Sunday, November 02, 2008

Lamb - it's what's for dinner

Food is always a big part of any adventure into an unfamiliar culture - it can give a traveller a great deal of insight into the customs, religion, geography and economy of anyplace they visit.

Places with a wide variety of climates and soil conditions tend to have a wider variety of food, as do places with a more diversified economy and social structure.

In places like Azerbaijan, especially in the more remote areas, meals tend to be highly influenced by local factors.

First and formost is the fact that most Azeris are Muslim, and follow the dietary restrictions of Islam to varying degrees.

For example, I didn't see pork on the menu or being served anywhere in Azerbaijan. Come to think of it, I didn't see a single pif or hog on any of the many farms we drove past either.

But alcohol doesn't seem to be a problem. Local beer and wine were always available, although it clearly wasn't as big part of their culture as is is in neighboring Georgia, which is Orthodox Christian.
There's also the fact that most agriculture and livestock are locally grown, raised, harvested, and consumed. Most of what you find on your plate was brought to an open-air market by the person who grew or raised it, and sold the same day to the person who ended up cooking it.

Lamb - it's what's for dinner!

Then there's the ultimate source - the farm. You don't see industrial-scale farming in this part of the world, and what's available is very much determined by the local geography and what's in season.

For the most part, it's not uncommon to see people farming here the way they've farmed for the entire history of the human race, with a few modern refinements. There are some tractors on the larger farms, but it's still mostly small family plots of a few acres being tilled with an animal pulling a plow.

And it's the same with livestock - no gigantic feed lots full of big beefy cattle, pumped up with hormones and anti-biotics, mulching down grain from a trough.

Here, it's still sheppards with dogs moving small heards of sheep from one patch of grass to another,and goats eating weeds in the roadside ditches.

Meat on the hoof

For sale - Pepsi, in one fridge... Meat and Cheese in the other!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sorry, Lari

Although the OSCE makes all of the logistical arrangments for the volunteers on their election observation missions, and I'm provided with funds to cover my expenses along the way, money is an issue that I have to keep in mind.

Before departing, the contractor that recruits volunteers provides each of us with funds to cover our projected expenses - including per diem for our lodging and meals, and to pay the pre-negotiated salary of our local driver and translator.

Being provided with the funding, rather than simply having the OSCE pay for everything directly, is great - because interacting financially within a foreign economy is a very enlightening experience.

Of course, this means having to carry a large amount of cash, since many of the places I've volunteered as an election observer are remote areas where ATMs are either unreliable or hard-to-find, and many of the places I end up don't take credit cards.

Fortunately, safety has never been an issue on any of my missions - I've felt more safe walking around with cash in places like Shkoder, Albania and Gyumry, Armenia than I do in most major cities here in the United States.

That's not to say there aren't complications...

For one thing, I need to change some of my Dollars to Euros when I change planes in Europe, since that's the currency our driver and translator will be paid in.

And once I arrive in-county, I need to change even more money into the local money - which is often an obscure currency that isn't exchanged anywhere except within that country.

Have you ever come back from a trip across the border to Canada or Mexico and tried to use or exchange your left-over Loonies or Pesos at a local bank?

Imagine trying to redeem Albanian Lek or Armenian Dram!

Which brings me to the currious situation I found myself in during my trip to Azerbaijan...

While getting dressed on Election Day, I put my had into my pocket and noticed a large bundle of cash...

It was a wad of Lari, the currency of the Republic of Georgia - it turns out that I hadn't worn (or, apparently, washed) those pants since my mission to Georgia last May, and had forgotten to remove some left-over money from that trip.

How much money can an absent-minded election observer forget in their pocket?

Almost 300 Lari - equal to about $200.

Unfortunately, the Georgian Lari (usually abbreviated GEL) isn't an internationally exchanged currency - even though I was in neighboring Azerbaijan, and very close to the Georgian border, the local bank wouldn't change my GEL into local currency, or anything else...

The airport when I left? No luck.

Changing planes in Vienna, where the currency exchange booths would swap Euros, Dollars, Yen, Rubbles, and a dozen other kinds of money?

Sorry, Lari...

So, if any of you is planning on a trip to Tbilisi anytime soon, let me know!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Election day - by the numbers

I always have some interesting experiences on OSCE election missions – meeting interesting people, visiting out-of-the-way places, tasting regional foods and wine, and at least learning to say “thank you” in the local language.

