Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Archive for the ‘Politics’ 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.

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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 Does Azerbaijan Belong?

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The CRRC has a new report out detailing gender attitude differences in the Caucasus and comparing those attitudes to the wider set of data from the Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Project. What you get is a picture that lifts up the differences in Caucasus countries in contrast to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The takeaway:

Armenia and Azerbaijan tend to emphasize more traditional gender roles, and in global terms are often closer in attitude to Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Georgia, meanwhile, is more inclined to aspire to gender equality, and in this sense is closer to countries in Western Europe and the Americas. However, the picture is complicated and, using other data from the Caucasus Barometer, the report shows that gender perceptions in the South Caucasus are deeply nuanced, and do not fit into a conventional picture of equality versus tradition.

The report (pdf) is a quick and informative read. What I’m interested in here, though, is what is not in this report. One of the glaring absences in the Pew report is data from Central Asia. For obvious reasons, countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are rather inaccessible. And from what I can tell, it looks like Uzbekistan last participated in the Global Attitudes Survey in 2002. Not exactly a recipe for a reliable data set from Central Asia. Kyrgystan and Tajikistan aren’t represent at all, nor are Iran and Afghanistan. Without the work of the CRRC, we wouldn’t have comparable information for Georgia, Armenia, or Azerbaijan, either.

I’m willing to posit, though, that if we had that information, we would see vast similarities between Azerbaijan and the Central Asian countries. I’d even go so far as to say that in addition to the geographical grouping we give Azerbaijan, with the other Caucasus countries, it’d be appropriate to say that Azerbaijan fits right in in Central Asia. Websites such as NewEurasia, a recent find that I’m really enjoying, leave their reporting to only the countries on the other side of the Caspian (not sure if that’s just because they don’t have an Azerbaijan source or not). It’s fairly obvious why I think that Azerbaijan shares so much with those countries: Muslim populations, former Soviet states, natural resource wealth, strong Russian leadership legacies, and more. If you’ve read Chasing the Sea, an account from a former PCV in Uzbekistan, the similarities, all the way from food and clothing choices to government apparatuses, are striking. Reading Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs to Differ offers more similarities that can extend throughout countries of the former Persian Empire, which would includes a significant chunk of the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as the Caucasus. The influences from the Russians, Iranians, and the myriad of other conquerors of the region have left impressions that mark the entire region.

This post doesn’t really have a larger point to make. What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s completely legitimate to include Azerbaijan in the region of “Central Asia”, even though it’s geographically separated from the typical list of countries because it’s on the wrong side of the Caspian. Whether it’s a fruitful comparison to make, I’m not sure, but I’d be interested in seeing information like that gleaned from the CRRC and the Pew surveys produced to compare the typical Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan.

Written by Aaron

October 19, 2011 at 5:54 am

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 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

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