Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Archive for the ‘Development’ Category

Lankaran and Monterey: What does it mean to be a ‘sister city’?

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I don’t really understand what it means to be a Sister City, but that’s apparently what Lənkəran and Monterey, California are now. Wikipedia tells me that sister cities form agreements “in geographically and politically distinct areas to promote cultural and commercial ties.” However, it doesn’t really go into what that practically means. Ideally, yeah, cultural and commercial ties sound great, but I would love to see the first delegation from Monterey arrive here at Lənkəran International Airport (really, it exists) to get a look at their new sister city. I am, regardless, a strong proponent of the idea that increasing ties to the outside world for Azerbaijan is almost always a good thing, at least in this direction. I’m assuming that these ties aren’t ways to smuggle the best pomegranate in the world to Monterey.

It does seem like they had a nice way to celebrate this newfound relationship in Monterey, inviting an Azerbaijani artist from Delaware to display some of his artwork:

The paintings of green mountains, lush meadows and tranquil lakes and rivers hanging in Colton Hall this weekend evoke the landscapes of California. But these works by Yavar Rzayev actually depict the artist’s native Azerbaijan, a country between Russia and Iran that is the home of Lankaran, Monterey’s newest sister city.

The art exhibit forges another tie between Monterey and the land of this sister city halfway around the world, which share similarities in environment and culture. The inspiration to connect the cities arose from a friendship between Monterey councilwoman Nancy Selfridge and Shafag Mehraliyeva, the wife of a Naval Postgraduate School student from Azerbaijan. Selfridge said Mehraliyeva kept drawing parallels between Lankaran and Monterey: Lankaran hosts a military presence, and has a large fishing industry due to its location on the Caspian sea.

And in other ‘Sister City’ news, it looks like Baku’s Nasimi District, a section of the city that includes the most touristy sections, has recently twinned with San Diego:

The Nasimi district in Baku and Switzer Highland in San Diego, California were declared twin regions for the first time in history on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of restoration of Azerbaijan’s independence.

The event was conducted in the San Diego city council on the 20th anniversary of restoration of Azerbaijan’s independence. Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Todd Gloria announced a special declaration, signed by members of the council, the Azerbaijani Consulate General in Los Angeles told Trend on Wednesday.

San Diego should be jealous that they missed out on pairing up with Lənkəran. Again, I still have no idea what this actually means. Maybe someone can enlighten me on the tangible benefits of Sister City-hood?

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Written by Aaron

October 24, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Azerbaijan Abroad, Playing the Diplomatic Game

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This past weekend, The Guardian‘s Comment is Free article by Mary Fitzgerald had some pointed words about Azerbaijan and its free speech record. She attended a reception in Westminster City Hall held by Azerbaijan that night, headlined by Ell & Nikki, the Eurovision darlings. The evening was packed full of typical Azerbaijani PR material and she describes her take on that evening in England and its reflection on what is happening in Azerbaijan thus:

Apologists for the regime – and I met many that night – will tell you that the last presidential election was not “quite as bad” as the ones preceding it. The evidence supports this – yet all have been marred by violence, intimidation, allegations of fraud and suppression of dissent. Last year, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that journalists and bloggers “work in a climate of endemic impunity and under persistent pressure from the authorities”. A number of activists are currently staging a hunger strike in protest at the harsh sentences meted out to opposition activists involved in a quashed demonstration in April this year.

It’s embarrassing, to say the least, for those who want to befriend this energy-rich republic. Responding to the April incident, the European parliament’s president Jerzy Buzek called for the release of all political prisoners in Azerbaijan, and stressed that Azerbaijan’s relationship with the EU “would become even stronger with more progress on human rights and political freedoms”.

So, not really in praise of Azerbaijan’s promise of growth and development, you see.

Ms. Fitzgerald’s criticism isn’t a new thing around here, but it does speak to a reality that people in the US, and the West generally, need to keep in mind about Azerbaijan: just as with any other country, their functions abroad can betray the realities of governance at home. The leadership here in Azerbaijan is likely fully aware of how they act abroad and conscientious of the image they wish to portray to the outside world and to foreign governments. From the message they deliver about Azerbaijan’s fruition as a new democracy all the way down to the cut of their suits, these folks are no fools and can probably play the international diplomatic game as well as anyone.  It’s to their credit that they have a solid grasp of their diplomatic missions abroad.  You can’t fault them for trying to portray an appealing and progressive face to the rest of the world.

