Sunday, December 12, 2010

Emin Abdullayev (Emin Milli) və Adnan Hajızadə questions

Did you follow the case of Emin and Adnan when they were imprisoned? Did you advocate for them in some way. If so, I'm very interested in your opinions a out the value of new media forms like Facebook, blogs, and YouTube. Please take a moment to answer my survey.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

Seeking your opinions!

If you have been following the case of the imprisoned bloggers in Azerbaijan, you probably know that they were released a little more than a week ago. First, Emin Milli was released. A few days later, Adnan Hacizade was released.

Of course, this can be interpreted as a cynical move by the government of Azerbaijan, occurring shortly after an election that was widely condemned as grossly unfair.

At the moment, I am collecting information on the use of "social" or "new media" in the effort to free Emin and Adnan. I am very interested in the opinions of all people who followed this case. If this is you, please fill out this survey. Если более удобно читать по-русски, вот русский вариант. Azerbaijani? Here you are!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Emin Abdullayev (Emin Milli) və Adnan Hajızadə

Zəhmət olmasa aşağıdakı suallara düzgün və dəqiq cavab verin. Təşəkkür edirəm.

No impediments to committing violence against journalists in Russia

Certainly, we can't wait for the authorities of Russia to solve any crimes against journalists. They care less about these crimes than they do about the crimes against ordinary citizens. And they don't care very much about those either.
Fish in a Barrel - Transitions Online

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Moving forward

While I empathize with the palpable anger of Tim Wise's post-election piece, I think anger is not in itself a fruitful emotion and does not need to be cultivated. I am more interested in finding a path on which this country can move forward toward greater democracy, and away from the political, social, and economic dead end to which it seems to be sliding.

Furthermore, by focusing on just the "old, rich white guys," White dangerously oversimplifies the situation. Yes, opposition to the Democrats came from them - but it was not just from them. It is more useful to systematically analyze the causes of the losses this week, determining what Democrats can and cannot affect.

1. Racism.
I agree that part of this election was just pure racist reaction. You will never get the Right to acknowledge this fact, and that's OK. Very few people will openly acknowledge that they are racist. It's not a good political strategy. While progressives might have some very marginal impact on affecting opinions in this area, the reality is that racism is a stubborn phenomenon, and change occurs over generations, not over the course of a couple of years.

2. Youth disengagement.
According to CIRCLE, a non-partisan group that researches political engagement of Americans between the ages of 15-25, young voters preferred Obama to McCain by 68 to 30 percent, the highest percentage received by any candidate since reporting by age began in 1976. But this time - the turnout was 20.4 percent, 2.4 percent lower than that 2006 midterm, when 10 million young people voted. That means about 1 million fewer young people voted this year. You might say - "only one million," but remember that many of the victories won by conservatives were quite close.

Reaching this age group requires new thinking and better research. These are potential voters who grew up under G.W. Bush. For many, "9-11" is the most formative political/social event. They are technologically savvy, but often quite ignorant of history. (I teach at a university, so I have some informed opinions in this area.) They are liberal on social issues such as gay marriage, but almost libertarian in their views about the ineffectiveness of government. And, of course, they are the future. Any successful political strategy must include really listening to their concerns. Personally, I am convinced that there is much commonality between these young voters and the progressive wing of the Democratic party, more commonality than exists between them and the Tea Party/Republican Party. But in order to find and develop that commonality, we need to listen with humility to their hopes and concerns.

3. Bought elections
In some cases, the crystal balls read by analysts in the media are quite accurate. As predicted, the Citizens United case decided by the US Supreme Court earlier this year had a huge impact on the level of funding by outside groups in this election. The liberals were outspent by conservatives by nearly 2-1. Just because liberals were outspent does not mean that the liberal agenda was unpopular in general. It means that it was unpopular with rich people. Rich people, as we know, are a small minority in this country but they own an increasing share of the wealth. Meaningful campaign reform is needed if this country is to develop democratically, but the Supreme Court seems dead set against allowing campaign reform to proceed, even if Congress could find the guts to tackle the issue - an extremely unlikely event.

Unless Democrats are going to abandon all elements that differentiate them from Republicans, they will never be able to match the support that Republicans receive from rich people. But if Republicans are rich in money, then the Democrats might be able to beat them by sheer mobilization efforts. This is difficult, but perhaps it is the only way forward - to build a popular democracy with strong grass-roots organizing. Even this will be opposed by the right-wing, because they know it is threatening. Witness the vicious opposition that groups such as ACORN have faced. Nonetheless, this is an essential element if we are to preserve what is left of democracy in this country.

4. Economic problems
Obviously, economic problems played a critical role in the overall voter anger that caused so many voters to choose Republicans on Tuesday. The fact that the Republicans presented no firm solutions to the economic woes didn't matter. Voters were angry. We would like to think that the economic problems will improve, but in fact the Republican triumph may make that less likely. Many of the extreme Republicans criticize all efforts to stimulate the economy. It is naive to think that things can't get worse.

It is necessary for progressives to persistently make the case that following the policies that got us into this economic situation are not likely to get us out of it. Tax breaks for the rich will increasingly burden the federal budget deficit, but they will not stimulate the economy. Their utility was questionable in the best of times; now, such tax breaks are simply unaffordable.

Conservatives will scream "class warfare!" - but the reality is that class warfare has been ongoing for the last three decades - and the poor and middle-class people are losing. Democrats - in their willingness to be "Republicans-lite," have been timid in pointing out the fact the rich are reaping rich rewards from the policies of Republicans, while the economic status of the country as a whole deteriorates. Progressives have to be loud and proud in pointing out the injustice of the current economic system. Yes, the system should reward effort and merit, but the rich getting richer now are not profiting from their virtue but rather from their connections and inherited wealth.

5. Corrupt Media
The media system is deeply corrupt. One of the largest "news" operations in the country is run by a former Republican media consultant. FOX News is completely honest about its bias, and yet for some reason it continues to be trusted source of information for millions. FOX News, of course, is not the only partisan source. MSNBC occupies the left side of the spectrum. Because of technological changes, greater partisan divides are predictable. The mass media, however, are changing rapidly, and a successful political strategy should consider this fact.

On one hand, according to Nielsen research in 2009, Americans watched 1.9 percent more television last year than the year previous. But there was more than 50 percent increase of Americans watching television on the Internet. (Think about this when you consider the battles that are being fought over Net Neutrality. These are not abstract technical issues. If large cable/media companies are allowed to charge preferential rates for content, what you see on the Internet could be restricted.) While television watching increases slightly, the time spent with social media is increasing dramatically. According to one piece of research, the time spent on iSOS media now rivals that spent on Sunday night football.

What does all this mean for progressives? There is great potential in reaching young people, if we take the initiative in listening to them and addressing their concerns. There are huge opportunities is we aggressively champion the cause of the people who have been steadily losing economic ground and hope for the last 30 years. There is great potential if we aggressively organize minorities who will face even more racism as the Tea Party/Republican Party becomes ascendent.

Hope is an essential element to the progressive philosophy. We focus on the best in our fellow citizens, looking to the future, looking for potential in challenging situations. This is one such situation. Anger is a understandable, but we should not indulge in it. Let's focus now on what we can change - because moving forward is still possible. The only losers are those people who stop trying.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Post-election thoughts

As I look at the results of the election this morning, it's clear to me that the Democrats responded to late with too little force. From the first "tea parties" last year, the party should have been out in force, organizing the disenfranchised. The Democrats have a choice: Will they be the party of justice and equality, standing up for the disenfranchised- or will they be a different flavor of Republican. They can't win on Republican turf. This election is proof of it. They need to organize around the principle of economic justice for all. This means being open about priorities. The Republicans will call it "class warfare." I prefer to call it justice.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Post-election thoughts

Frankly, the news about the current election has been deeply disturbing. The change that was promised has not occurred fast enough or easily enough for a large number of people, and so they are shifting their alliances, a shift that endangers whatever progress has been made over the course of the Obama administration.

