Azerbaijan Got a Huffington Post Headline a While Back
And it was a fairly disastrous entry they got in The Huffington Post, too. A while back I mentioned that Əli Kərimli wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, describing his views on democracy in this country. It was not exactly the kindest piece on Azerbaijan. Him being a severely marginalized opposition leader probably doesn’t help his view of the political process in Azerbaijan. He’s not the only one, though. Elections and voting here in the Land of Fire don’t exactly inspire belief in the integrity of the electoral system.
Following that lovely piece on democracy, I somehow missed this follow up in the Huff Post from Jason Katz:
I have traveled to Azerbaijan many times and found a progressive, cosmopolitan, open, secular and Western-oriented society. In fact, Azerbaijan is a charming mix of Eastern and Western societies that even makes for an ideal vacation destination. In Azerbaijan, women rarely cover their heads while they stroll down the wide boulevards of the cities of Baku, Sumgait, Tovuz and Ganga together with their husbands or boyfriends with no fear of, well, anything. Citizens of Azerbaijan enjoy the new infrastructure of this post-Soviet Azerbaijan and the jobs, wages and comforts they afford. It is none other than President Ilham Aliyev, whom the writer attacks, who has spearheaded the many infrastructure projects in Azerbaijan from social services to industrial agriculture to modern highways and roads to petrochemicals to energy production…all providing the prosperity deserving of a nation as progressive as Azerbaijan.
It’s probably a little late of me to pass judgment here, but this is idiotic. Katz opens with “I have traveled to Azerbaijan many times” and follows it up with examples seemingly meant to make us question the veracity of this statement. I don’t think any American who has lived here would attempt to describe Azerbaijan as progressive or cosmopolitan or open. These are descriptors anathema to the cultural norms of the vast majority of people here in Azerbaijan (more than 60% of the population is rural). Apparently Katz refused to leave the boulevards of Baku, Sumgayit, Tovuz, and Ganja. Charming is a tough adjective to ascribe to a country that doesn’t smile much. And I’m curious about this “new infrastructure” he mentions, that the citizens of Azerbaijan so much enjoy. And the repeated praise of Azerbaijan is laughable.
I will concede that there are infrastructure projects here that have been initiated by the World Bank, and that there has been improvement in some of the main highways that carry you out of Baku. Of course things are measurably better than 10 years ago. But I hardly think you can conclude that Azerbaijan approaches anything close to progressive.
Katz makes two good points. First, he posits that Aliyev has maintained domestic and international stability and record economic growth. Yet, Katz does not describe the cost of that stability. Ken Silverstein points this out in his refutation in Harper’s. The second important point is that the opposition hasn’t really provided a viable alternative to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (Yeni Azərbaycan Partiyası). Various small parties have arisen, including Müsavat (Equality), Azadlıq (Freedom), and the youth movement, Dalğa (Wave). Talking with a few Azeris, the most common response is that the people in power are bad, but the opposition is worse. Though, to be sure, the stifling of journalism and political speech certainly doesn’t encourage a free exchange of ideas here.
I don’t actually think Katz’s article is worth replying to, in and of itself, but it presents a good opportunity for pointing out a few other things. First, life outside of Baku is vastly different than life in the regions. While Baku sees the fruits of investment, with its smooth boulevards and fancy cars, the regions are at least a decade or two behind. Infrastructure is not the shiny, functioning apparatus Katz describes. And the pockets of progressivism barely exist outside of Baku. Second, this is a conservative country, no matter how you slice it. Even in Baku, while it has the trappings of any modern western city and a degree of social freedom that comes with the anonymity of a big city, people are still of a socially conservative and Soviet mindset.