But the actual purpose of my participation on these trips – working as part of an international team to observe and report on the progress of the democratic process in countries formerly ruled as one-party dictatorships – is always a bit more difficult to describe because it’s a process that’s very alien to most of my friends and family.

Election Day generally begins by waking up before dawn in a strange place without hot water.

If we’ve managed to arrange for a breakfast of any kind it’s usually very basic – tea; bread, maybe with butter, honey, or cheese; perhaps a single fried egg.

After that, my partner and I are picked up by our local driver and translator and we travel to a polling place that we’ve scouted out the day before, where we watch the election workers prepare for voting to begin.

Waiting for the voters to arrive

In some countries, we are lavished with hospitality – in others, it’s more subdued.

In the Republic of Georgia last May, we were treated to an initial welcoming of tea, soon followed by several rounds of toasts with strong local wine – all before the polls opened at 8 a.m., and repeated at a dozen polling places over the course of the day.

Yes, a bit much – but it does make filling out all my observation reports a bit more lively…

Election Observation Forms

Although friendly, the Azeri people were a bit more reserved – and it makes for an interesting contrast in cultures.

The lack of alcohol may have been due to the fact that the Azeri are Muslim. Unlike followers of Islam in Persia and Arabia, the cultures I’ve experienced in Albania, Turkey and Azerbaijan seem to be fine with alcohol, although it seems to be reserved for meals – unlike the Orthodox Christians in neighboring Armenia and Georgia, who include local wine in almost any social gathering.

An exit poll! They must know Wolf Blitzer...

So far, of the countries where I have observed elections, Azerbaijan was the most orderly and businesslike. Although my colleagues in other parts of Azerbaijan saw a few discrepancies in how well each polling place followed the rules, the places I visited in and around Gadabay seemed to be doing everything by-the-numbers.

If anything, observing this particular election was almost dull – perhaps because there was very little doubt about the outcome.

Counting the votes

Even before I was offered the chance to observe this election, it was generally accepted that President Ilham Aliyev would be re-elected by a large margin.

In 2003, he was elected to succeed his retired father - Heydar Aliyev – with 76% of the vote. Afterwards, organizations like the OSCE and Human Rights Watch concurred that there were number of irregularities in the counting and tabulation

Although many of the Azeri opposition parties claimed that the election wasn’t completely fair, Ilham has managed to maintain high popularity in a country where politics are based more on personality than policy.

In fact, to an outsider, the politics of Azerbaijan seem almost cult-like.

There is a statue of his father Heydar in every town, public buildings and streets are named after him, and his portrait is all over the place – and things there’s definitely a feeling of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In fact, Aliyev is following in his father’s footsteps so well that even you would probably recognize him!

President Ilham Aliyev
In the 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Aliyev's photo is shown during the credits.

In the film, he is supposedly the authoritarian president of Kazakhstan - who in reality is President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

So, what happens in an election where a second-generation incumbent is popular enough to name everything in the country after his father?

Well, many of the opposition parties boycotted the election, but they are so insignificant that no one – not the local election committee, not the voters, and not even our own translator – was aware of the boycott.

What else happens?

Well, Ilham Aliyev wins the election with over 88.73% of the votes – the next-closest of the six other candidates got only 2.86% of the votes.

And what does the OSCE think about this?

Well, the OSCE said that there was progress in this election compared to past ones as far as the technical aspects of what happens on election day – how voters sign in, get their ballots, cast them in privacy, and how the votes are counted and the results are tabulated.

But they didn’t think that the election met international standards from the perspective of how the campaigns were run – particularly the lack of competition.

After all, is it really a Democracy when the ruling political party can compel government employees and students in state schools to attend their campaign events?

How “fair and balanced” can an election be when the media only covers the ruling political party?

How much Democracy can there be when a single family – first father, then son – have continuous rule of a country for almost 40 years?

The big test will come in 2013, when President Ilham Aliyev completes his second term.

According to the Constitution of Azerbaijan, the president is limited to two terms of office – just like here in the United States (though they have 5-years terms and we have 4-year administrations).

Will they change the rules to allow Ilham to run for a third term?

Will his wife run to replace him, until their son is old enough?

And is this something that can only happen in Azerbaijan?

Sadly, no…

North Korea has seen their totalitarian regime handed down from father to son, and communist Cuba has seen its leadership passed on from one brother to another…

And here in America?