As I was reading the paper today, I came across an article on the front page of the New York Times. The article about the new supercomputer in China is disturbing on one level, although I have faith that the greatest strength of the United States lies in whatever is left of its democracy, rather than in its technological prowess.

That said, it struck me that there could be advantages in taking an extremely competitive approach toward this challenge from China. As JFK took office, Washington focused on the Soviet Union, and the advantage that the USSR was gaining in space technology. As we now know, some of the "missile gap" was really non-existent, yet it provided a focus for JFK's agenda. Our own space program was in large part a response to this perceived threat from the USSR. With the space program, the US gained national pride, scientific prestige and a technological edge. The long list of innovations and advances that came from the space program includes items such as aircraft controls, microcomputers, virtual reality, athletic shoes and even enriched baby food.

But the space program and these fruits would not have occurred if the project were framed in purely scientific terms. The US needed an enemy, some foe that threatened us on a profound level, in order to mobilize and support such a broad program.

If the current president took a similarly competitive approach toward China, it could benefit him politically and help the nation as a whole. While I am personally not very competitive, I think the US culture is. We need a foe. But not any foe will do. Since the end of the Cold War, we have faced foes that are amorphous and not really worthy of a superpower. You can find them in the movies of Bruce Willis or any other action hero. Drug lords and terrorists. How do we combat such enemies? Response to such threats requires police actions, not broadly organized efforts.

Really facing the threat from China would require a broad effort to completely streamline our education system. At the moment, a large number of high school graduates are math illiterate. That would have to change, beginning with rigorous math education in the lower grades. In institutions of higher learning, the focus would be on regaining the technical edge that we had in this area at one time. In this atmosphere of shared sacrifice, the hedonism that afflicts our society would become less socially acceptable.

All this would require funding at a time when the opposition complains about the size of the debt (largely run up by the previous president). This funding will be impossible to obtain unless the need is framed in terms of a national emergency. When World War II began, notions of balanced budgets were thrown out the window. While I think the program to repair the nation's infrastructure is important and long overdue, it does not have the psychological impact of making sacrifices because of an existential battle. It is such a battle that could revive this country and the political fortunes of Mr. Obama.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Government for sale

It's good that the Democrats are making this point. I hope that it is effective - and I hope that after the election the continuing attention is paid to taking the money out of the US election system, because it is becoming completely corrupted!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Corporations and the future of our democracy

It is hard to get perspective on the times in which we live, but In the United States now it seems that we may be in the first stages of some strange power shift. The economic benefits conferred by corporations may be now outweighed by the political harm they cause.

These thoughts come to mind after reading the news this morning. First, a Washington Post article about the level of corporate spending in this year's election. Millions of dollars are being spent - much of it on misleading and outright deceptive advertising. The bulk of this advertising and money supports conservative Republican candidates. Candidates who are pledged to support policies that support wealthy people and large corporations. Because of recent Supreme Court decisions - decisions by an extremely conservative Supreme Court - the donors do not even have to reveal who they are.

And what are these corporations doing for the nation economically? Not so much. They are profiting from government policies - sometimes from the very policies they criticize. The New York Times has an article about the billions of dollars they are borrowing at rock-bottom rates, essentially sucking cash out of the economy. What are they doing with this cash? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Sitting on it. Waiting for the economy to recover - so they can more profitably invest the money they have borrowed so cheaply. No one has the incentive to go out and make the gamble to spend the money first. We cannot count of private industry to help the nation in its current economic woes.

In short, the nation's relationship with its corporations may be tipping. Corporations for roughly the last 150 years have played a dominant role in our political and economic life. And large corporations, of course, have always inflicted some harm on society. Take W.R. Grace Inc., which poisoned the populations of entire communities. Companies such as the Anaconda Copper Mining Company killed and beat workers who sought higher wages. C. Wright Mills argued more than 50 years ago that large corporations enervated the nation's very soul. On the other hand, the corporation as a financial entity also allowed profitable investment of capital and economic development for the country as a whole. Incorporated businesses can raise money through stock sales, ideally using the capital to invest profitably and benefitting stockholders and the rest of society. But what economic development are corporations offering now? Not much. At the same time, the harm corporations inflict on our democracy is steadily growing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Propaganda and negotiation

I am now teaching at a university. One of the classes I teach is communication ethics. It's a broad subject, and during my lectures I make use of the knowledge I have about a lot of little things. Journalism, politics, negotiations, religious philosophy . . .

The other day, we were discussing situational ethics as they relate to communication. We were discussing the political communication in the US that has developed recently. That is to say - the sharp partisan rhetoric that has dominated discussion. I referred back to a class that I had on negotiations years ago. That for negotiations to succeed, both parties must view the other as a partner. We must make it our primary objective that the bargaining partner also be satisfied with the negotiations. If we do not, we will be trapped in zero-sum adversarial negotiations.

One aspect of this approach is that rhetoric is important. Feelings are important. If I am insulting you, I am not creating an environment conducive to negotiation.

So, this is what we have in the United States. Hateful rhetoric that makes negotiation nearly impossible. Why is this being used? Because the people propagating it have no real interest in negotiation. How can we respond to such rhetoric?

Personally, I hope to God that the better aspect of people will eventually reject hatred and those who sow hatred will fail in their objectives. But I am really not sure if this will happen before many people are hurt.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Real life for women in the countryside

RFE/RL recently posted a find article on the reality of village life for most Azerbaijani women. It fit with what I saw when I was traveling around that country a couple of years ago.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Governance as a family business

Here's an excellent article from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The Aliyev family is essentially shameless as it methodically wrings profit from Azerbaijan.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Life in Azerbaijan today

Here's a brief clip that sums up the situation in Azerbaijan.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The problems in Russia

The Washington Post has an article this morning that is relevant to my previous post. Russians have legendary patience, but nothing is infinite. And the sham of their "democracy" becomes more obvious every year.

The marvelous aspect of democracy is that it allows for the population to make a commitment to their government. Even though the people may not agree with everything about the government, they are committed to it at a fundamental level. If the government does not rule with the consent of the populace, governments tend to rely on fear as the means of obtaining the necessary compliance from the population.

Relying on this tool, however, has many drawbacks.

Russia will probably make it through this crisis and probably the government will not fall. But clearly the powers there are relying increasingly on the tool of fear. This tool will only make them weaker in the long run.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Russia on fire

Tonight I was chatting with a friend living outside of Moscow. He described horrific fires and devastating heat. The windows cannot be opened without letting in the smoke, but the heat is enervating. The Russian people again are confronting a government that is not performing the most basic of functions - protecting public safety. Thousands of dachas - the summer refuge for Russians - are in imminent danger of being incinerated by the quickly spreading fires.

The fires spread all the way from the Northeast to Siberia. Another friend of mine, who lives in a Siberian oil town, says thousands of wells are at risk.

This is what global warming looks like. Temperatures that have never been experienced in the historical record, and the terrible environmental consequences that follow. Even a democratic and stable government would be stressed by the demands created by such a situation. When the government is weak, the situation is even more chaotic.

More work from dissident journalists in Russia

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wonderful example of florid nationalistic blather

A friend recently brought this post to my attention. Wonderful! I will use it an example of how not to write. Unfortunately, when I was teaching in Azerbaijan, too often I saw examples of exactly this type.
Azerbaijan as a new intellectual center of global thinking

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

Today, July 4, the United States celebrates its independence from Great Britain, declared back in 1776. It's a one-day holiday - although sometimes celebrations are held on other days. In Todd, North Carolina, for example, a "Freedom Parade" was held on July 3. This was not a patriotic parade, in the sense of having a lot of red, white & blue & speeches about how great the USA is. Instead, the event celebrated freedom. In a way, it did not even celebrate independence but rather inter-dependence. The theme was ecology, and we celebrated the river that runs through Todd & the ecosystem it supports.

