Towards A Good Samaritan World

Sunday, September 18, 2005

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN

I spent two and a half weeks in Baku. I was delighted to discover on my arrival that everyone in Baku, the capital, speaks Russian fluently. I felt right at home. In the provinces (or the districts, the Russian/Azerbaijani word "rayon" is hard to translate precisely) Russian is also widely spoken, but not by everyone, and others speak it badly.

Is Russian under siege in Azerbaijan? One friend of mine there said that Bakintsy (residents of Baku) won't forget Russian, "not in 100 years." Some send their children to Russian-language schools. Certainly I didn't notice in Baku what I noticed in Uzbekistan and in the Azeri provinces, that young people knew Russian less well. And I noticed a lot of conversations between Azerbaijanis that took place in Russian-- Azerbaijanis, that is, for whom Russian is apparently either a native language or so well-developed as a second language that they prefer it to their native language. There was a time when Russian aristocrats spoke French in preference to Russian. But this made them alienated from their people. It's hard for me to believe that Baku can remain Russian-speaking while the countryside forgets Russian, unless they form some sort of neo-colonial link with Russia.

A report I read ranked Azerbaijan as the most corrupt country in the former Soviet Union (a notoriously corrupt region of the world) in both of two types of corruption: state capture and administrative corruption. Locals know it, and if you get them going they'll express their outrage at the political class and the wealthy (two classes that largely overlap). Life has gotten worse for most people since the end of the Soviet Union. The birth rate has fallen sharply with the end of Soviet welfare-state-type subsidies, to well below replacement rate. The education system has deteriorated. Azerbaijan lost a war with Armenia and lost a chunk of its territory, or rather, had a chunk of its territory occupied: the Armenian occupation is not recognized, and officially the land is still part of Azerbaijan. A million refugees from those lands are now scattered throughout the country. So there's nostalgia for the Soviet times.

About the refugees, one taxi driver told me, to my horror: "They're not people." He said it repeatedly. "The Russians [who used to live here]-- very good people. The Armenians-- very good people. This trash [the refugees]-- they're sheep. Not human." To call a person a sheep is more disdainful in an Azerbaijani's mouth than to an English-speaker, since mutton is the most common food in Azerbaijani restaurants, and shepherding one of Azerbaijan's traditional livelihoods.

Azerbaijan is part of a long string of Turkic nations and minorities-within-nations, stretching from Turkey in the west, through Azerbaijan and, to the north, the Tatar people within Russia, to Turmkenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to the Uighurs who make up most of the population of Western China-- and some of whom have migrated illegally to Beijing, where I once ate their food in a Uighur restaurant on the outskirts of the city; and including also Iraq, with its Turkmen minority, Afghanistan, with an Uzbek minority, and Iran, which rules the southern half of the Azerbaijani nation. These nations share language, food-- meat dishes, with the English phrase "shish kabob" being understandable in Azeri-- religion-- Islam, generally Sunni though unlike most Turks the Azeris are (mainly) Shia, and not generally of the fundamentalist kind that characterizes Iran and the Arab world-- a certain restless style of music with a mood of longing, with lots of melodies in Phrygian mode and minor chords, and a love for ligting up the night and enjoying it. The Turks spread in the role of "barbarian conquerors" of more sophisticated empires. The post-Soviet Turkic nations bear the Soviet stamp in administration, and in the supine attitude of the populace towards political authority. The level of development in Turkic nations declines as you move from west to east, with Turkey being the wealthiest, Azerbaijan the wealthiest of the post-Soviet states, and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan much poorer.

Despite the corruption, the intra-national racism against refugees, the lack of democracy, and the problematic neo-colonial relationship with Russia, Azerbaijan has a lot going for it. First, oil. Azerbaijan's oil is only projected to last 20 years, but in the meantime it will provide a huge boost to Azeri GDP-- 20% growth a year is likely in the next few years-- reversing the post-Soviet economic decline. Second, Azerbaijan has fairly good human development indicators left over from Soviet rule; the Soviets tended to do a good job in education and health. Third, Azerbaijan has remarkably beautiful natural landscapes. My favorite city is Ismailly, which, with the foothills of the Caucasus looming above the city, reminded me of Boulder, Colorado, only not as dry. The road to Ismailly goes over high mountain ridges, and forests and farmers' fields are haphazardly interspersed in a way that is not ideal for picture postcards, but which by mingling patches of natural beauty with homely human habitation makes the landscape tug at the heart even more perhaps than the scenes of pure nature that Americans preserve in our national parks.

Azerbaijanis look to the west now. Their nostalgia for Soviet rule is offset by their resentment that Russia supplied weapons to Armenia against them, and that the Russians sent tanks into Baku in 1991 to bloodily suppress demonstrations for independence. They resent the Iranians for oppressing their fellow Azerbaijanis; also, they are a secular society thanks to the Soviet influence. Armenia is a hated enemy. The government before this one was pan-Turkic but incompetent, so the current government does not emphasize ties with Turkey. At the same time, Azerbaijanis are impressed with NATO's intervention against Milosevic on behalf of the Kosovars, the local Muslims; our lack of pro-Christian bias contrasts favorably with Russians favoritism towards Orthodox Armenians. They substituted the Latin alphabet for the Cyrillic, so much that Cyrillic can't be seen anywhere in Baku. It's amazing to think that 15 years ago Cyrillic was universal. You see words like "market" at shops (the Russian would be magazin) and "petrol" at gas stations (the Russian would be benzin).

Still, I got the sense that the country doesn't know what to believe in or to hope for.

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