Although we’re much more Democratic than either North Korea or Cuba, we’ve come very close to a presidential succession of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton…

And just today, the New York City Council decided to change the rules to allow incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for a third term – even though the voters have twice voted in favor of term limits for the mayor and city council…

Democracy – it’s never as simple as it seems…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Idaho meets Eurasia

My assignment as an election observer in Azerbaijan took me to the district – called a Rayon – of Gadabay, located on the far side of the country on the border of Armenia.

Traveling there required a cross-country bus trip of about seven hours to the city of Shamkir, where my partner and I would meet our driver and translator and proceed for another hour into the mountainous border area.

The drive across Azerbaijan took us through a bleak and featureless landscape. I’d heard that Azerbaijan included some very picturesque regions, but I certainly didn’t encounter any as our bus bumped along the rough main highway that links Baku, on the Absheron Peninsula jutting into the Caspian, to the interior of the country and onward to Tbilisi, Georgia.

Map of Azerbaijan, with Gadabay in red in the west. The Armenian-occuppied area of Nagorno-Karabakh is in green. Baku, the capitol, is located on the Absheron Pinensula in the east, sticking out into the Caspian Sea.

The landscape of Gadabay was not what I was expecting, either.

It’s been described as mountainous, and most of it is at an altitude of over 6,000 feet - but it consisted mostly of rolling hills where flocks of sheep and goats were grazing on the dried brown grass, which I’m sure was a more pastoral scene in the springtime when the fields were green and full of flowers.

Even though it was October, the temperature was in the mid 60 degree range, and I can only imagine how warm it was at the height of summer, even this high up.

An Azeri cemetary, with the town of Gadabay in the background

The town of Gadabay has about 9,000 people, mostly living in plastered cinderblock homes topped by corrugated metal roofs sporting satellite dishes – although we were occasionally surprised to see a building capped with very ornate polished metalwork.

Ornate Metal Roofing in Gadabay, Azerbaijan

Although a very simple place, Gadabay does have two claims to fame.

One is the local gold mine – started in the early 20th century by the German manufacturing firm Siemens under the guise of a less profitable copper mine, and recently revived by a Canadian company. Amazingly, none of the wealth extracted from the ground seems to have stayed in the local economy, though there’s certainly an abundance of mine tailings to be used for building.

Gadabay has, however, managed to extract something else from the ground to put a bit of money in their pockets – potatoes!

Gadabay Potatoes

That’s right – Gadabay is the Idaho of the Caucasus, growing spuds that are world-famous in Azerbaijan, and served at almost every meal.

They’re roughly the same as our Yukon Gold potatoes, and always prepared pealed, salted and roasted directly on hot coals – and very tasty with the local lamb and sweet red wine!

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Luca Brasi Sleeps With the Fishes"

My first full day in Azerbaijan included a long series of election briefings in the ornate State Philharmonic Hall in Baku, after which several of my new friends and I set out for a night on the town.
Azerbaijan Philharmonic

We walked through the “old city” section of Baku, past the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Maiden Tower, and into the narrow streets lined with carpet weavers and local restaurants.

The Old City

Late into the evening, after a delicious meal of grilled lamb and chicken washed down with local Azeri wine, the manager of the restaurant where we’d dined arranged a taxi to take us back to our hotel, located several miles south of the city.

Mmmmm - Azeri Cuisine

We got in, and I was quickly reminded of one of the most colorful aspects of visiting this part of the world – the local drivers!

In most of the South Caucasus, drivers are kept in check by the poor conditions of the local roads. In the major cities, however, the pavement is just good enough to allow drivers to speed around without regard for their cars’ suspensions…

I enjoyed blitzing down the autobahn during the three years I lived in Germany, and spent ten years in southern California where many people typically drove twenty miles over the speed limit – when they weren’t stuck in traffic…

But drivers in Yerevan, Tbilisi and Baku are erratic enough to make even me nervous – though I do enjoy the thrill…

This night, as our taxi sped towards the outskirts of the capitol, our driver switched from the radio that was tuned in to a local station and put in a CD – totally stunning us with his musical selection.

Driving into the midnight darkness, my companions and I were perplexed to be hearing the theme from The Godfather

Is this what an Azeri taxi driver thought three Americans and a Swede wanted to listen to, or was there something more ominous going on here?

Were we going to be ambushed at a toll plaza, like Sonny?

Would we be dumped into the Caspian to “sleep with the fishes” like Luca Brasi?

Were we being “taken for a ride” to edge of the city, where our lifeless bodies would be left in an abandoned Lada as our driver walked away mumbling “leave the gun, take the cannoli?”

Thankfully, we arrived safely back at our hotel – laughing at the theme music to our night on the town…

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Drill, baby, Drill!

In a previous posting, I mentioned that my accomodations in Baku were at the Crescent Beach Resort, on the coast of the "beautiful Caspian Sea."

Well, here it is - a sight that would make Sarah Palin proud...

The history of oil in Azerbaijan goes back as far as the third century, with Arabic and Persian authors mentioning oil in their manuscripts.

Later, the famous traveler Marco Polo wrote about how inhabitants of this region used oil that gushed from natural springs as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scabs, and for burning in lamps.

By the 1870s, Azeri oil was being pumped on an industrial scale by the Russians, and by the end of the 19th century European firms were in on the action.

The first years of the 20th century saw Azerbaijan producing more than half of the worlds petroleum.

Civil unrest, World War One, and the Russian Revolution brought about severe reductions in Azeri oil production, but the Soviet Union ramped it back up, and the oil field of Azerbaijan became a target for Hitler's troops during the Second World War.

The collapse of the Soviet Union inspired new foreign investments in Azeri oil production, including a desire for a new export route that bypassed Russia and Iran. The result was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, an 1,100 mile link from the oil fields on the Caspian coast near Baku, Azerbaijan through Tbilisi, Georgia and onward to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediteranian coast.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was a thinly-disguised plot point in the James Bond film "The World is not Enough" and is the second-longest pipeline in the world - after the Druzhba pipeline, which connects western Siberia with Europe.

Today, Azerbaijan produces nearly 1.2 million barrels of oil per day - more than Alaska (sorry, Sarah) - as well as a vast amount of natural gas. This has made Baku the most cosmopolitan city in this part of the world, but hasn't resulted in much economic benefit for most Azeri people.

The irony of this struck me during my stay in the rural mountain village of Gadabay - which was serviced by a natural gas line of such poor reliability that cooking was done over hot coals instead of on stoves, and our gas water heaters never worked.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Home Again

I'm finally home from another sucesssful election observation mission with the OSCE, and well worn from being in-transit for more than 24 hours.

I didn't get to keep you all as informed as I'd intended, since I was deployed to a very rural area of Azerbaijan where cellphones and satellite dishes were prominent, but internet access and hot running water were virtually unheard of...

Tomorrow, I'll start getting caught up on my storytelling - with photos!

Be sure to check for exciting blog posts, including:
  • “Drill, Baby, Drill!”
  • "Luca Brasi Sleeps With the Fishes"
  • “Lamb – it’s what’s for dinner”
  • “Election day - by the numbers”
  • "Sorry, Lari"
  • “Idaho meets Eurasia”
  • “A cruise on the Titanic”



Thursday, October 16, 2008


Well, I'm beginning my homeward journey after spending four days without warm water - let alone internet access - in the remote mountain village of Gadabay, Azerbaijan.

I'll be spending Friday on a cross-country bus ride back to Baku, followed by a debriefing, post-mission reception party, and 4 a.m. flight to Vienna.

As with my most recent missions to Georgia and Armenia, it looks like I'll have to save my detailed blogging for when I get home - look for a detailed posting when I'm settled back in at home on Sunday!


Saturday, October 11, 2008

26 Hours Later

After 26 hours of continuous travel, I've finally arrived at my temporaty accomodations in the Crescent Beach Hotel, on the beautiful Caspian Sea outside of Baku, Azerbaijan....


The "beautiful Caspian Sea" is an assumption on my part - I can hear and smell a large body of water outside, and Baku is located on the Caspian. But I'll have to wait until morning to see just how beautiful it is...

And it is way "outside of Baku." We drove through the capitol on the way here from the airport, and the downtown is very modern and cosmopolitan - but we kept on driving for so long that none of us really knows exactly where we are, and I'm doubting that I'll have a chance to see the historic "old town."

Tomorrow we spend all day in briefings, and learning exactly where we'll be deployed.

Much more to follow!


Friday, October 10, 2008

3 a.m.