I am from the United States & there are plenty of things with which I am dissatisfied. But - one thing I do like is the diversity. There are lots of people who wave flags in blind patriotism, but there are also many people who are more thoughtful & trying to make the world & their country a better place.

Here are some photos from the day.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Afghanistan peace conference urges Hamid Karzai to talk with Taliban |

Afghanistan peace conference urges Hamid Karzai to talk with Taliban |

The US public is losing patience with this war without end. The Soviet Power was killed in Afghanistan. US power already has been weakened seriously by this stalemate.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Democracy in Action

Here is some footage of a recent demonstration in Baku. Dispersed violently by the police, of course.

The policies pursued by the Aliyev administration are so short-sighted, violent, and selfish. Those in power cannot hold onto power indefinitely, and when they lose power, the odds of good that the transition will be violent.

My Neighborhood

Here is a little video tour of my environs. Shot from a bicycle.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Another case of justice denied in Russia

Lately, I have been reading The Great Terror: A Reassessment. I can't say it's pleasure reading, although it is compelling. Reading this article this morning, I am reminded of the "justice" system that functioned during Stalin's rule. Incredible fantasies were conjured up by prosecutors, and everyone was supposed to believe these fairy tales. Bukharin a fascist in league with Hitler? Sure! Thousands of military officers in league with the Japanese? Sure!

Apparently, not so much has changed. Outrageous lies are still manufactured by Russian prosecutors. The legal system in Russia has nothing to do with justice or reality. It has everything to do with protecting people in power.

An interview with the Nagorno-Karabakh president

Karabakh: ‘Free State’ - Transitions Online

A U.N. rights expert recently made his first visit to Azerbaijan and deplored the lack of progress in ongoing peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Walter Kalin, the secretary-general’s representative on the human rights of IDPs, said progress is needed to help internally displaced people in the region find a sustainable solution to their situation.

I don't know what the solution to this problem is, but I do know how destructive this unsettled problem is to the whole region.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Yet another fruitless search for justice

When I lived in Russia, people sometimes asked me: Is it dangerous? Aren't you afraid?

I answered: It's not really dangerous. I keep my nose clean. After all, the most dangerous people in the country are the police.

Here's yet another example of what I'm talking about.

Of course, the charges that Russian police officers stole $230 million have not yet been investigated. And they will not be investigated. Just as the death of Sergei Magnitsky will not be investigated. It is just one of thousands of cases that where justice will never be obtained.

It appears that the Russian security forces have not changed appreciably since the days of Stalin. Do you really expect that anyone will be held accountable for the monstrous crimes of that era? Of course not.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Another mosque threatened with closure

The Radio Liberty website is carrying news today of the closure of Sunni mosque outside Azerbaijan. The government's relationship with organized Islam is complicated. On one hand, the government sometimes has seemed eager to curry favor with religious authorities. On the other hand, it has on occasion acted repressively, especially against sects such as the Wahhabis. I think the guiding principle is constant across all authoritarian states. Any rival power center will be viewed suspiciously if not hostilely by the central government.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Secret Video from Tea Party Conference Reveals Talk of Secession

An interesting little piece - mostly because it's an inside look at the Tea Party folk.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Spring - but not so much indolence

I noticed today that it has been over a week since I have written here. No real reason for the hiatus. The school term ending. Not much interesting to other people there. Sometimes - it isn't so interesting for me. As is clear, I am continuing to take photos of the beautiful spring that is unfolding here.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Good news from Kyrgyzstan

Some good news from the new government of Kyrgyzstan. Supposedly the "temporary government" will soon be permitting previously banned human rights organizations to enter to enter the country. Let's hope this decision of the temporary government isn't itself temporary.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New video about Adnan and Emin

Here is a new video recently made in the Netherlands about the case of Adnan and Emin. A nice overview of the situation.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I attend a Coffee Party

You’ve heard about the Tea Party here in the United States. Maybe you’ve even heard about the Coffee Party. Yesterday, I dropped by a small gathering of would-be activists to learn for myself about this second group.

The Coffee Party as I understand it is a reaction to rancor and vitriol spilled by the Tea Party. As opposed to focusing on hate for the status quo, the idea is to think constructively about the nation’s problems and make some suggestions. The difference as I understand it is as much about the approach as it is about the issues. The organizers of the Coffee Party are quite careful not to identify themselves as "progressives" or "liberals." The idea is to build bridges rather than to throw stones.

I had heard about the Coffee Party from an e-mail sent by the loosely organized group. The note said I could punch my zip code into the web site and learn if there were any meetings nearby. Because I don’t live in a metropolitan area, usually such meetings are too far away. In this case, however, I learned that the meeting was planned at the local university. Very convenient. I decided to drop by.

The meeting attracted 10 people – six undergrad college students and four people who were in their late 40s or older. Overall, there were three males – two older guys & one student. The age gap was a little awkward. I was aware of the differences in our experiences. One woman referred to marching against war for the last 30 years or so. These students have different experiences, different history. Ronald Reagan is a historical figure for these students, not a president they protested. The Contras? Who? Ollie North? The Vietnam War perhaps gets lumped in with the Korean War, just another meaningless war in Asia.

If anything, I would have preferred to hear more from these younger students, but they may have felt shy in front of older people who were obviously so passionate about political issues. What are the issues that are motivating the young people? Some of them discussed same-sex marriage, for example, remarking how they did not see the rationale for preventing it. In future meetings, it might be good to structure the discussion so that all members of the group are allocated time to enunciate their political concerns.

The agenda of the group was fuzzy – but the facilitator had some instructions from headquarters to help guide the meeting. Our primary agenda for the meeting was to discuss our personal priorities and then decide on a priority for our little group. While we deemed many issues important – stopping the war, protecting the environment, improving the education system – the issue that lay at the core was the reform of the campaign financing system.

How to fix it? That’s a hard question, because there are serious legal issues involved. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court invalidated a major part of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. None of us were lawyers. But we agreed on a gut level feeling that the political process has been corrupted by the power of money trumping the power of individuals.

Perhaps we could even agree with Tea Party activists on this point. I don’t know.

What’s next? We’re going to meet soon with our legendarily right-wing congressional representative to communicate our concerns. Beyond that, I don’t know. It may seem like the fruits of this organizing effort are small, but personally I believe that every action has an effect. The motives behind our meeting were good and positive, so I expect that the results will be similarly positive and good.

Oh, and one of the students even bought me coffee. Very nice!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter 8

Buna knew this feeling. It always came after a few days. And she had it when she awoke after spending her third night in the hospital. The crushing demoralization of the day before had passed. Her hands were still shaky, but her legs were steady enough to walk. Buna had even been able to eat yesterday evening, and the previous night she slept for at least four hours, albeit still bathed in sweat. Now, she experienced the feeling of oppressive boredom and an itchy irritability. This feeling permeated every cell. She knew the cure for this feeling.

Buna also knew, of course, that Dr. Semonova would not agree to discharge her. She might even threaten to turn her over to the police, who after all had arrested her following that stupid fight with that stupid woman in the bar. But there was no reason for Dr. Semonova to know that she was leaving.

Buna quietly changed into her dress that had been stored in a cardboard box under her bed. She slipped on her shoes and made it all the way to the rear entrance, only to see the night nurse sitting on a chair by door, watching her every move.

“Where are you going, sister?” the woman asked.

“Going for a smoke.”

“You can smoke down the hall.”

Buna fingered the long, blue scarf she had tied around her neck. The scarf had been a present from Emin last year. They argued terribly on the night he gave it to her, the night when he got his new job. She thought the scarf, of real silk, was much too extravagant. And she didn’t think she deserved it. Now, she untied the knot at her neck.

