Where is the Stratification in Azeri Society?
When I was a sophomore in college, I remember talking to my economics professor about the effects of a large gap between the rich and the poor in society. In the end, we came to the agreement that it’s likely that when that gap gets so big, the gulf between classes so wide, those on the lower end of the spectrum would be demotivated, disheartened, disinterested in working hard to move up. I’m not sure how measurable that statement is, but I remember the conversation and it reminds me of Azerbaijan in a very specific way, mostly having to do with what can best be described as the stratification of Azerbaijani society.
It would be way too extreme to say that Azerbaijan is a place where people are demotivated, disheartened, and disinterested. In fact, that would go against what I’ve learned over the past two years by working closely with many Azeri colleagues. From young students to mid-career professionals, I’ve been lucky to work with some of the most inspiring of people, people who have come from small outlying villages to educate themselves, get to university and, in some cases, find ways to keep improving themselves when those opportunities aren’t available here in Azerbaijan.
Yet, I do think about the stratification of Azerbaijani society, and was reminded of it by this paper, just out by Gary Pollock and Ken Roberts (thanks to the Caucasus Research Resource Centers). I haven’t read the full paper yet, but it does contain this interesting statement in the abstract:
The main differences between classes of individuals are driven primarily by education, which result in differences in attitudes and (to some extent) individual lifestyles. It is argued that in economic and socio-political terms there are as yet just two real classes among actual and potential employees in the South Caucasus–middle classes and lower classes–and that although these classes differ in their standards of living and political dispositions, these are unlikely to become bases for conflict between them.
I don’t have much to add to that except for my own experience here, which consists mostly of visiting the homes of my friends and colleagues. When you walk into anyone’s home here in Azerbaijan, you’ll invariably be met by similar environs and similar attitudes. Thick reddish carpets dominate here in the south and they’ll stretch along the floors and walls. Comfortable chairs for guests butt up against a low-sitting table, set with nuts and fruits and candy. It’s a great setting to walk into, especially coupled with warm greetings, pecks on the cheek, and endless ways to ask “how are you?” As the authors wrote above, it’s true that there are certain things which will show a differing standard of living from house to house, but the proximity of one defined living standard (however that is defined) to another is so close to another that the difference is moot. It’s likely that here in Lənkəran, most of the people have experienced washing clothes by hand, have neighbors and family who do so, or continue to do so today. And clothes-washing is only one example. You could say the same for having internet, cars, western- or eastern-style toilets, gas-stoves. To have or not have these things is normal. The differences in standard of living between the middle- and lower-classes probably aren’t so defined as to allow for a class-based envy. As the Soviet Union fell, everyone likely had a similar experience that put them all closer in terms of class (it’s hard to differentiate yourself when the electricity is out the majority of the day and gas comes to your house intermittently, if at all).
This isn’t to say that these material things don’t matter here–they do. When you walk into that home, the host definitely wants to show off the best to their guest. Yet, I would have a hard time trying to posit that there is necessarily a class-based animosity sprouting from them. Considering the close temporal and physical proximity of all the differences for most Azerbaijanis, it’s difficult to regard the stratification of Azeri society as anything more than seeing the folks who are at the top, and then everyone else. It’s possible (probable?) that this could change over the next decade. More children will grow up in households where it’s normal to have a washing machine, and odd to not have one. People could find that their experiences are more and more separated by class as Azerbaijan’s experiment in capitalism continues. For now, however, proximity is the name of the game and class animosity stays low.
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