Up n' attem!

On my way to Sea-Tac for the beginning of my flights via Chicago, Munich and Istanbul to beautiful Baku, Azerbaijan.

I'll blog - if I can - when I get there!


Thursday, October 09, 2008


"Nagorno" is Russian for "highland" - and is a word that isn't used in either Azeri or Armenian, but was imposed on a region of Azerbaijan during Soviet rule.

"Karabakh" is a word that originated in Turkic and Persian, and means "black garden."

"Nagorno-Karabakh" is a region in the South Caucasus. It encompasses the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, an unrecognised, but de facto independent republic, which under international law is officially part of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

It is about 270 kilometers (170 miles) west of the Azeri capital of Baku and close to the border with Armenia.

What's up with that?

Well, it another one of those unresolved messes from the breakup of the Soviet Union that resulted in a brief war between neigboring countries - Azerbaijan and Armenia - over about terrirory and people.

Like the recent was between Russia and Gerorgia of South Osettia, it involves the territory of one country whose inhabitants identify culturally or nationally with another country.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, there was a referendum - boycotted by local Azeris - in which the ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh area of Azerbaijan approved the creation of an independent state.

A Soviet proposal for enhanced autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan didn't make anyone happy, and a full-scale war erupted between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, the latter receiving support from Armenia.

By the end of 1993, the conflict had caused thousands of casualties and created hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides.

Today, the area is in diplomatic limbo - and because it's disputed territory that is still occuppied by Armenian troops, the OSCE will not be sending election observers there.

Monday, October 06, 2008


Well I should be receiving my airline tickets, passport with entry visa, and other materials via FedEx tomorrow, but I've already gotten a tentative itinerary:

Friday, 10 October - Travel from Seattle via Chicago, Munich and Istanbul to Baku
Saturday, 11 October - Arrive in Baku, Azerbaijan
Sunday, 12 October - Briefings
Monday, 13 October - Deployment to the areas of observation
Tuesday, 14 October - Familiarization with area of observation
Wednesday, 15 October - Election Day
Thursday, 16 October - Regional debriefings; Observation of tabulation of results
Friday, 17 October - Return to Baku; Debriefing & Reception
Saturday, 18 October - Travel from Baku via Vienna and Frankfurt to Seattle

It's quite a whirlwind schedule (as usual), and I'll keep you posted on any updates as I get them prior to my departure on Friday morning!


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Azeri Basics

Well, I've still got more than a week before I leave - but it's never too early to learn a little bit about where I'll be going, and to share what I'm learning with all of you.

So, here are some Azeri (aka "Azerbaijani") basics:

Where is it?
It’s in one of those funny parts of the world that most people can’t find on a map because it’s neither “this” nor “that.”

In this case, it’s partially in Eastern Europe and partially in Western Asia, in the mountainous area called the South Caucasus (not to be confused with the Iowa Caucuses or any other electoral contest).

Where is it (this time in English, please)?
Find Iran on a map (the place John McCain wants to “bomb, bomb, bomb…”)
On top of Iran is a body of water called the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan is to the left of that, surrounded by Iran to the south, Armenia to the west, Georgia to the northwest, Russia to the north, and the Caspian Sea to the east.

What’s it like there?
Azerbaijan is roughly the same size as the state of Maine, and is ringed by mountains except for its eastern Caspian shoreline and some areas bordering Georgia and Iran.

There are three major mountain ranges in the country with peaks above 12,000 feet. About 25% of Azerbaijan is pastureland, 20% is farmland, and 11% forest and woodland.

The climate varies from subtropical and dry in central and eastern Azerbaijan to subtropical and humid in the southeast, temperate along the shores of the Caspian Sea, and cold at the higher mountain elevations.

Who are they?
They are about 87% ethnic Azeris, with a mixed cultural heritage of Turkic, Iranian, and Caucasian elements. About 90% of Azeris are Shi'a Muslims.

What do they speak?
They speak Azerbaijani, which is generally known as Azeri. It’s a Turkic language that is mutually intelligible with Turkish despite minor variations in accent, vocabulary and grammar.

What do they do?
They have lots of oil and natural gas – in fact, in the late 1800s they were the first of only two countries to ever single-handedly produce most of the world’s oil (the other was the U.S. in the early 20th Century).