The woman fingered the scarf slowly, holding it up in the dim light before stuffing it into her pocket. She walked away while Buna quietly opened the door and walked softly down the stairway. Buna opened the door, and felt the cool morning breeze blowing. The streets were empty, except for the street cleaners sweeping. She needed just a moment to orient herself, but then realized that she knew someone who ran a small café, not too far away. She began walking in that direction.

As Buna had expected, Dr. Semonova was angry to find that she had left, although not surprised in any way. She was not angry at Buna, but annoyed at herself for thinking that perhaps the alcoholic could change and save herself. Dr. Semonova questioned the night nurse about her departure, but the night nurse rightfully claimed that she couldn’t supervise all the patients all the time. Buna must have slipped out when the nurse went to the toilet. Dr. Semonova didn’t pursue the matter. She had more important things to worry about than alcoholics determined to drink themselves to death. The final preparations were being made in the hospital for the visit by the First Lady. A headache-inducing smell of fresh paint still hung in the air. Even some of the old chairs in her ward had been replaced. Workers were bringing a new portrait of Heymar Alidev, the final touch to complete the renovation of the ward, in the afternoon.

When Emin arrived with the portrait, Dr. Semonova was surprised that only one man handled these tasks. Emin told her that he worked alone. He was used to it, and he appeared to know his job quite well. When she pointed out the proposed location for the poster, he looked to her with the smallest of smiles.

“I understand,” he said. “It’s a good place.”

Dr. Semonova watched him as he climbed the ladder, hammering in some hooks to hang the portrait. She liked his quiet simplicity. How could such a nice man be working for such evil? After he had hung the large portrait and Heymar Alidev smiled benevolently upon the ward, she offered Emin a cup of tea.

“Just come to my office when you are done,” she told him.

He had no other tasks for the afternoon, so he agreed. When he knocked, she was filling out the daily report for the day: one patient missing, two discharged, one transferred.

“I don’t want to disturb you,” he said as he entered.

“No, please. Sit down,” she motioned to the chair by the desk.

She picked up the phone and spoke to one of the nurses, asking for some tea. Within moments, the nurse was at the door, bearing a tray with a teapot, small glasses, and a small bowl of candy. Dr. Semonova poured him a glass.

“So are you pleased with the portrait?” she asked.

“Thank you. Yes. It’s one of the better portraits. You know, Heymar has different moods. He’s in a peaceful mood in this picture. This mood is good for this place.”

“I think you’re right. Our patients do need much rest and peace,” she said. “You probably know all his moods.”

Emin smiled.

“The hospital director tells me that this portrait will help people get better. Do you think this is right?”

Emin took one of the candies from the dish, and unwrapped it carefully. He folded up the sticky candy wrapper and placed it in his saucer. The candy was a hard lemon drop. He sucked he for a minute before he answered.

“The hospital director told you that?”


“Well, if he is the director, then he is probably right. I am not a doctor. My job is just to hang the posters.”

“I’m sorry. It was a silly question. I’m grateful for the picture.”

“Thank you. I am glad to help. I think your patients will like it.”

Dr. Semonova noticed the ring on his finger.

“You’re married. How nice!”



“Yes, three. Two boys and a girl.”

Emin fingered his wedding band. He had forgotten that he wore it. How long should he wear it? He probably should have taken it off already. Was she gone for good this time? Probably.

“She must be very lucky,” said Dr. Semonova.

“Wonderful. I love children.”

They sipped their tea in silence.

Emin was startled by this thought, and suddenly uncomfortable with this woman.

“No, I am very lucky to have her.”

He put his tea and saucer on the tray.

“Thank you very much for the tea. I should get back to my family. My wife doesn’t like it when I come home late for dinner.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you again for your work. I was very happy to meet you.”

“My pleasure.”

She shook his hand with a firm grip and opened the door for him. The nursing staff was changing shifts as he left, and he walked out with the two nurses who worked on the ward during the day. They chatted about their plans for the evening, the parade and the fireworks that were planned. Today was the first of three days of celebration to mark Heymar Alidev’s birthday. Already people were gathering on the street, lining the parade route. Fighter jets swooshed through the air, tracing fantastic patterns with colored smoke. But Emin was not in a mood for a parade or fireworks. He knew of a café not too far from this place, so he began to walk in that direction.

The End

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chapter Seven

Buna was sick again. She vomited into the little bucket by her bed, retching out a thin stream of yellow bile. Her stomach was empty and her insides felt like they had been wrung dry. She managed to put the pail down without spilling it. Her head fell back into the gray, stiff pillow. Every noise, sight, and smell in the ward grated on her nerves. The shoes of the nurses on their morning rounds clicked painfully. The sound of the patient breathing in the next bed raked her ears. The smell of the disinfectant in the ward and the smell of her own vomit oppressed her.

Buna was sick, but her head was clearer since her conversation with Dr. Semonova. Now, the facts of her situation were becoming depressingly clear. She knew where she was, although she hadn’t been to this hospital. About a year ago, she was in a similar ward, in the south of the city. Emin had eventually found her there, after he had called all the hospitals around the city. Maybe he would find her again. Maybe not. The thought tore at her like a twisting knife. She knew it would be better if he did not find her, if he just forgot her. Emin was far too decent for her. Better that he just get on with his life. They had tried, but something wasn’t right, because she had failed again. She would always fail.

While Buna was a proud woman, reticent about expressing any tenderness, in her weakened condition she felt tears well up inside. The feeling, so unfamiliar, frightened her. Her chest began to heave as she began to sob softly, turning her face into the gray, stiff pillow.

Only a couple of nurses worked this ward in these early morning hours, when the sun began to creep over the factory next door and illuminate the hall for all too brief a spell. And the sorrow of one more patient was hardly noteworthy in any case. Everybody had problems. But on this morning, Dr. Semonova herself was in the ward. She had slept poorly the night before, and sometimes a visit to the hospital wards was oddly soothing, reminding herself of other people’s problems. Her conversation with Burgar the day before still rankled her, and she vacillated between righteous indignation, anxiety, and fatigue.

Of course, she was indignant to be commanded by such an incompetent idiot to act as yet another soldier in the propaganda army of the president. And she was anxious, because she was all too aware of her own tenuous position. Her long tenure in the hospital meant nothing. A talented and highly respected surgeon lost his job in the spring, all because of some silly argument at a party. He made some intemperate remarks about the president’s father to a government official, and the next day he was fired. The doctor was fortunate, because he had relatives abroad, and he was able to leave the country quickly. Otherwise, more trouble would probably have followed. But Dr. Semonova had no one. Her work was her life. But on this morning, she felt particularly fatigued. She was tired of an endless struggle. For a time, she had hope that her new nation would re-build itself, that the people of the country might make some social or material progress. But the signs now seemed to point in the opposite direction, of a nation becoming more servile, more craven, more stupid.

Preoccupied with her thoughts, Dr. Semonova mechanically paced the aisles of the ward, arriving finally at the bed where Buna lay crying. Dr. Semonova remembered her with a twinge of disgust, and for a moment even felt a perverse pleasure in seeing her cry. Yes, you should cry. This is what your fun gets you – a lonely bed here, where you can cry your lonely heart out. But Dr. Semonova couldn’t enjoy her self-righteousness for long. Buna’s sobs were too bitter. She sat down on the narrow bed and touched Buna’s shoulder.

“There, there, dear. It’s alright. You’ll be feeling better soon.”

Saying such kind words felt odd in her throat, but she found herself saying them anyway. Buna stopped sobbing so loudly, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge the presence of the doctor on her bed. And Dr. Semonova just sat there, watching the morning sunlight seep into the ward, her hand on Buna’s shoulder.

As she gazed at the room, a sudden movement caught her eye. A rat. Again. That hole above the nurses’ table had been filled only two months ago, but the rodents had again gnawed and clawed an opening. From there, they could easily jump onto the ancient curtain, scamper down and retrieve any food patients left by their beds. And the rat gazed at her with disconcerting security and confidence. He could never be eradicated. This was his home. Dr. Semonova realized this fact, but she also had a flash of insight. The rat hole was the perfect place for the poster of Heymar Alidev. He would cover up the rat hole at least. With any luck, the rats would chew a hole into the portrait itself.

