Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Archive for the ‘Eurovision’ Category

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

The Caspian Dreamers Showcase Baku, Prepare for Eurovision

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Not much to say here.  Just watch:

Some additional info:

This is the brand new duo, Caspian Dreamers, made up of two Peace Corps Volunteers currently serving in Azerbaijan. Brad and Tim put their creative skills together to come up with this pop-rap soon-to-be-megahit Baku State of Mind. While nobody is going to quibble with the notion that there are some serious problems affecting Baku and Azerbaijan as a whole these days, Caspian Dreamers have put up an excellent showcase of what Baku has to offer: good food, great carpets, delicious tea, and an astounding array of new and innovative architecture. As they show in the video, there’s a lot going on in Baku these days, and there’s a lot more to come as the city ramps up for Eurovision 2012!

Written by Aaron

September 11, 2011 at 9:08 am

Links: Adventures, Education, and Eurovision 2012

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Today’s post is a smattering of links that are newsworthy or worth reading.

First, worth reading is a post from Steve describing a great-looking adventure up in the Qusar-Quba region of Azerbaijan, in the north nearer the border with Russia. Steve writes about meeting an ex-government official, a recently-returned soldier, and visiting a pir (an excellent explanation of pirs here).

Second, it looks like the Azerbaijan’s Education Minister been saying some interesting things lately: In keeping with the recent policy implementation to retire educators at age 65, creating a wave of involuntary retirements and new job openings across the country, the minister has offered to make good on his own retirement since he, too, is 65 years old. On top of that interesting offer, the minister is also seemingly interested in raising teacher salaries. I doubt that he’ll be willing to implement the 2000 AZN/month figure he seemed to grab from thin air:

“Azerbaijan has a lot of professional teachers today, but they have very low wage – AZN 200. Therefore they retire and prefer tutorship at home”, Minister of Education of Azerbaijan Misir Mardanov said during the Baku education workers conference, APA reports. Mardanov underlined the selfless labor of the Azerbaijani teachers and said if they received AZN 2000, children wouldn’t need in tutors.

Last, Eurovision 2012 has seen two major developments in the last few days: Development one is that it appears that the Baku Crystal Hall has begun construction on the Baku bay. That 25,000-seat enclosed stadium will have to be completed in less than eight months, as the finals for Eurovision are scheduled for mid-May. Hope the rush on that order doesn’t compromise things like safety standards. Development two is that the government did respond to the Eurovision committee’s request that Azerbaijan’s visa regime be simplified. Unfortunately, with a flat “no”:

Samad Seyidov, the head of Azerbaijan’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), said on September 3 that “simplifying the visa regime ahead of [the] Eurovision [contest in 2012] is not under discussion.”

It looks like the Azeri government has left some wiggle room for compromise, but as of now, it looks like they are fairly firm on continuing to implement their somewhat-cumbersome visa process. Sorry, Eurovision fans and prospective tourists.

Written by Aaron

September 7, 2011 at 1:30 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

Human Rights Hopes Still Tied to Eurovision in Azerbaijan

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It seems that no matter how many times I read about the potential for change represented by Eurovision’s being held in Azerbaijan in 2012, my skepticism remains. The most recent article about the potential for Eurovision’s spotlight to clean up Azerbaijan’s human rights record comes from our friends at RFE/RL:
Several Azerbaijani rights organizations have launched a public campaign about rights violations in the country ahead of Baku’s hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reports.…Anar Mammadli, an initiator of the campaign, told RFE/RL the activists want to see concrete changes from the Azerbaijani government.“First, political prisoners should be released from jail,” he said. “Second, we want public TV to provide more pluralism. Third, the right to freedom of assembly should be guaranteed. Fourth, we want to inform the world about violations of property rights. Finally, we are concerned about the visa regime. Foreigners coming to Azerbaijan regularly face this problem.”

Mammadli said the campaign will hold public debates, issue statements, and publish and distribute posters and other materials. He added that activists will also try to meet with the Eurovision organizing committee to press their case.

I think we can all agree that this is an ambitious agenda for a song contest.I don’t want to say that Azerbaijan will be unaffected by Baku being set at center stage in May 2012. And I also am aware that it’s probably good in these situations to set your goals high and see what you can get, instead of lowering expectations. However, a sober reading of the situation in Azerbaijan should likely lead to a more moderated view of what will happen over the next 10 months in the lead up to Eurovision 2012.Looking at the list of changes Anar Mammadli wants to see, I don’t think anyone would disagree with his assertions. Those would be fantastic changes to see in Azerbaijan, a true step forward (I’m all too familiar with that last issue regarding visas…) It’s also good to see that the campaign is focused on getting the word out. The problem, from my vantage point, is that there isn’t much demand from the people for these changes. If this were a situation where a significant chunk of the population regularly spoke out for the cause, that would be one thing. Yet, that doesn’t happen. Outside of Baku, those types of actions are non-existent. In Baku, most of the actions are weak. Whether that is because of the government’s vigilance or because of the population’s inability to work together, I think there are valid arguments both ways; both sides have some blame for these issues’ immobility.

At the same time, we still have to recognize that the government’s top priority seems to be maintaining stability. From what I think is the Azerbaijani government’s perspective, a more free right to assembly, a more free journalism, or a larger appeal to pluralism are all invitations to less stability. Since I come from a background that teaches me that increased pluralism is more stable, I can’t agree with that logic. But it’s not my decision to make, I suppose. I don’t have oil contracts to maintain, military agreements to tend to, or the fear that my neighbors to the north, the south, and the west all want to encroach on my country.

In the end, the spotlight will be on Baku and there will be some changes here in Azerbaijan because of it.  Whether those are the changes we want to see regarding human rights or infrastructure development, or it just ends up being a short-term influx of foreigners who show Azerbaijan some new faces, we should just remember to measure our expectations for the transformational power of Eurovision.

Written by Aaron

August 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm