Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

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How Being Polite Can Be Frustrating

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I’m currently reading a short book called The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, by an Iranian who was raised in the West by his parents, members of Iran’s diplomatic class in the 1960s and 70s. Hooman Majd tells his story in short vignettes. He deconstructs the minutiae of his return trips to his homeland, visiting government officials and ayatollahs and old friends. His insights into Iranian culture are particularly vivid, as he is at the same time an Iranian at heart and steeped in Western culture. Being bilingual is certainly an asset in bridging that gulf. As Majd recollects his stories, he notes the persistence of ta’arouf, a form of politesse permeating nearly every interaction in Iranian culture. I can tell you, this idea of ta’arouf is thick in Azeri culture, as well.

Throughout the book, Majd explains the ta’arouf in almost every possible situation, whether it is in his meetings with the Iranian Foreign Minister, displayed in the minister’s offering his service while not really meaning it, or talking with taxi drivers about how much to pay, in which the taxi driver insists that paying for the taxi ride is an act unworthy but really just refuses the payment until you overwhelm with your own insistence that you must pay the fare. Of ta’arouf, Majd writes:

Western observers often define ta’arouf as extreme Iranian hospitality, or as a Persian form of elaborate etiquette, but since Westerners naturally engage in ta’arouf too (as everyone who has ever complimented a host or hostess on what was actually a bad meal knows), it’s easy to miss its true significance and its implications in Persian culture. The white lies that good manners dictate we tell in the West and general polite banter or gracious hospitality cannot begin to describe what for Iranians is a cultural imperative that is about manners, yes, but is also about gaining advantage, politically, socially, or economically, as much as anything else. One might be tempted to think of ta’arouf as passive-aggressive behavior with a peculiarly Persian hue, but although it can be, it cannot be defined solely so.

I can tell you: the Azeri culture that I experience is thick with ta’arouf. I cannot purchase something without hearing the phrase, “qonaq ol”, or “be a guest”, meaning that I shouldn’t pay. This goes for big meals to short taxi rides. Last time I was in Baku, I was told to be a guest for a cup of coffee I bought. And every greeting and goodbye is often a long trail of phrases that almost knock you over. This could involve asking “how are you?” in every permutation possible. This sounds great, a place of extreme courtesy, right? Well, for any foreigner who’s in Azerbaijan this can be a strong change of pace. And when the seller tells you to be a guest, the correct response is to insist on paying. This next part from Majd is right on, as well, describing the same tactic I use when walking in the street here:

Any visitor to Iran will also describe Tehran traffic as perhaps the worst in the world with, paradoxically for people known for their extreme hospitality and good manners, the rudest drivers of any country. True, for someone behind the wheel of an automobile, man or woman, is anonymous. There is good reason why Iranian drivers avoid eye contact with other drivers and pedestrians, for if they make eye contact, their veil of anonymity has been lifted, the gates to the walls of their homes have been unlocked and they must become social Iranians, which means they must practice ta’arouf. Many a time as a pedestrian I have made every effort to make eye contact with a driver bearing down on me at full speed as I step off a curb, and when I manage to, the car inevitably stops and the driver, usually with a smile, gestures “you first” with his hands.

It’s true. I can’t tell you how well this works in Azerbaijan. We PCVs have discussed that, often, the famous hospitality in Azerbaijan comes most commonly after you have engaged in a bit of the ta’arouf which makes your greetings long-winded marathons of niceties. Once an Azeri is no longer anonymous, the hospitality shines through. With the anonymity, you’ve got a much different situation on your hands.

For someone who’s not used to this state of affairs, it can be exhausting. It turns buying knick-knacks into a chore, when everyone knows what the end result is from the get-go. The other unintended consequence, as far as westerners are concerned, is that it leads to a frustratingly contradictory view of the people we are dealing with. While some of these folks can be some of the most generous people we’ve come across, offering their best, it can also lead to these same people saying things they don’t really intend to follow through on. Our Azeri hosts may say that they’ll provide something because it is the proper and polite thing to say, yet with no intention of delivering. You can imagine the frustration as we exclaim, “They just lie to us!” Yet, at the same time, we need to understand that this is less about lying than it is about trying to be a polite and appropriate host.

In a work setting, these frustrations can be even more pronounced, as my colleagues will want to make sure that they are exercising the right amount of politeness with me, the foreigner. And yet, they just can’t say no when that is what they are thinking. Efforts to appease someone like me as an advisor or someone who is in a higher position means putting forth an effort many western businesspeople would find inefficient and ineffective. However, ta’arouf has its role in business, as well:

American businesses and businessmen are known to succeed with brashness, determination, and sometimes even a certain amount of ruthlessness; Iranian businessmen succeed rather more quietly with a good dose of ta’arouf and in such a way that doors are opened before the ones opening the doors realize they have done so.

Reading The Ayatollah Begs to Differ has provided me a great voice to describe some of my experiences here in Azerbaijan. You can find a fantastic essay adapted from the book here. That essay, in particular, gives a great summary of why Americans have a very difficult time understanding Iran and Iran’s politics. While it might be too easy to say that everything Majd offers fits neatly with Azeris as much as Iranians, his writing is clearly appropriate for understanding my time in Azerbaijan, and very clearly shows a few ways in which Azerbaijan relates to the neighbors to the south.


Written by Aaron

October 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Where’s the Shift?

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Maybe you’ve read this article from CNBC Magazine already. It’s a fairly general article, called “Power Shift”, giving an overview of political and economic movements over the past decade and, more specifically, over the past year in Azerbaijan. There aren’t a whole lot of new or surprising facets of the article, but there are some interesting notes, such as this one:

Last year, the UK invested almost £1bn in the country or 51.9% of total foreign investment in Azerbaijan; BP, the oil giant, accounted for the vast majority of this. The next biggest investor was the US (9%), with Turkey contributing 3.6%.

That’s an impressive drop-off. Obviously, investments from oil companies are going to be the lion’s share of investments in a petrostate, but I can imagine that as Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves rise in importance, countries like China and India will want to muscle their way into the discussion, using foreign investment to build the relationship. Over the past year, China has started a few initiatives in Azerbaijan, including a new Confucious Institute in Baku. For what it’s worth, a lovely pedestrian boulevard was made here in Lənkəran back about 2005 or 2006, though I hear that the Chinese who built it received quite a bit of racist grief while they were here. And I’ve said before (as well as Eli) that Mandarin Chinese might be a more advantageous language for Azerbaijani students to learn.

Another interesting set of tidbits was is this one:

A huge international sea port is also being built on the Caspian to facilitate oil shipments from Kazakhstan. An international airport at Gabala is planned, while a terminal is being added to Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku. Tourism is expanding, thanks to the construction of several new hotels and resorts in Baku and along the coast.

Seaport? Check. That makes sense to me. That might be very helpful in turning Azerbaijan’s geography into a more advantageous asset, as I expressed here. An international airport in Gabala (Qəbələ)? This is a little confusing. I don’t mean to say that international airports are a bad thing, but let’s recall Azerbaijan’s size and it’s needs. Baku’s international airport is already more than satisfying the country’s needs and is scheduled for an expansion. No one will be complaining about the crazy crowds at Heydar Aliyev Airport except maybe during Eurovision. And there are already a bunch of airports all over Azerbaijan, including Zaqatala, Gəncə, and our very own in Lənkəran. I think there are more, too. Adding another sounds a little silly, unless there is something I’m missing here.

Also, that Azerbaijani tourism thing is creeping in again, with the fuzzy numbers to back it up. The article goes on to list the hotel projects in Baku that are aimed at tourism, supposedly. From my vantage point, this is definitely a situation where hoteliers are banking on supply-side forces to keep them afloat. I would be surprised if demand is even a blip on the screen. Further in the article, references are made to a magical million-tourist number. There is no way there are a million tourists even coming to Azerbaijan. We’ve already looked at this. I’m not sure how 17,000 turns into 1,000,000. And let’s not discuss the visa issue, either. Our esteemed writer, Pamela Ann Smith, probably needs to do a little more fact-checking on that score.