Buna stirred. She turned and saw the mean doctor sitting next to her. Buna felt the reflexive desire to be angry at the doctor, but she was too tired, too sick.

“Water?” she asked.

Dr. Semonova turned to look at the poor woman. Her eyes were very bloodshot. Her skin was pale and clammy. She was going through the worst of withdrawal from alcohol, but she would probably survive this time. Without a word, Dr. Semonova rose from the bed. She poured a glass of water for Buna at the cracked porcelain sink at the far end of the ward and brought it back to her.

“Here,” said Dr. Semonova.

Buna took the glass with both hands, raising it to her lips and drinking it cautiously. She felt a little liquid go down her throat and then handed the glass back to Dr. Semonova. She fell back on the bed, exhausted and nauseated by her efforts.

“I’m sorry,” Buna said.

She was, indeed, sorry but not for anything in particular. She was sorry for everything. For getting sick. For getting drunk. Sorry for bothering Dr. Semonova. Sorry for hurting her husband. Buna felt the deep regret and shame peculiar to a person recovering from a very long and serious spell of drinking.

“Yes, I know.”

Dr. Semonova took Buna’s cool and damp hand and gave it a little squeeze.

“You’ll be feeling better soon.”

“My husband?”

The doctor looked at her in surprise. She really had assumed that all of this woman’s family life was a fantasy. But perhaps Buna actually did have someone who cared for her. In a strange way, the doctor felt a momentary twinge of jealousy.

“Your husband? Where is he?”

But Buna had already regretted her question, remembering her earlier stoic resolve. Better for her to die alone, to let Emin be. She could not bear to have him see her like this again.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said, lapsing into quiet sobs again.

Dr. Semonova sat with her, listening to Buna cry softly. After a few minutes, one of the nurses came over to the two women. It was highly unusual for the doctor to hold anyone’s hand.

“Is anything the matter?” the nurse asked.

“No, nothing,” replied the doctor, carefully putting Buna’s hand on the thin brown blanket.

“Nothing unusual. But keep an eye on her. She’ll want some food by the end of the day. Not much. Just a little soup.”

The doctor rose and glanced at her watch. She had to return to the office to finish a report to the health committee. And she would write a memo to Burgar, to inform him about the location for the new portrait in the ward.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Real estate genius?

The latest evidence of the wealth accruing to the ruling family in Azerbaijan has been published on the Internet. This article by the Times details the real estate riches acquired by Heydar Aliyev, the 12-year-old son of the current president of Azerbaijan. Nine luxury properties in Dubai had been bought during a two-week period last year when the youth spent $44 million. In all, the president's children have real estate holdings of about $75 million.

This is wonderful. It's very important that young people be taught how to invest and save. The president is setting a fine example for other parents in Azerbaijan, encouraging his son's thrift and enterprise.

President Ilham Aliyev indeed sets a very notable example, and apparently, it has an effect. The country, after all, is recognized for its stubbornly high level of corruption.

It's also recognized for its high level of income disparity. While the president's son is investing millions of dollars in Dubai, the yearly gross national income per capita is roughly $666.

(As it happened, I needed to talk with someone in Azerbaijan this morning. The journalist I was contacting, however, couldn't talk because her newsroom was facing a momentary crisis. The news outlet's website was facing very strange and serious problems. Very mysterious. Perhaps the president does not want to share the news about his financially savvy son?)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Skewed priorities

Ah, the priorities of the government of Azerbaijan were on display again this week, as it was revealed that it had spent thousands of manat to import olive trees. A total of 3,000 bushes and 300 trees were imported to be planted in Baku's National Park, an expenditure that could easily exceed $3 million if each one costs $100, a very conservative estimate. Of course, this excludes customs duties, etc.

It reminds me the expenses I saw daily when I walked in this park. Very beautiful, yes. Always with some project underway. New paving stones laid down - before the old ones are hardly worn. New plantings every week. The government seemed quite willing to invest in the cosmetics of the park, but very unwilling to invest in the people in Azerbaijan.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chapter Six

As Emin left the square, the fighter planes were practicing their aerial maneuvers, swooping through the air with a roar that rattled windows. The pilots were among the elite soldiers in Azanistan, chosen from families close to the core supporters of the New Azanistan Party. The president himself was known to enjoy flying, piloting his own jet and sometimes even participating in the air shows. Emin watched the sleek jets trace patterns in the air, releasing smoke tinted with the national colors of yellow, red and black.

The jets were just one sign of the coming holiday. As he continued on his walk home, Emin saw the crowds who lined the parade route. The main parade would be on June 23, still two days away. But already the army was practicing, rolling out its tanks and personnel carriers. The people whistled and clapped as the equipment rumbled down the street. The troops were preparing, but the commanders also knew that displaying their military might was always useful, making the people proud of their military, proud of themselves.

While most of the spectators were unaware of the subtleties of the display, the more educated among them knew that the forces on parade had distinctly different roles. The soldiers in camouflage were intended for battlefield conflict. These soldiers were recruited from the poorest of families. They received minimal training in the use of rifles, but their main role to was to perform unpaid labor such as digging ditches and harvesting potatoes. They rode in the parade, seated in rows in large personnel carriers.

The soldiers in the sleek black uniforms, however, rode on black motorcycles behind the carriers. Each of the motorcycles was specially fitted with an automatic weapon in front, a technical innovation for which the president himself claimed credit. These soldiers, wearing black helmets and black masks, were the troops of the Interior Ministry. This was the division dedicated to maintaining order at home. These soldiers were not trained in battlefield tactics and did not practice ordinary maneuvers. Rather, they received education in surveillance techniques, crowd control, and highly effective interrogation techniques.

While the ordinary soldiers were poorly fed and simply clothed, the soldiers of the Interior Ministry received the best training. Selection into this elite corps was highly coveted, and the Interior Minister built one entire mansion purely with the bribes he received from parents seeking to place their sons in the division. As these sleek warriors roared down the avenue on their armed motorcycles, the crowd whistled and shouted their approval. These soldiers presented the most handsome and fearsome image. They also made the citizens proud to be Azani.

As Emin pushed through the crowd, merely trying to make his way back home, he recognized the back of Gunar’s head, with its short-cropped hair and folds of fat on his neck. He began to edge away in the opposite direction, but unfortunately Gunar turned at that moment, and saw Emin.

After he gave Emin the tree-pruning assignment , Gunar had visited his restaurant and arranged for more effective collections of party donations from his team. He had decided to close the small grocery owned by Cavid Malikov who used to own a bookstore. The government had closed his bookstore 10 years earlier, but Gunar still suspected Cavid was a disloyal character. In fact, one of his informants had heard him complaining about the high cost of food products in the country. If he thought food was too expensive, then perhaps he shouldn’t sell it, Gunar reasoned.

Cavid at this moment was still working in his small store, unaware of the fate that loomed. Within the week, the tax police would find an irregularity, which would require that the entire store be liquidated to pay off the past due taxes. In itself, the liquidation of the store wouldn’t bring a large amount of cash to the party coffers, but it would serve to spur greater generosity among the remaining elements of the business community.

“Emin! Where are you going?” Gunar yelled, as Emin tried to avoid his glance.

“I’m just trying to get to a little opening in the crowd here. I can’t see the parade from here.”

“Come with me. I’ve got the place for us.”

Gunar was feeling generous, because he had solved this problem with the party donations. He wanted to share his good feeling with Emin, who always seemed unnaturally morose. The problem with some people is that they just don’t know how to enjoy themselves. Such a mood discourages other people around them, and Gunar tried to make sure that the people around him did not display such depressing attitudes. A depressed view of the world inhibited inspiration, Gunar believed, and as he saw Emin, he received a flash on inspiration. He would take Emin to visit his friends Gulinda and Lula.