To illustrate this, you don’t have to go far. Recently, President Ilham Aliyev sat down with David Frost (of Frost-Nixon fame) for a somewhat lengthy interview here in Baku. If you can get past Frost’s strange mannerisms and cadence to actually get to Aliyev’s answers, you’ll find the interview an interesting look at how Azerbaijan is able to portray itself to the world. Then go back and contrast with Mary Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the situation in Azerbaijan.

Written by Aaron

October 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Photojournalism: The Lives of the Pipeline

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After two years of living here in Azerbaijan, I still enjoy the photo essays and documenting of Azerbaijani lives as they are affected by various contexts, such as a massive oil pipeline. There are so many aspects of living in Azerbaijan that few will ever witness that we can only rely on those willing to travel here and take the pictures, write the stories. Last year, Amanda Rivkin was one of those people. She took a grant from National Geographic to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline to document the lives of the pipelines route.

This time around, it turns out Amanda is back for more. She just couldn’t get enough of Azerbaijan and its (and Georgia’s and Turkey’s) pipeline. She’ll be hanging out in Azerbaijan until next summer on a Fulbright scholarship, documenting the lives of the pipeline. This is an opportunity to get a look at parts of Azerbaijan that even a rugged adventurist might not be able to see. In her past work here at the BTC, Amanda shot images even the biggest journalism players couldn’t access.

You can check out Amanda’s work by going to her website and flipping through her pictures. On the top left of her page, you can see what she did on the BTC last year, among others. If you’re impressed and want to see more, check out her new project page. You have an opportunity to support more work being done to document and reveal to the world the lives of people in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. We’ll be able to get a feel for the types of landscapes and lives that surround the pipeline, a geopolitically loaded project, and the conditions in which our oil-reliant world is enriched.

Written by Aaron

October 22, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Where is the Stratification in Azeri Society?

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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.

Written by Aaron

October 8, 2011 at 8:10 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

Whispers of the Village: Who Are These Americans?

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Peace Corps Volunteers in Azerbaijan know that when they arrive to their sites it’s not likely that everyone will be awaiting their arrival, open arms ready to embrace the service we are here to carry out. Most people likely are surprised by the presence of a foreigner, and then further surprised to see that the foreigner is sticking around for two years, working at a local organization, be it a school or library or, in my case, a bank. I’m here in Lənkəran, a sizable city, and I’m confident that most people would recognize me as someone who has been around a while, but probably have no idea why I am here. I can only imagine the conversations that are or are not happening about my being here. Some folks know, and I’m able to explain, to some extent, that I’m from Peace Corps and what Peace Corps is. Yet, despite all our chances to get on TV around here, and wildly popular videos like this one, most folks still don’t really know.

With that in mind, I was pointed to a fascinating read from Global Voices Turkmenistan (thanks, Ani). A discussion board took off discussing the existence of an American with a camera who’s been teaching English at a neighboring village:

I don’t know whether you have also a similar situation in the area you live but in the neighboring village an American is working as an English teacher. It is obvious that they [the American teachers] aren’t coming here because of the salary of a village school. At the celebrative ‘toy’ events he is filming everything so that some aunts (elder women) from the village started to swear: ‘The haram who should be swallowed by the earth’ [a Turkmen expression meant for someone who is wished to disappear]. He is exhausting our patience by using his camera. What are your views about them? What do you think they are doing in Turkmenistan?

It was not difficult to see this one coming:

They are learning the economic, political and social aspects of the [Turkmen] people. Hence, they are constructing a ‘vicious’ strategy. In short they learn the anatomy of the people, they learn the strengths and the weaknesses. Like in a struggle they use the opponents’ weaknesses.

And this one was a little blunt:

Who knows what their aims are. We should fear them.

Read the fuller discussion at Global Voices.

