How Platzkart Proved a Window into Azerbaijani Political Culture

Azerbaijani flagAzerbaijan is best approached by train, preferably in platzkart. At least, that was my experience. I left Tbilisi at night en route to Baku, settling comfortably into my seat. The staff on the train were friendly, and we communicated in a cheerful mixture of Turkish and Russian. The staff spoke a blitzkrieg version of this patois, which I understood more from their body language than from their words. Each time I answered a cry went up. “Oh! She speaks Turkish.” “Oh! She speaks Russian!” It was a ridiculous considering the level of the things I was managing to say, but no matter – victory was ours. I got bedding and tea and I was not unceremoniously kicked out of bed in the middle of the night because I’d misread my ticket and taken the wrong berth.

Early on in the journey, I met another woman. She was also a foreigner, but living and studying in Baku. “I was just in Tbilisi to visit some friends,” she said. “Writers. It’s very dangerous to be a writer in Azerbaijan if you have anything to say about the government. So there’s a big Azerbaijani ex-pat community in Tbilisi.”

I sat back and got ready for the best part of platzkart – listening to other people tell me stuff.

She continued, “Azerbaijani culture is very traditional, so there’s a lot they can do to prevent you from writing about the government that isn’t sending you to jail. One of my friends is a journalist who wrote some negative stuff about the government. In response, they bugged her house and filmed her having sex with her boyfriend. Then they got her mother to publicly disown her as virginity is still a bit deal in Azerbaijan. Now she lives in Tbilisi.”

To be honest, I had known barely anything about Azerbaijan up until that point, except for what my Turkish friends had told me about similarities between Azerbaijanis and Turks, and that Azerbaijan and Armenia were locked in an ongoing conflict dating back 25 years. Other than that? – zilch, nada, nil.

I began to listen very closely.

“Azerbaijan has huge problems with freedom of the press, and with its political culture in general,” she continued. “People in Georgia sometimes think that life is better in Azerbaijan as Azerbaijanis have money because of their oil, and I like to tell them that they should just try living for a month under the Aliev’s, and see how they like it.”

“Uh, pardon?” I said. “Who are the Alievs?”

“Oh,” she said, “They’ve basically ruled Azerbaijan since the break-up of the Soviet Union. It’s a dictatorship. They have elections periodically, but they’re not democratic at all. If you say anything against them, you’ll feel the consequences.”

“Azerbaijan considers itself to be a European country,” she continued. “Which is kind of hilarious because they don’t act European at all. Last year, we had the European games here and the Azerbaijani government realized that they had a huge stray dog problem. So they set up a cull and killed all the dogs in these, like, little doggy gas chambers.* Which was obviously a problem for the Europeans who heard about it. And I mean, I understand why culturally that wasn’t a problem for the Azerbaijanis to kill the dogs this way, but they shouldn’t make pretentions to Europeanness when their entire way of functioning is different from that of Europe.”

At dawn, I gazed out the window. We were riding through the oilfields, a moon-like landscape punctuated by oil derricks, trucks, and filthy pools of water. My platzkart acquaintance said, “The best way to approach Baku is by train. When you fly into the airport and come into the city by car – well, they’ve built this huge wall around the highway to hide anything ugly from view. Azerbaijan is very concerned with how it looks. But in reality – there is a lot of poverty in the outskirts of Baku.” She was right. We began to pass muddy coloured houses with laundry hung over concrete walls. Everything was a dull, dun-coloured affair. There were no people outside, as it was early in the morning. Just a sandy abandoned-seeming settlement of dusty houses.

Blurry photographs from the train

Blurry photographs of Azerbaijan at dawn, from the train.

Homes outside of Baku.

Homes outside of Baku.

Baku couldn’t have been more different. Grandiose, wealthy, and clean, the transition from country to city by train could not have better illustrated Azerbaijan’s contradictions. Azerbaijan looks really good if you don’t look too closely, and it puts a lot of effort into looking that way.

Fairly typical old-style building in Baku. On the right hand side, you can barely see some newer skyscrapers.

Fairly typical old-style building in Baku. On the right hand side, you can barely see some newer skyscrapers, known as the Flame Towers.

 

On November 1, Azerbaijan held elections. It was the same day as Turkey’s fateful elections, so I wasn’t paying that much attention, but I did ask the Azerbaijanis I knew if they planned on voting.