“Come on, Emin. Let’s get away from these peasants. I have the place for us,” he said, grabbing the hapless painter’s shoulder with his ham-sized hand.

Emin was looking forward to returning to his small kitchen, making a cup of tea and then perhaps reading a book. He had already resolved that Buna and he were through. This made him sad, but he also had worried about her so much in the past that his feelings were less sharp, leaving just a dull ache inside. But as soon as Gunar grasped his shoulder, Emin knew that his chance for escape at that moment were nearly impossible. To argue with Gunar in the crowd would be unthinkable. Perhaps he could wriggle out of of Gunar’s plans when the two of them were alone. In the meantime, Emin followed Gunar as the crowd parted in waves as the large man elbowed his way forward.

Veering off from the main street, Gunar turned down a small alley, and Emin thought this was his chance.

“Gunar, I really should be going home. I have a big day tomorrow. You know. The birthday posters. Three new ones in Mikorvskaya district. Really big ones. It’s not going to be easy to put them up.”

Gunar snorted, but otherwise did not reply. He prided himself on his commitment, once he had decided on a course of action. Gunar had decided that Emin deserved a little fun, and he was not going to be distracted from his goal of entertaining him. He stopped at a plain gray metal door and rang the buzzer. A woman answered through the intercom with a rough “Who is it?” and Gunar answered simply “Me.” The automatic lock on the door clicked open, and Gunar pushed Emin in.

They entered a short dark hallway that smelled of disinfectant and cat urine. A black elevator cage at the end of the hall yawned open. Emin saw no escape. Gunar followed him onto the elevator, pushed the button for the third floor, and the elevator rattled upward.

When the elevator door opened onto the third floor, Gulinda already had opened the door the apartment. Dressed in a green silk gown, the large woman leaned against the doorway in a manner that to Emin communicated complete boredom. The gown covered her thighs, but it was only loosely tied at her waist, exposing most of Gulinda’s large breasts.

“Hello stranger!” Gulinda said. “Who’s your friend?”

Gunar laid his heavy arm on Emin’s shoulder.

“This is Emin. He’s an artist. And you know artists! He said he was looking a good time, and I told him I knew just the place.”

Gunar gave Emin a little push toward Gulinda, and the woman put her arms around his neck.

“Oh, a naughty little artist, eh? What does Emin want to do today?”

Emin very much wanted to have a cup of tea, but he was feeling quite unable to communicate this desire. Instead, he said nothing, and allowed Gulinda to run her hands up and down his chest, before her hands finally ended on his crotch. Despite his discomfort, Emin felt his penis begin to get hard under Gulinda’s touch.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Don't look for justice in the courts of Chechnya

The New York Times has this sad article today. Sad because it is seems so obvious and inevitable. One of the late activist's colleagues notes: “There are good grounds to believe that people in high official positions could be involved. No matter how high-level the client is, he has to be held accountable, otherwise it’s not going to mean anything.”

Certainly a high-ranking official was involved. If it is a high-ranking official, however, he will never be brought to justice.

To be fair, this is not unique to Chechnya or Russia, where the justice system is - to be charitable - not fully developed. In the United States, the people at the top who were responsible for the multiple crimes that led to the war in Iraq will never be held responsible.

Justice exists, but this justice is not administered by courts.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chapter Five

Gunar was sleeping soundly on the sofa when the phone rang. After his large lunch of pork stew at the Pines Café, washed down with a couple of pints of beer, taking a nap was entirely natural. Gunar was a great believer in the natural order of things. Certain people were created to rule over others. Certain behavior was expected by subordinates. An afternoon nap after lunch was part of the natural order of things.

So Gunar was annoyed to have this natural order disturbed, and he let his annoyance show as he answered the phone gruffly.


“Timur Rodenko speaking.”

Gunar straightened up.

“Yes, Chairman Rodenko. How can I help you?”

Indeed, Chairman Rodenko had a clear idea of how Gunar could help him. Chairman Rodenko would not have otherwise called. He considered Gunar a lazy and greedy man, an opportunist. But, like many opportunists, he was extremely useful.

“Your friend Emin. He is still working as a national artist, correct?”

“Yes, he is. I saw him this morning. Is there a problem with his work? I will talk to him directly about it. We are not really close friends, by the way.”

“No, there is no problem that I know of. Not with his work. But something else has come up. The committee noticed that the portrait of Our Leader at the Star of the Motherland Metro is hardly visible.”

Rodenko was quiet a moment. He tended to speak softly and slowly, using uncomfortably long pauses for dramatic effect.

“This situation must be remedied,” he continued.

“Of course. Yes. I will contact Emin immediately. The tree will be removed before the end of the day.”

“Gunar,” Rodenko said slowly. “I didn’t say to remove the tree. Our Leader revered this particular species. It too is regarded as a national symbol among some of the peasantry. The tree should remain – but its branches must be substantially trimmed so that the portrait is completely visible. This requires some degree of artistry, so I thought your friend’s assistance might be appropriate.”

“I’m sure that Emin will be happy to assist in this task. I will contact him immediately.”

“Thank you. Oh, by the way. I noticed that the neighborhood donations to the party have been stagnant now for the last three months. Is there a problem?”

The donations to the party came from the businesses in the Sahil District, which Gunar managed. Once a month, a government official and a party official would visit every business – from the car repair shops to the restaurants. The discussions were almost always polite, unless the necessary donation had not been received in the previous month. In those unfortunate cases, some sort of problem was inevitably found. The bathrooms might be deemed unsanitary, which would require the immediate closure of the restaurant. Even car repair shops had been closed because their bathrooms were unclean. The severity of the problem found directly related to the attitude of the business owner. In the worst cases, serious discrepancies in financial accounts would be discovered. This meant that not only would the business be closed, but the owner of the business could be subject to immediate criminal prosecution.

The rules were well understood by everyone and only rarely were such measures necessary. But the economic stagnation in the country had begun to affect the local businesses. The local business owners simply were unable to bear the ever increasing level of donations requested by the party. It had been a long time since Gunar personally had made these fund-raising visits, but he knew the people who collected for the party and he knew the local business owners. After all, they were his customers. Gunar could be callous about people’s feelings, but he was perceptive about how they spent money. And he noticed how even the successful businessmen were spending less.

“There is no problem that cannot be solved with greater discipline,” Gunar said, quoting President Alidev.

“Very well. I am glad you will take care of this,” the chairman said, and hung up.

Gunar, in fact, knew that he could take care of the problem, but it would not be easy. Although he had a slight headache from the beer he drank earlier in the day, he actually relished the challenge that Chairman Rodenko had given him. He sat on the sofa, listened to the traffic below, and considered the alternatives. It might be easiest to completely liquidate one business, rather than require an equal amount of funds from all the businesses who regularly donated to the party. If done correctly, this very liquidation could be used to spur the other businesses into greater generosity. The remaining businesses in the district would understand this fate could await them too, if they were stingy in their support for the party. But which business should be liquidated? Gunar picked out a piece of pork from between his teeth with his index finger and pondered his dilemma.

Taking care of the Chairman Rodenko’s other request was easier. Emin was finishing a lunch of rice soup in his tiny kitchen when Gunar called. Although Emin was looking forward to an afternoon nap, he understood that a request from the Chairman had to be honored immediately. Within five minutes, he had donned his work uniform again and was running down the dark stairwell of his apartment building.

Emin knew the tree in question. The oak towered over the small groups of men who often played dominoes in its shadow. Ten years earlier, all the other trees in the square had been removed in order to create a flat tiled surface better suited for parades and assemblies. But this oak by some strange oversight had been spared. As he approached the Star of the Motherland Metro Station, Emin observed that the poster was nearly completely obscured by the tree. Only large forehead and the eyes of the dead president were visible, peering above the thick crown of the tree. Emin well understood the outrage of the party committee, although he was reluctant to cut the oak. All too few of the trees remained in the city, he thought. Over time, they had been cut to create space for grand tiled expanses. Such places were perfect for athletic displays and parades, but were of little other use. People enjoyed sitting under trees, and the benches erected in these newly created tiled and unsheltered squares were usually vacant for most of the day.

