Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category

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

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

The Words ‘Feminism’ and ‘Feminist’ in Azerbaijan

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Feminism is not a word I often use with my close Azerbaijanis. Not that I don’t want to talk about topics or problems in the feminine realm, but it just doesn’t come up that much. Yet, in the moments that the words “feminist” or “feminism” have arisen, my female Azeri friends have been quick to distance themselves from the concepts. I’ve been trying to think of why this could be-what makes being a “feminist” so undesirable? I’m fairly certain that in America, you can’t not be a feminist without being considered fringe right-wing (think Phyllis Schlafly).

The only explanation I can come up with is that in traveling the miles and miles to Azerbaijan, the concepts of feminism have lost the history that started with your Susan B. Anthonys and Frances Perkinses, followed by the Eleanor Roosevelts and Betty Friedans. A set of connotations that set forth examples of women pioneering in fields previously off-limits to them, women making their own choices about their roles in society both personally and publicly, or women breaking stereotypes that come with gender seem to have been shed as the word feminist arrived in Azerbaijan. Instead, I’m theorizing that the words have picked up connotations that are limited to the role feminism has played in changing perceptions of sexuality in the West.

I think if all feminism had to offer was the Feminist Sex Wars, then saying that feminism ain’t your thing isn’t too far-fetched. Or if feminism offered only a prescription for strong women who have to fill all-pioneering roles as liberated working women with absolute control over their personal, family, and public lives, then rejecting that doesn’t sound too harsh, either. Yet, the way I see feminism manifesting itself as a positive influence here in Azerbaijan is as a concept that embraces women being able to make their own choices, creating their own opportunities, about their lives. I talked about this idea previously in a post about social expectations, defining success for women, and the roles we play in an evolving culture. This above discussion is just a smaller part of that post, where we look at a particular feature of the social fabric and the words we use to define ourselves, and how those words set up our social expectations.

So, I’m not totally sure what these words ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ mean to young Azerbaijanis today, but it strikes me that the concepts behind these words, though valuable for today’s Azerbaijan, don’t have quite the same meaning we want to ascribe to them from our US perspective.

Written by Aaron

August 30, 2011 at 7:08 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

Women’s Forum Social Correspondents: Trained

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This past weekend was a big one: Bailey and I worked with the folks at Women’s Forum to put on a blogging and social media training for six new social correspondents. As I described earlier here, these new social correspondents will be writing articles on their own blogs, to be picked up and published by Women’s Forum. Our project even got picked up in the news, if with a little bit of misinformation:

The project office reports that master classes were delivered on 23 and 25 July by journalist Liya Bayramova, entrepreneur Nigar Kocharli, psychologist Javad Effendi and blogger Farid Sadikhova-Buyuran. Trainees were selected from 56 candidates who submitted their applications and passed individual interviews. During the training course the young authors were suggested to get acquainted with the basics of web-journalism, develop writing skills, work in a team, and create their own blogs. Immediately after graduation, they will start to work as social correspondents. Their functions will include continuous updating of blogs with fresh articles, coverage of critical social issues and their promotion in domestic Internet.

I’m not sure who was delivering master’s level classes, and I’m not sure who graduated either. That must have been another Women’s Forum Social Correspondent training. There were some writing sessions and we gave out certificates, though.

After discussing blog writing and blog layouts and how to build online communities, we talked about their plans going forward. Because the program itself continues through December, Bailey and I will be mentors for the bloggers, meeting with them regularly to make sure things stay on track and they continue to improve their writing and their blogs, overall.

I do have just one specific observation about the training: I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a training that was conducted in three languages – Azerbaijani, English, and Russian. We didn’t really plan it out that way. Instead, Bailey and I just did the training in English because all of our trainees were good English speakers. The guest speakers spoke Russia, Azeri, or English based on their preference and the preference of the group. One of them was changing languages after almost every question, depending on in which language the question was asked. That was bizarre. Cool, but bizarre.

For a slideshow of some pictures from the training, see below. Read the rest of this entry »