One of the things I do like about the article, though, is this note on education:

Noting that many Azeri students are currently studying in the UK, Alp adds that British universities are now “looking to form joint venture partnerships” with Azeri institutions to provide “world-class engineers, scientists and linguists.”

If they are sincere about that, it would be a major boost to Azerbaijan. Any way to boost the educations system here would be fantastic. As it stands today, the leading organizations and companies know that Azerbaijanis are not trained well enough here in their own country to be able to compete on an international level. From Doctorate education on down, no education level is even satisfactory for Azerbaijanis. If, however, partnerships like this mentioned above can flower, Azerbaijan could actually have the human capital to provide for itself. Instead, the major construction projects all go to foreign firms with foreign workers and top management in many companies has to be foreign to be run effectively. This goes for nearly every sector, from banking to tourism to agriculture to manufacturing and construction.

The article does highlight some possible future bright spots, which is encouraging as agriculture and other non-oil sectors grow. Being able to strengthen sectors outside of oil and gas is going to be key to actually developing a more equitable and democratic Azerbaijan. Until then, however, we’ll have to watch as the monopolies and the wealthy “super-elite” have their way with Azerbaijan’s resource wealth.

Written by Aaron

October 4, 2011 at 4:30 pm

As If You Hadn’t Heard Enough About Visas to Azerbaijan

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We have talked on this blog about visas way too much. You will be happy when this blog ceases to talk about visas to Azerbaijan. Yet, again, Azerbaijan and visas are in the news. You will soon be able to get an e-Visa:

Azerbaijani Culture Ministry Apparatus head Firudin Gurbanov said e-visas for tourists arriving in Azerbaijan maybe issued from 2012.

Work is already underway in this direction, he said.

Persons will appeal and receive a response electronically in Azerbaijan in accordance with the international experience. Key technical issues must be solved for transition to this system,” Gurbanov said.

This is a fascinating development. Before I had heard of it here a few months ago, I had no idea what an e-Visa was. To find out, I found myself flipping through the Kingdom of Cambodia’s e-Visa page, a scintillating read (they even have customer testimonials!) If Azerbaijan is actually going this way, that could mean positive developments in the ease of travel to this country, a necessary requirement if the government ever wants to make good on their pledge to promoting tourism. This is certainly a positive development for the upcoming talks with the European Union about the Azerbaijani visa regime, and a good sign for Eurovision fans.

The other note that I picked up was slipped in right at the end of that article:

Now, foreigners arriving in Azerbaijan will be able to obtain visas at the airport.

After this debacle, I cannot say if I’m glad, or even more frustrated, to hear this news.

Written by Aaron

September 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Azeris in Georgia, Staying Put

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I hadn’t come across this story until today, but I find it a fascinating dynamic concerning migration, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, from Eurasianet:

Economic collapse, war and nationalist government policies prompted thousands of Georgia’s ethnic Azeris to head to neighboring Azerbaijan during the early 1990s. About 80 percent of the remaining estimated 350,000 ethnic Azeris in Georgia live in the southeastern region of Kvemo Kartli, a predominantly agricultural area.

The Azerbaijani government has no specific data on how many ethnic Azeri migrants are currently in Azerbaijan, but migration expert Azer Allahveranov, president of Baku’s Eurasian Platform for Civic Initiatives, a non-governmental organization, estimates that more than 95 percent of the 100,000 Georgian citizens believed to live in the country are ethnic Azeris.

Faced with problems legalizing their status and settling “successfully” in Azerbaijan, some of these migrants now are returning to Georgia, said Aliovsat Aliyev, director of the Baku-based Migration Center, a non-profit think-tank. Improved economic and living conditions in Georgia, relative to the early 1990s, are contributing to the trend, he added.

When you travel from the far western tip of Azerbaijan, from Qazax in to Georgia, on your way to Tbilisi, thats ethnic Azeri territory. And not only in that area, but also in areas north of the finger that ends with Balaken. Likewise, there are significant ethnic Georgian populations in those northwestern Azerbaijan regions bordering the Caucasus neighbors.