But Emin was glad at this point that no one was playing dominoes under the tree at this hour. He didn’t want an audience for this job. After a moment to contemplate his task, Emin swung a rope over the lowest branch, and quickly clambered up to the lowest set of branches. He had climbed trees since he was a boy in the north of the country, and the climbing skill remained with him like a second nature. Oaks were fine for climbing, with strong, evenly-spaced branches. He stood on the thick lower branch and looked up, feeling the coolness of the tree, its rough dirty bark. He looked at the ants crawling on the trunk, and looking up, he noticed a large bird nest in the top branches. This was unfortunate. Emin liked birds, but he had a job to do.

A few more minutes, and he had reached the branches that covered the poster. In the crook of one of these branches, he noticed the bird nest. It was empty now, but he guessed that it belonged to a couple of crows that sat on a nearby lamp post, angrily cawing at him. Twice they flew up, circling above him. But the nest was empty, and Emin knew the birds would just make noise. He began sawing at the necessary branches, but work was slow. The ants crawled on his pants and his shirt, biting him occasionally. The birds continued their outraged commentary. As the saw blade cut deeper, it got bound up in the green wood, slowing his task even more. First, he was sorry for the tree he cut, for the birds whose nest he destroyed. But as his work continued, he became annoyed, irritated that he was here at work still, irritated at the birds, at the tree that required such trimming. He cut one branch off and watched with satisfaction as it tumbled to the ground. The second branch was narrower and easier. Finally, he cut the branch that held the crows’ nest. The wood crashed noisily down through the lower branches, upsetting the table under the tree and scattering the nest across the pavement. The birds flew up again, angry, circling above the tree. Emin looked over to the poster. Yes, now the dead president could be easily seen from the square. This was good.

Innovation requires freedom

This observation about the necessity of freedom seems obvious - and yet it is remarkable how often this truth is overlooked. I believe the connection between freedom and innovation is ignored in both capitalist and communist economies. Innovation can be squelched by the demand for short-term profits, or it can be smothered by central planners.

I think of this connection after reading an excellent column by Georgy Satarov. He picks apart a recent interview by a high government official, a government official describing in detail how the Putin-Medvedev administration is going to create some sort of engine for economic development and innovation. It won't happen. I have no idea about what is the future for Russia at this point, but it does not look very bright. The people running the country seem determined to close any possible space for democratic opposition. Without democratic opposition, there can be no peaceful change. And Russia vitally needs change. It plods on, its extractive industries subsidizing its maddening and oppressive inefficiencies.

The best and the brightest will always crave freedom. This is the nature of intelligent people. They seek the opportunity to exercise their intelligence. They do not want to be stifled.

Russia can continue on its current path indefinitely, but it will become increasingly uncompetitive in a global market that will not be restrained by Russia's police, bureaucrats and their criminal allies.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Boot licking

Ah, the wonderful Azerbaijan Parliament. Bastion of free and honest debate on important issues.

Like International Women's Day on March 8.

The Soviet version of Valentine's Day is now outdated. It's a vestige of the discredited past.
Far better to celebrate the birthday of the president's late mother, according to one lawmaker.

Very sensible proposal, really.

Even if the holiday is not created, Elmira Akhundova has proven her servility to the ruler of the land.

Servility, not common sense or honesty, is rewarded in Baku.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chapter Four

While Buna slept for the next 12 hours, the psychiatric ward hummed with unusual activity. The ward, of course, was always active with patients in varying stages of inebriation or detoxification. They smoked, yelled, and paced. The more healthy ones played cards or checkers in the lounge. This week, however, marked the beginning of preparations for a special visit from the First Lady to the hospital. It was unlikely that she would visit this ward, where the patients were much less photogenic than in the wing where sick children were housed. Nonetheless, the hospital administration felt it advisable to thoroughly clean the hospital wards, removing broken furniture and applying fresh paint to the smoke-stained walls.

In the process of these renovations, a glaring omission came to light. The psychiatric ward contained not a single representation of the Father of the Country! The ward, which was not spacious, obviously could not contain one of the larger-than-life portraits that adorned city parks. But the portraits of Heymar Alidev were available in infinite gradations of size, so it was hard to understand how this error had occurred.

So while a crew of four men painted the smoking room, Burgar Hadiler, the hospital director made his first visit to the psychiatric ward to talk with Dr. Semonova. Burgar , who was impeccably dressed in a gray suit, carried a small catalog that listed the various representations of Heymar Alidev that were available through the government information agency. These portraits and statues, it should be noted, were not free. The agencies that purchased these items paid a fee to the information agency, a sum subsequently paid to the New Azanistan Party, which owned the publishing rights to all images and words of Heymar Alidev and his son.

To his credit, Burgar was more active than many party loyalists placed in positions that afforded them a large and secure income for only the most token labor. Burgar was easily bored and distracted, so he made a point to personally visit some of the doctors from time to time, ascertaining their political beliefs while bolstering a certain reputation for a direct management style. On these visits, which many a bureaucrat would have regarded as demeaning, Burgar frequently went without an assistant, itself a practice that was almost dangerously strange. As he strode through the hall to the office of the head doctor, the nursing staff blushed and hurried ahead of him. Burgar, a handsome man with wonderful teeth, smiled at the nurse standing by the door as he knocked once and entered upon detecting a nearly inaudible reply.

“Hello, Dr. Semonova,” he said.

Dr. Semonova was seated at her desk when he knocked and entered. She did not rise. While Burgar had the best political connections, connections to which he owed his current position, he had only held the job for two years. Previously, he had been managing a company that imported cars into the country, until this profitable monopoly was taken over by a drinking buddy of the president. In the eyes of Dr. Semonova, Burgar was an unqualified political hack. In fact, he was not especially suited to the job, and as a consequence was generally bored and dissatisfied. Administering a hospital was generally dull, although Burgar was responsible for several innovations. Under his leadership, a high quality and highly profitable plastic surgery clinic had been created.

Burgar stood with the door open, waiting for Dr. Semonova to politely stand and greet him. Burgar knew her opinion of him, but he was equally hostile toward the doctor. She was a vestige of a previous world, a world built on the illusion of equality and idealism. The doctor had no idea about the laws of economics that now ruled the world in general and the functioning of this hospital in particular. Burgar did not want to dismiss her, but neither did he feel resigned to accept contempt from her.

Reluctantly, Dr. Semonova put down the medial journal she was reading, standing up to shake Burgar’s hand.

“Please, sit down, Mr. Hadiler,” she said, motioning to a hard wooden chair by her desk. But Burgar realized now how cramped and uncomfortable this office was. It was crowded with book shelves. The desk itself was covered with neat piles of papers and journals. The only decoration in the room was a small photograph on the wall of a house in the mountains, a house where Dr. Semonova had spent her summers when she was a girl, before the war. The house had long since been destroyed, and the land was now occupied by Argania, but the memories still lived, albeit dimly, with Dr. Semonova. The faded photo caught the eye of Burgar, who walked over to the photo, examining the picture closely.

“Beautiful. Very beautiful. Are you from that region?” he asked.

“My family had a small cottage there. It was my grandparents’ place originally.” Dr. Semonova realized that having family from that area could mean that she also had Arganian blood flowing in her veins. Even Dr. Semonova, who disdained all forms of politics, realized this could create unpleasant consequences for her. And yet, she had an instinctual and awkward habit of honesty.