Azeri Trivia:
Azerbaijan has its own special breed of horse

More Azeri Trivia:
The shoreline of Azerbaijan is below “sea level” because the Caspian Sea isn’t really a sea, it’s a lake…

More to come!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Curious minds want to know…

Each time I announce that I’m leaving to volunteer on an election observation mission with the OSCE, I get a wide variety of interesting questions.

This time is no different, so I thought I would share some of the Q&A with everyone.

Why are you going half way around the world to help them run democratic elections when we can’t seem to manage to do a good job right here?

Actually, I have observed elections here at home. I first volunteered as an observer during the 2004 elections when I got politically involved in Gig Harbor, WA.

If you and other Americans are going all the way to Azerbaijan for their election, will they come over here for our election?

You Bet! That’s how the OSCE works: all of the member nations (the U.S., Canada, the European Union, and the former members of the Soviet Union) exchange observers for their elections.

Having outsiders come in helps shed light on the process, and helps each nation have a better understanding on the health of one another's political systems.

Speaking of “healthy political systems,” how do they think we’re doing?

Well, we have “issues” – especially when it comes to a transparent elections process.

It turns out that access for OSCE observers during the 2004 election was sometimes limited to specific counties or to specific polling stations within a particular county, contrary to our OSCE commitments.

We also have a Federal system that creates a patchwork of different election laws from state to state, and sometimes county to county – and some of those places don’t even have provisions for elections observers of any kind!

The OSCE did provide recommendations to improve provisional balloting, absentee voting, voter identification and voter challenges, electronic voting, training for polling place workers, and new minimum standards for how elections are run here.

All of this is available in their exhaustive OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report

Is volunteering as an international election observer safe?

Yes, it is - they take our security very seriously. One of my friends had security forces surround her hotel when there was an election-day riot - they were very safe!

The OSCE doesn't send election observation missions to nations where there isn't an established government, or where there's open armed conflict.

That being said, the Republic of Georgia and Russia did fight a brief war just a few weeks after I was there in May – something that was actually simmering before I went and mentioned in my pre-mission posting “Georgia in the News.”

How much do you get paid?

Nothing - I'm a volunteer.

How much does this cost you?

Nothing - the U.S. State Department, through a contractor, provides my airline tickets and covers my expenses.

How do you know where to go and what to do?

The OSCE makes all of the logistical arrangements - local transportation, accommodations, etc.

What do you know about Azeri election law that qualifies you to do this?

Nothing yet, but I'm a faster study than Sarah Palin...

The first thing we'll do after arriving in Baku and getting settled in is to receive a crash-course in everything we need to know about their election process. It'll cover all of the logistical and security arrangements for the mission, the political situation, election law, and the process for us to make our observations and complete our reports for later analysis.

When did you learn to speak Azeri?

I haven't yet, but language ususally isn't an issue.

The working language of the OSCE is English, so the members of the mission can all get along even though dozens of different nations will be sending observers.

My partner and I will be assigned a local driver and translator once we deploy to the area where we'll be working, and they will be very important to our ability to do our work - not to mention our ability to find a bathroom...

Do you get to sight-see while you're there?

Some of the most interesting site-seeing I’ve ever done has been on my OSCE missions – but it isn’t because I’m a tourist.

It comes about naturally as we familiarize ourselves with the area where we’ll be working by having our driver and translator take us out to visit the polling places ahead of time, as well as to meet local elections officials and candidates. We end up seeing some of the local sights along the way - and we always have some off-time in the schedule to explore as well.

Who will you work with?

I'll be paired off with someone from another country as a partner. Each two-person team gets a local driver and translator - the driver is usually just some guy who happens to have a car for hire, and the translator is usually a student from a local university.

What exactly will you be doing?

Well, I’m an “observer” and not a “referee” – we’re there to monitor the election process to see how closely they are following their own laws, and we note our observations on some very complex forms that contribute to the “big picture” when they are combined with the observations of hundreds of other teams all over the country.

What do you do if you see something suspicious?

As observers, we’re not allowed to interfere in the election process. We limit our involvement to asking questions through our translators, noting our observations and reporting them.

What happens when you're done?

A long bus ride back to the capital, a group debriefing, and a reception and all-night party followed by a 4 a.m. flight out of the country.

What becomes of all the work you did?

The OSCE analyzes all the data gathered by observes at dozens or hundreds of sites all over the country on election day to see if there are any specific trends to show how well their election process works. They will issue a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions the day after the election, and a formal report about eight weeks later.