“Nah,” they all said. “We know who’s going to win. Azerbaijani elections haven’t ever really been democratic.” They didn’t seem extraordinarily perturbed by this, more just used to the status quo.

Where I was staying, I ran into another European girl studying in Azerbaijan. It is fair to say that the education she was receiving in Azerbaijan was not of the academic kind. “Oh,” she said, “None of the courses that the school said were available are actually available, and the courses that are available aren’t in English. They also take us international people around Azerbaijan or make us go to the lectures of visiting lecturers. Then they take lots of pictures and promptly post them on the website, just so that they can prove they’re an international institution.”

While I was there, she went on one of these excursions. That evening, three hours after she arrived home, the pictures already graced the website of her school, groups of blonde and brunette students proving Azerbaijan’s international, European credentials.

I went back to Tbilisi after a week. A few days later I met an American guy in a coffee shop who turned out to have worked for an Azerbaijani NGO for several years. “Oh my gosh, it was so bad,” he said. “The whole Azerbaijani political culture. We were even involved in propaganda campaigns to say that the Armenian genocide didn’t happen. They would parade me around, as an American, to prove how international their NGO was. I had to get out, so I came to Tbilisi. Then I was part of a team that created a website about all of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. There are loads.”

I ran into the same guy a few weeks later at a party. “Azerbaijan is so concerned about appearances,” he said, as we drunkenly observed the dancing throngs of our peers in front of us. “During the European games, they took those old Soviet Era apartment buildings and covered them with a kind of shiny material so they would look better. The only problem was that the material was very flammable, and a few of the buildings caught on fire. Soooo….not good. And of course, their elections are not democratic. Election observers don’t even go there any longer. They’ve just given up. But there is one company that goes, out of Kansas. The government pays them to come, and they give them rave reviews for election transparency, which the government then parades around to prove their legitimacy. Before I worked in Azerbaijan, I didn’t even know you could do that.”

“There was also this time,” he went on, “where the Azerbaijani government made a documentary film. They paid for it to be shown around the world, and made sure that in the advertising they wrote things like “acclaimed around the world!” and “Shown in loads of countries!” And of course, not everybody who they approached to show the film could recognize it for the propaganda stunt that it was, so it really got shown around the world.”

No mention of the Kansas election observing agency here, but you can see a bit of Azerbaijani public relations technique. If you want a fun thing to do for a few minutes, do go check out Ilham Aliev's Twitter feed.

No mention of the Kansas election observing agency here, but you can see a bit of Azerbaijani public relations technique. If you want a fun thing to do for a few minutes, do go check out Ilham Aliev’s Twitter feed.

While Azerbaijani political culture is stifling, I had a good trip there. The people I met were mostly kind. There is more to write about Azerbaijan. Stay tuned.

To see the political prisoners in Azerbaijan, check out https://prisoners.watch/en

*I’m just repeating what I heard. She actually said, “little doggy gas chambers.”

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  1. Paul says:

    “They also take us international people around Azerbaijan or make us go to the lectures of visiting lecturers. Then they take lots of pictures and promptly post them on the website, just so that they can prove they’re an international institution.” — lol, sounds a lot like my time spent in Greece: postgrad.pe.uth.gr/pse. That said, the Greek program was actually quite good and was making honest strides in meeting international standards. More off-the-beaten-path places really do struggle with publicity and can use every leg up they can get, it’s only frustrating when the struggle ends at visibility.

    I obviously checked out his Twitter feed. It was glorious. It led me to his site where one of the key articles was how Ilham Aliyev visited Heydar Aliyev’s grave (no relation… SIKE dude’s totally his father): http://en.president.az/articles/17148. Wikipedia fills in: “As head of the KGB’s branch in Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev ran an anti-corruption campaign as a cover for purging his opponents. Following the purge, he became the undisputed leader of Azerbaijan. During this time, he acquired wealth and prestige by developing prominent ties with the Azeri mafia.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heydar_Aliyev#From_KGB_to_leader_of_Azerbaijan_SSR), and “In 2010, WikiLeaks uncovered a diplomatic cable dispatched by the US Embassy in the Republic of Azerbaijan, part of the cache of documents obtained by the WikiLeaks website, that explicitly compared Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to a mafia crime boss, leaving many to wonder if his government was actually democratic and whether people truthfully believed that Azerbaijan does not repress minority populations.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilham_Aliyev#WikiLeaks).

    I’m just left shaking my head.

    Reply

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