention from the real victims of racism. Hint: those victims aren't white males.