What if I want to know more?

Just post a question to the comment section, and I'll answer it!

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Yes, friends, I'm once again preparing to participate as an elections observer for the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe - this time as part of the OSCE mission to Azerbaijan for their presidential election on October 15.

Followers of my previous posts below will recognize that this isn't my first visit to the Caucases - I was also part of the OSCE misson to Armenia in 2006 and the Republic of Georgia earlier this year.

I'll be posting regular updates as my anticipated departure on October 9 approaches and I get more details.

Thanks for visiting, and wish me well!

Thursday, June 05, 2008


During some of our time off, we went to visit one of the most fascinating sites in the entire region – the abandoned cave-city of Vardzia.

Originally dug inside a mountain near Aspindza, it was founded by Queen Tamar in 1185 as a place of protection from the Mongols.

The monastery – which consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen story complex that included a church, throne room, and an irrigation system that watered terraced farmlands – was exposed by an earthquake in 1283.

Although about 60-70% of the complex was destroyed by the quake, the remaining structure was used for another three hundred years - until it was raided by Persians in 1551.

Today, it is a tourist attraction attended by a small group of monks, and is definitely worth a visit.

The exposed parts of Vardzia - previously in the middle of a mountain - have had steps and handrails added for safety

Wandering around the interior tunnels was a fascinating experience that left us wondering how the intricate series of overlapping passageways was constructed with only rudimentary hand-tools more than 800 years ago.

Many of the chambers had frescos on the walls and ceilings - some depicting the saints of orthodox Christianity

We spent hours wandering through the passageways, marveling how cleverly they were designed.

At some points, there were holes in the ceilings - only later did we come across side passageways with holes in the floor, through which the inhabitants could have attacked invaders who were following them!

We were also shown a chamber with a pool of crystal clear, cool water that we were told remained at a constant level and temperature. Somehow, it sits right at the natural water-table of the mountain an manages to remain full - even though it's carved into the solid stone floor!

Unfortunately, the photos of those amazing features of Vardzia didn't turn out too well because of the lack of light and the confined spaces - you'll just have to take my word for it, or go visit Vardzia yourself!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Election Day

A rural Georgian schoolhouse - a typical location for a polling-place

Having taken a day to figure out where the most accessible polling places were, Indre and I set out on election day to visit as many of them as we could to make our observations.

The routine to be followed at the polling places is pretty straightforward.

Voters arrive at their local polling place and are greeting by a member of the local election commission who uses a UV light to check for traces of invisible ink on their hands – which is applied when someone receives their ballot. If someone has signs of ink on their hands, they aren’t allowed into the polling place.

Checking for invisible ink

Then, the voter checks in at a table to sign in on the voter list and receive their ballot, and to have their thumbs marked with the invisible ink.

Signing in to vote

Inking of the thumbs

They then go into a booth to mark their ballot, get an envelope in to which to place the ballot, and drop their envelope into the ballot box.

For those who are unable to make it to a polling place, Georgia – and many other areas of the former Soviet Union – has “mobile voting.” Instead of vote-by-mail absentee voting, a small ballot box is brought by members of the local election commission to your home.

"Mobile Voting"

A family member helps a visually-impaired woman vote at home via "mobile voting"

Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with enthusiasm by the local election commission – who were eager to answer our questions and share their hospitality by offering us refreshments.

Coffee, tea, and pastries were plentiful – but two items clearly stood out from all the others.

The first was one of the national dishes of Georgia – Khachapuri (hoch-a-poor-ee), a round, flat cheese-filled bread that was served as a staple of every meal I ate in Georgia and was loved by everyone.

The other was local, home-made white wine – consumed in a series of toasts that require those partaking to consume the entire glass in one long pull each round.

Georgian hospitality in the backroom of a polling-place on election day


The one time I politely passed on the wine I was brought bottled water – or at least that’s what I though it was, until I raised the glass to my lips and was greeted with some very potent vodka…

Of course, as the day wore on this became overwhelming – and put us in the delicate position of having to decide exactly how much hospitality we could accept before diplomatically excusing ourselves to move on to the next polling place.

Eventually, as the 8 p.m. deadline came near, we made our way to a polling place where we would observe the closing procedures, vote counting, and the sealing up of all of the materials and the filling out of a “protocol” sheet that accounts for everything.

