Baku

[slideshow] Baku is hot in the summer, windy by the water and surrounded on all sides by Azerbaijan. On one side is the rest of the country, with its towns and villages, its sacks of tea leaves and vans loaded to the roof with watermelons. On the other is the Caspian Sea, full of oil, gas, and foreigner experts, with BP’s floating oil city and a rumored, “secret” island for rolling dice and God knows what.

Right between the two, with its building booms, its silly nightclubs, and its fancy for flowing fountains sits Baku. When you talk about people’s aspirations, there is the constant shadow of institutionalized corruption (you hear about it constantly, knowingly, obliquely or directly, but it’s always someone else). It feeds and thwarts ambition and forces Azeris to seek stable jobs (almost always with the government), to learn their place, to leave or to continue their long history of adaptation.

It is a very safe city, at least in the center – the suburbs are much tougher, but I haven’t ventured out there often. There are many help-wanted signs. The boutiques, fountains, cultural institutions, and government buildings are lit from below all night – a reminder of steady electricity as much as of regal splendor. It strikes me as gaudy some nights and beautiful on others, but it does seem appropriate for a city born and fed by combustibles to glow in the darkness.

“Azeris are lazy,” I was told by a Canadian oil technician in the airport when I was waiting for my flight into the country from Tbilisi. I still don’t believe it, but I do see a lack of initiative that probably has more to do with diminished expectations than an inability to work.

I hear it from foreigners who live here, from academics who study in the local institutions and from Azeris themselves.

The Canadian also told me Azeris will steal anything that isn’t nailed down. “They’ll steal your eyes and come back for the sockets,” were his exact words. This is a contradiction. If they are greedy – and what people in the entire world, doesn’t aspire to get rich? – then they wouldn’t be lazy, unless there was another factor. That factor is corruption.

Corruption isn’t just missing money or nepotism. It poisons motivation indirectly as well. If you didn’t get the job you applied for, it’s easy to assume, “oh, well I guess they’re too corrupt to hire me,” instead of realizing you may need to work harder or change your approach.

Many Azeris have left, more want to, and some are eager to fight for improvements. But few see a path to something better, even as they labor for it. I asked one opposition journalist if he thought things would improve in twenty years when this generation of ministers and officials is gone but he waved the question aside: “In twenty years, I’ll be fifty years old. I want to live in a just country while I can still be someone in it.”

There is a large class of rough taxi drivers and laborers, part-time Bakuvians, who see a rich, powerful city rising all around them, with the colorful flag of Azerbaijan (the largest flag in the world) flying proudly over the parks and fountains, and the shoreline Boulevard, with its imported “American grass” lawns and its steady flow of rich Russian tourists.

They are eager to talk about the “lost territories” of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions, lost to Armenia in a wrenching war that flared through the early 1990s. Many of the poorest residents are refugees from these regions and their nationalism is largely wrapped up in the hope that with enough power and gall, the young state of Azerbaijan will retake their former homes. But the war and chaos of that period also emptied Baku of many of its most vibrant citizens, leaving behind a shell of wealth and an uneasy brew of nostalgia and anger.

Outside Baku, there is another mindset altogether. Family is the center, joined in a village that looks inward, with each season bringing prosperity or desperation, along with the changes in temperature.

I’ve also spent time in villages that function like a feudal fiefdom, with the main government autocrat living in a not-so-mini-palace, while anyone off his good side has trouble even finding work – which probably contributes to the country’s urbanization.

Many people have made new compromises with status quo, but they also tell me they participate in the nepotism to give their children a path to grow up abroad.

I’ve also met the occasional young Azeri who is full of optimism for his or her country and see its best days ahead. They are eager to replace the Soviet mentality that still dominates the institutions.

But before all that, let's get some basics out of the way. Azeris are as friendly, as hospitable and kind, as quick to seize a moment, whether for a joke or a sale, as anyone in the Caucasus. Nationalism is not as prominent here as Georgia. I do not mean this in the positive or negative sense, just that in Georgia you are, and will consistently be, reminded of the country you are in. In Azerbaijan, which has sat relatively quietly between the Russian, Persian and Ottoman Empires for centuries, there is less invested in its decidedly brief experience as a nation-state.

That’s not to say the mere mention of Nagorno-Karabakh won’t trap you into an uncomfortable conversation, but there is something slower, less dynamic, but also less forceful about Azeris’ self-perception. If Turkey annexed Azerbaijan, the majority of the taxi drivers I’ve spoken to would be fine with it, if not overjoyed. I get the feeling they are proud of their country, but don’t quite believe it exists either.

And a final note about writing about Azerbaijan. When I walk along the busy streets to the “sovetskiy” (Soviet) neighborhood where I live (which is still largely turn of the century buildings with balconies crowding the air and pouring vines onto the windows below) I notice happy people going about their lives, spanking children, playing dominoes or shooing cats around. It’s very easy as a foreigner to notice the problems in a country, because the problems here are so noticeable and different from our own.

Soviet problems, like bureaucratic malaise or a lack of political dynamism, is obvious to a westerner. But our own system would seem just as obviously incorrect to many of them. The idea that a man can burn a Koran – and even warn everyone about it – strikes many people here as absurd. They grasp the concept of freedom of speech, but they see this recent example as the ugly reality of our civilization. A lack of regard for basic notions of respect and understanding.

I have no desire to enter into a debate on which civilization is better because, among other issues, I have no idea which “civilization” Azerbaijan belongs to. I will say however, that my criticism are to be taken as just that – a foreigner looking at the country with the vocabulary and mindset of the people who I assume are reading this entry.

Some days though, like when I watch an old man observing cats mate on a distant roof without emotion, I forget all that. I forget who I am even, and just enjoy my inability to understand what my eyes can see.