“Interesting. Well, I really can’t stay. I am interested, as you know, to better understand all the departments of this hospital. I think I can better understand your situation here, after actually seeing this department. It seems, in fact, that your facilities are in very good shape. You have some new furniture out there in the hall. Freshly painted walls. All you need is several of these portraits. Art, I think, should inspire people to do their best. It should offer positive examples. How can your patients reach their potential, if they do not have such positive examples before them?”

Dr. Semonova felt her insides shake as she restrained herself from an angry response. In fact, the new furniture and fresh paint was fine, but in fact the operating budget was inadequate and would continue to be inadequate. For the most part, the staff depended on the payments from the families of the patients. If a patient had no family, then the diet for that patient would likely be a thin potato gruel three times a day, supplemented with bread. The availability of necessary drugs was uneven, and a drunk that happened to land in the ward at an unfortunate time when the drug supply was exhausted might suffer painful and dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

“Yes, it’s very nice of you to paint the lobby. We appreciate that. And I appreciate you taking the time to bring me this catalog. I will immediately determine where would be the most appropriate place for a portrait of our president.”

Burgar smiled broadly. He was pleased, like the dog who has forced a rival to roll over into a submissive pose. He felt no animosity toward this pitiful old woman now.

“Good. I think you can find several places for portraits. It would be better if you did. I think, in fact, we have a nice portrait that would fit right there,” he said, pointing to the spot where the photo of Dr. Semonova’s childhood refuge hung.

His eyes met hers, searching for any faltering in her submission. But she nodded, after a moment of silence.

“Yes, I think you are probably right. I will see if I can find something that would fit.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

At least he listens to his mother!

This article seems a little bit absurd, but that does not mean that it isn't true. The president of Chechnya - who has been implicated on some very strong evidence of repeated and savage violations of human rights - sued officials from human rights groups who had the temerity to imply his involvement in crimes of torture, rape, and murder.

(One of these murders was that of a human rights activist last year, as discussed in earlier postings.)

Now - he is dropping his lawsuits. Why? Because his mother asked him to. So - the fellow - who runs his fief with an iron fist & is implicated in all these crimes - still listens to his mother.

It's kind of sweet.

Kind of weird.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I still think learning foreign languages is a good idea

The Times has a piece about new translation software being developed by Google. The software could be used to in mobile phones to transform them into translators. Google already has a system to translate text on computers. (I use it - and it's not great but no mechanical translator is. Most of the time, it gives you a quick & dirty translation that gives you the gist of the text.) The company also has a voice recognition system that allows people to speak commands into phones rather than typing them in. Combining the technologies could allow Google to create software to understand a caller and then translate it into a synthetic version of a foreign language.

Fortunately, it will probably be a few years before the software is ready for market. So, one of my remaining marketable skills still has some value.

For now.

Kremlin's friend wins in Ukraine, but democratic process could cause problems

The author of this article makes a very good point. Yes, Russia's preferred candidate won the election in Ukraine, yet the election he won stands in sharp contrast to recent heavily-managed elections in Russia. Will Russian's care that their Slavic cousins to the west have experienced a democratic presidential election? Some Russians tell me- "But we do have democracy at the local level." This local-level democracy, however, is inevitably limited by the fact that processes by which national leaders have been chosen in national years is anything but democratic. (It reminds me, in fact, of the apologists for autocracy of the tsar, when people could point to the local level zemstvo or the mir as examples of local democratic processes and autonomy. In reality, however, the autonomy was not grounded in law and was subject to the caprices of the tsar and his administration.)

One of the statistically significant factors in predicting whether a nation will be democratic is its contiguity to other democracies. So, if Ukraine is successful in holding its tenuous grip on democratic institutions, Russia's oligarchs and their patrons might just have reason to worry.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chapter Three

Buna was angry. Her head was not clear enough to know much more than that – but she was angry. She didn’t really know where she was. She didn’t know who this woman was. She didn’t know why she was talking to this woman, or why she was dressed in this absurd, thin dressing gown, but she knew she was angry. She was angry, and her head hurt.

Buna was not aware of the large bandage on her head, or the dried blood that clotted in her hair. She was arguing with main doctor in the hospital that she should leave immediately, because her children needed her at home. She was aware that she had no children, but she had thought about these non-existent children, and the one young daughter who died so soon after birth, that they had achieved some measure of reality.

“Who is going to feed them? Answer me that!” she snapped at the doctor, her voice hoarse and unsteady, despite her anger.

Tatiana Semonova, an angular woman with hair dyed an unnatural shade of red, was the chief doctor at the psychiatric ward. She had worked at the hospital for 30 years. She never liked alcoholics or drug addicts, and at this point in her career she felt a positive revulsion toward them. This woman with an ugly head wound was about 24 hours away from her last drink. The only reason she was not now shaking with the delirium tremens was because of the strong tranquilizers that had been injected into her with the greatest of difficulty two hours ago. From the way Buna was acting, Tatiana considered that another dose of tranquilizers was necessary.

“If you tell me where you live, we will make sure that your children are cared for. But you are in no condition to go out on the street. We simply can’t allow it. Do you know where you were when we found you?”

This question baffled Buna. It did not make her less angry, but it distracted her. No, she didn’t know where they had found her. As in all blackouts, she really had not the slightest memory of where she had been prior to this very unpleasant current moment, sitting here, with an aching head, a terrible thirst, arguing with this stupid woman.

“I was at home. I was minding my business, when you took me here. You had no business taking me here. I was not bothering anyone. You took me away from my children! Who is going to care for them? They will be calling me. Yes, they need me.”

In fact, Dr. Semonova was uncertain of the children’s existence. They might, in fact, need this poor specimen of humanity. The thought depressed her. That a woman could abandon her children to drink in such low places, with such vile companions. The hospital workers had collected Buna from the city jail in Baku. It was some sort of miracle, really, that the workers at the jail had cared enough to call the hospital because they were concerned about the gash in Buna’s head. In fact, the wound bled a lot, but it was not very deep. As far as the people in the jail could determine, her head was cut when she fell on the floor, fighting with another prostitute in the bar.

Fortunately, the two hospital orderlies that Dr. Semonova had summoned finally knocked once on the door and entered. One of them had the syringe loaded with diazepam.

“Now, I really need to get some work done. You will go back to your bed and rest until you feel better. Then we can talk about getting your children some care. But – at this moment, we simply cannot release you. You are a danger to yourself and to the public in your condition.”

Buna felt two firm hands grab her shoulders and lift her from her chair. Her anger had been spent, and she allowed herself to be guided back to a rickety metal bed with rubber sheets. The hands grasped her arms, holding her tightly as a needle pierced her skin, shooting her with another tranquilizing dose. It hurt, but not much. Her head hurt.

“Water?” she asked.

Someone handed her a thick plastic cup, and then took it from her when she had drunk. She put her bandaged head back on the pillow case that was stained from blood that had seeped from her wound. She began to breathe more deeply, and soon fell into a dreamless sleep.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Let's not be offensive!

As we learn from a recent RFE article, the journalists from Yeni Musavat are the latest members of the press to come under pressure in Azerbaijan. While the journalists aren't under fire from the government, the source of their problems is damn close. The president's brother - Jalal Aliyev - said he was offended by an article an article that claimed some unfinished buildings in the capital belong to him. The article also maintained that no one complains about their incomplete status because they're owned by the president's brother.

Makes sense to me - but Jalal is offended by this assertion.

I'm reminded of a few things.

1. The many construction sites all over Baku - sites that grew like mushrooms, in defiance of any understanding of the law of supply and demand. Who was going to live in these luxury apartments? Everyone just assumed that construction was some not so secret way of money laundering.

2. The conversation I had with a newspaper editor in the country, not long after I moved there. In our conversations, at a certain point he referred to another newspaper being owned by the family. I asked "what family?" "The family," he informed me, was the term referring to the president's family. It's not like the president himself owned all that much - but rather the holdings were like some sort of large & extended business.

So - his brother is in the family & he owns a bunch of buildings.

Surprised? I'm not.