One of the reasons this above article is interesting to me is that I’ve met quite a few Azerbaijanis who were born in Georgia or who still have family there, but have since moved to Baku or other regions (but mostly Baku). Rahman, the branch manager at Lənkəran’s AccessBank is one. We have some Peace Corps staff, as well, who follow that same line. At least one of our Azeri language instructors was born in Georgia and moved south.  Interestingly, none of these people know the Georgian language, so it seems integration that way wasn’t really a high priority.

Another interesting part about that story, beyond those personal connections, is how the Azerbaijani government sees those ethnic Azeris residing in Georgia. The article posits that Azerbaijan would actually prefer for those Azeris to stay in Georgia in an effort to increase Azerbaijani influence in the Georgian government. Azerbaijan wants to use another state’s democracy to its advantage. Smooth move, slick. And, incredibly, the article describes how the incentives currently favor those Azeris staying in Georgia, and more Azeris moving back there:

A group of Azerbaijani entrepreneurs, for example, is planning to open hospitals in Georgia, added Shovgi Mekhtizade, an attaché at the Azerbaijani embassy in Tbilisi, the Turan news agency reported.

In addition, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) is providing economic incentives for Azeris to remain in Georgia. The company’s Georgian subsidiary, SOCAR Energy Georgia, one of Georgia’s largest investors, has created about 3,000 new jobs in Georgia; half of those jobs are held by ethnic Azeris, SOCAR Energy Georgia Chief Executive Officer Mahir Mammadov told Vesti.az in a June 12 interview.

“I know many such people who did return to Georgia,” said Mammadov in reference to ethnic Azeri migrants. “If earlier there was talk that Azerbaijanis and Georgians are leaving Georgia, I think now there will be talk about their return.”

Some ethnic Azeris migrants complained that Baku hampered their ability to resettle by erecting bureaucratic barriers. Azerbaijani legislation does not permit dual citizenship, and many Azeri migrants “face red-tape and corruption” to receive the papers needed to stay and work in Azerbaijan, according to one migrant.

The movement back to Georgia probably isn’t going to be huge, as Azerbaijan is the country with the more rapidly growing economy. Yet, the movement is still significant. One wonders how Azeris there feel about the differences in the political and corruption situations from one side of the border to the other. Also, if the Azerbaijani health system is any indicator, you may want to remain skeptical about those hospitals.

Written by Aaron

September 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm

More On Azerbaijani Visas, Regarding Eurovision

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Eurovision is pushing for the change they want to see in the Azerbaijani visa process. Obviously, having a simplified or more loose visa regime is a bonus for Eurovision, as having the song contest in a country with difficult visa rules makes the coming attraction much more difficult to fill with wild fans. There are many good reasons why a country like Azerbaijan should have an easier visa process, like the tourism industry Azerbaijan wants to develop. Apparently, though, those reasons haven’t made a strong enough argument. In their stead, here is Eurovision to make the case:

Eurovision Executive Supervisor Jon Ola Sand was speaking to RFE/RL in an exclusive interview on September 1, as the contest’s governing body, the so-called Reference Group, met in Baku for the first time.

“It’s paramount for us that during Eurovision weeks, people be able to come to Azerbaijan; the contestants, the delegations, journalists be able to come in and work freely,” Sand said. “It is very important for us. We have asked the government to simplify the visa rules. It should be easy to come and work here.”

Last October, the Azerbaijani authorities toughened visa regulations for foreigners. Until then, it was possible to obtain a visa on arrival at Baku airport.

I don’t think there is much to say about this except that we should wait and see. Whatever change probably won’t come very soon, but I’m interested in seeing if the Azerbaijani government responds at all, either positively or negatively, to the request.

Written by Aaron

September 4, 2011 at 3:43 pm

We Are All Self-Appointed Experts

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As I’ve been thinking about this idea, I at first wanted to make a reasoned generalization about Azerbaijanis. And then I thought about it more and I wanted to make that reasoned generalization about Americans, specifically Peace Corps Volunteers. The reality is that it applies to almost everyone: we are all self-appointed experts.

This is not a groundbreaking idea. Nobody is stunned by that brief revelation. Yet, I don’t think most people realize how often we put ourselves in that “expert” position without knowing it (and yes, I’m aware that my blogging at all is me putting forth my ideas in at least a pseudo-expert fashion, which is sort of meta). I also don’t think that we as Peace Corps Volunteers take a moment to step back and realize what we are doing in our roles with organizations in our host countries. I can only imagine how widespread this affliction is in wider world of ‘Development’.

The clarifying example for this tendency is CBT Azerbaijan, Mason’s localized tourism experiment here. I’ll describe it briefly, but you should read more about it here. Mason, while up in mountainous Lerik, next to Lənkəran, had the luxury of lots of spare time to roam the mountains and the small villages hidden within. With his wandering, he started to build a network of contacts in various villages. Eventually, he came upon the idea of Community-Based Tourism as a legitimate business venture for the Azerbaijan tourism industry. With families located in various villages, he could hook them up with tourists who wanted a homestay experience with a local Azerbaijani family (oh, we Western romantics). The finances sort themselves out: local managers get a cut, the families get a cut, the money that comes in stays in these communities. It’s an eloquently simple design.

This is where our self-appointed experts come in. As Mason talks more and more about this project (which has really taken off, by the way), the most common reaction when talking to either Azeris or PCVs or anyone, for that matter, is that Mason gets an earful of how to change things in CBT Azerbaijan. It’s a fascinating moment: “Hey, that’s a great idea! This is how you should change it!” I cannot claim to be innocent of this reaction. Inevitably, the proffered ideas are well-meaning but either have already been thought of or don’t really fit in with the goals and model of CBT Azerbaijan. You can see how this might become a little irksome.

That is mildly interesting. More interesting, however, is that this is almost exactly what we as Peace Corps Volunteers know is the wrong approach to making any sort of constructive changes with our local colleagues and organizations. I remember during Pre-Service Training talking about how to ask appreciative questions and how not to approach improving the organizations we work with. It doesn’t really work as we want, where we would just offer suggestions and have them quickly taken up. Instead, we need to ask questions and build relationships so that these nuggets of advice are not seen as attacks but as little packages of knowledge and experience and trust.

It works for both our Azeri colleagues and our American friends. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we probably too often get in this mode of thinking we are experts (and we may well be!) without taking a moment to ask a few questions and get to know a project before throwing out our advice haphazardly, inevitably leading to frustration. I can walk into AccessBank in Lənkəran and spit out a bunch of advice, but it will likely come out flat if I haven’t already shown an interest in whatever issue I’m pontificating about. Certainly, it’s a well-meaning reaction. Yet, we still have to remember to take that step back from our experience and realize how we are coming off to the recipients of our likely-unsolicited advice. I think it’s pretty clear that this goes for anyone, but since we’re talking about Peace Corps Volunteers whose training contains this lesson, expectations can probably be set a little higher for us in this regard.

Written by Aaron

August 4, 2011 at 11:51 am

How a Management Style Can Disempower Employees

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One of the difficulties of being a Peace Corps Volunteer with a Western-style bank such as AccessBank is that you sometimes forget that the organization you are working with is made up of people who are not necessarily familiar with Western-style business and management practices. That may sound harsh, but it’s true and it sometimes hits you with surprising clarity. I am fully aware that there are problems with managers in every country and from people of any background, yet I think this story goes a long way towards understanding some of the glaring shortcomings I see in almost every organization I’ve come across in Azerbaijan when it comes to the management hierarchy.

This story happened a few weeks ago, so I’ve had some time to process it and tell it to a few other folks. At the bank, I had gone in and the branch manager asked me to come chat with him a for a few minutes. He started by asking me a leading question: “Which department of our branch seems to be the weakest?” Now, there aren’t a whole lot of choices here, but if you know my branch manager at all, you know that he’s looking for a specific answer. I could have tried to derail this by giving an answer he wasn’t looking for, but I also wanted to see where it was going: “Customer Service”.

After that was established, we started talking about what we could do to start making some improvements. This is almost exactly what you want to hear as a PCV, my observational skills and previous experience in business, as well as my being an outsider, coming together to help give feedback and generate ideas on how we can improve certain parts of the business. We talked for a few minutes about how to go about talking with the Customer Service Department employees. We decided to have an after-work meeting of the employees that I would lead. Rahman wanted me to focus on how they aren’t doing their jobs well. I, instead, wanted to expand on that a bit. I laid out a basic meeting with three goals: to discuss the department’s strengths, to identify the department’s weaknesses, and to brainstorm some ideas we could implement to remedy these weaknesses.

The meeting started out great. I just facilitated their discussion. I had come up with my own list of their strengths and weaknesses. They hit on almost all of the strengths I had written down. And, with a little coaxing, they identified well their weaknesses (though, at first they decided they had no weaknesses. I then changed the question to “Imagine you are a client; now what would a client say are the weaknesses?” That worked well.) We then moved on to some ideas to make improvements. This is just where I think the disconnect between management and employees comes in. The employees came up with some good ideas, three feasible, effective ideas: putting up signs in the branch to identify the service areas; putting someone at the door as a greeter to help facilitate getting clients to the right place; and rearranging where employees sit to make the processes more efficient. Great, right?

Well, the branch manager was sitting there while this was going on and he said nothing. After a few minutes of discussion, the group moved on to other topics. I tried to bring them back to what we could do to implement their ideas. They told me that they had already figured that they couldn’t actually implement the ideas and started discussing other things. What?! I asked about the specific ideas, and they pulled up and shot down each one. The branch manager continued to say little to nothing at all. The meeting ended with the employees deciding to do nothing. That was a stunning result for me.

What happened? In my opinion, this is where management failed miserably. At any point, the branch manager could have stepped in and said, “Yes, we can try that.” The employees didn’t really even ask him if he would help out. If I had been the manager in that situation, I feel like it would be my job to step up and say, “Okay, you’ve given some ideas, so now I’ll do my job and see if they are feasible.” A manager’s job should be to put his or her employees in the best position possible to succeed, right? Not so, here. After hearing ideas about how to make the customer service employees’ jobs easier, the branch manager did nothing to support them.

This is still a bit stunning to me. Let me clarify: this is not surprising. This is not surprising because I’ve seen enough of Azerbaijani organizations to know that the attitude I would like to see in managers is non-existent. Ideas not put forward by the manager don’t get support. It would almost be like losing face to accept and implement an idea someone else came up with, as though it was embarrassing not to have come up with the idea themselves. The manager in this situation has full power to make any of the three ideas above happen, nearly overnight. Yet, he did not exercise that at all. To be fair, a bit of blame also goes to the employees who are too timid to demand attention from their branch manager, but I still think the majority of the responsibility falls on the manager for allowing a demoralizing office culture like this to persist. After the meeting, all of the employees felt it was a waste of time because their were no tangible results. Instead, they just got another view of how the branch manager will not support them in their jobs.

I’m not so naive as to think we don’t have management issues in America. We all probably have great examples of where management has failed us in our jobs. Yet, the pervasiveness in Azerbaijan of the attitudes described above is almost crippling. It means that the manager must be a master at directing all of the operations, since he won’t rely on others or delegate any responsibilities. It inhibits initiative by employees. I see this as coming from the Azerbaijani culture, itself, where a patriarchal need to control everything within your sphere overrides a lot of the constructive approaches that could be adopted. I know that that’s a harsh evaluation, but in a business setting, that’s the sort of thing that will severely weaken your ability to adapt and improve. Obviously, I can’t fix this problem by myself or in the space of two years. But it also puts me in this odd position of feeling like I have to be an advocate for the employees to the manager. Not exactly a position I relish as a Peace Corps Volunteer.