That these people are expressing distrust and fear isn’t strange. The concept of joining an organization to go live in the largely-forgotten villages of developing countries is a difficult concept for a lot of Americans to understand; even more so for the people we are living with. On my first day here at AccessBank in Lənkəran, one of the loan officers asked if I was FBI or a spy (I informed him that the FBI is domestic). A strong legacy throughout Central Asia and the former Soviet states is an understanding that foreigners are likely spies. You can imagine how this might affect one’s Peace Corps service.

The fascinating part of that discussion from Turkmenistan, however, is how it turns from the people who express fear to those who push for a more open-mindedness:

I am currently working in the Azatlyk (‘Freedom’) Farmers Union in Yoloten. I am video taping whatever I see because here it looks like Afghanistan. Am I also a spy? LOL to you. Go to see America as well, to see their villages with cameras. You won’t be called a spy. Learn and let your thinking progress. Rather than gossiping about America let your thinking grow.

And, finally, someone with knowledge of Peace Corps pipes in:

The English teachers are being sent by the Peace Corps. Likewise, our people are being sent to the States for learning English. There is nothing to be afraid of. Our people can also video tape there. I have seen with my own eyes that how many of them have been taught English. If my family had allowed me I would have brought a girl to live with us if we were a family but the relatives at home didn’t allow and the Corps said that they don’t locate their people in Ashgabat. When I asked why they said to teach the village people English and second they said it is easier to learn the Turkmen language in the villages than in the cities.

So there it is. If you read the lengthier discussion at Global Voices, you’ll see how the conversation twists from confusion and fear, crosses over to conspiracies of religious imperialism and espionage, and finally ends up with people pushing for a more open view of what’s happening as Peace Corps goes into a country.

The key here, it seems to me, is that this former Soviet space is a place where good information is incredibly hard to come by. News outlets and Facebook are closely monitored. Most people don’t have access to sources of reliable information, and those who have the information are intent on guarding it for their own purposes. You can watch this dynamic all the way from down here in my bank branch with various workers and the branch manager, all the way up to people high in the government. This is a situation that breeds confusion and fear of the unknown, because everything is unknown. No one can be sure that the messages they are receiving are true. And no one is sure that someone else doesn’t have a secret on them. As more people are able to travel from these places, expose themselves to reliable outlets, and acquaint themselves more readily with the unknown, that is when these feelings of insecurity and fear will subside.

Written by Aaron

September 22, 2011 at 8:19 am

Chopping Wood, Again

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As September rolls in, so does the truck carrying yards of wood to chop up for the winter. Today, that truck parked itself outside my apartment building and I heard the swing of the ax throughout the afternoon (accompanied by a car blaring less-than-welcome mugham music). This takes me back to the story we heard this past year regarding the man who burned down his house and sacrificed himself and his family because of the harassment he was receiving for trying to provide firewood for his family over the winter. As the season for wood-gathering commences, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting has this story, reported from Lənkəran:

Illegal logging in heavily-forested areas like Lenkoran, close to the southern border with Iran, takes place on two levels. Local residents cut firewood for heating and cooking because they lack alternative fuels, and illegal logging also takes place on a commercial scale. Opposition activists accuse local officials of shielding businesses involved in the latter trade.

Afiq Malikov, a member of the Society of Independent Ecologists of Lenkoran, said the small-time loggers acted out of need.

“Unless the regions and villages are not fully supplied with gas, then it isn’t going to be possible to solve this problem,” he said. “I live in the central town of Lenkoran, and we’ve had no gas since the end of the Soviet Union. The official statistics say 75 per cent of Lenkoran residents have gas. That figure isn’t true.”

As an aside to this story, the government of Azerbaijan has also in recent years committed to extending gas to all of its cities and villages. Still, count me among those without gas, living in an apartment building in a small city. The initiative is a worthy one and should be pursued with due vigor, but there are certainly infrastructure barriers (old) and physical barriers (mountains) to getting that done.  I’m told that gas should be available to everyone in Azerbaijan by the end of 2012.  A shift like that will be a great relief for many families and entire villages across the country.

Written by Aaron

September 14, 2011 at 2:56 pm