While the actual voting seemed to go well in the polling places we visited, our fellow observers in other areas saw several irregularities: piles of neatly stacked ballots, one atop the other, resting in the ballot box – along with seemingly identical signatures in the voter sign-in sheets – were indicators of potential ballot-box stuffing.

Eventually, our observations – reported via checklists that we fill out and fax back to the OSCE team in Tbilisi – were combined with those of 180 two-person observation teams deployed all over the country on election day.

Filling out my forms

The result?

The OSCE issues a preliminary finding, stating in part that:

“Election day was generally calm, and overall, voting was assessed positively by the large majority of IEOM (international election observation mission) observers, with regional variations.

However, there were procedural shortcomings, especially with regard to inconsistent application of inking procedures.

Inaccuracies remain in the voter list, despite verification efforts undertaken by the CEC (central election commission).

In a considerable number of polling stations, a relatively high number of voters were added to mobile voter lists.

Cases of domestic observers and proxies being pressured or expelled from polling stations were noted.

Counting was assessed less positively, with significant procedural shortcomings observed, as was tabulation.”

Indre and I didn’t observe nearly as many problems in the area where we were working – but once we returned to Tbilisi, I met friends who were deployed to other parts of the country who reported some very chaotic polling places.

After some further analysis, the OSCE will have a final report that will include recommendations to the Republic of Georgia on how to improve their elections process – and, as we in America can attest, there’s always room for improvement.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Where the streets have no name

Geogrian roads are so bad...


Georgian roads are so bad that when a dog chases a car, he usually catches it...

The scene along one of Georgia's better rural roads

I discovered this first hand, on several occasions, while scouting out the area where my partner Indre and I would be working on election day.

Of course, we weren't left to our own devices - were were given a map of the area and a list of the villages around the central town of Aspindza that we should try to visit, with travel times and notations on road conditions that included comments like:

  • Village Ota - access only by tractor

  • Village Vargavi - behind very steep slopes, consult driver

Fortunately, Indri and I were also provided with a pair of indespensible assistants - our translator Merab and our driver Pavle, who advised us against going to villages "behind very steep slopes" or that required travel by tractor.

This turned out to be a very good plan, since the roads without special notations were rough enough to make poor Indre carsick on our initial exploration of the region...

Merab and Pavle meet us at our hotel in Akhaltsikhe at 10 a.m. the day before the election to show us around. Our plan was to drive upriver on Highway A-360 to the town of Aspidza, around which were located a dozen mountain villages that we would try to visit on election day.

The main highway wasn't too bad - although there were very rough sections with signs that indicated that they were "under repairation."

The fun part was when we left the main road to travel up into the hills on rockstrewn, potmarked cart paths, or to cross the river on bridges that looked as though their structural integrity was questionable at best...

One of several rustic suspension bridges across the Kura River near Aspindza

Better walk across first - just to be safe...

The roads up to the hillside towns were so bad that we could often travel only slightly better than walking speed in many cases, bouncing up and down and being jolted from side to side as Pavle did his best to steer around the worst of the jagged ruts and avoid having us bottom out.

It was such rough going that whenever a stray dog decided to chase us, it easily kept pace for as long as it wanted - which was invariable far too long...

Have you ever wondered what a dog chasing a car does when he actually catches the car?

I'll tell you - he does pretty much whatever he wants!

He barks and snarls as he runs along side, nipping at the tires and snapping at the bumpers.

I swear one of them actually lifted a hind leg and marked Pavle's car as part of his territory while we were all moving down the road at 10 kph...

And when it wasn't stray dogs, we had local traffic to deal with...

Georgian traffic jam

All in all, however, getting there is half the fun - especially in a place like Georgia, with its beautiful scenery and wonderful roadside attractions...

More to come...


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Georgian Civics 101

The bus trip from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe provided enough time to gaze at the passing landscape along the Kura river, and to review some of my briefing material on the election that I would be observing.

European politics can be baffling to Americans, because their flavor of Democracy is based on a different model than ours. Having seen several at work close hand, I can’t say that I think any of them – ours included – is better or worse. They’re just different.

The Republic of Georgia was, until 1990, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic – one of the republics that made up the former Soviet Union, with a government that consisted of a single political party – the Georgian Communist Party.

Today, Georgia has multiple political parties and a government that consists of a president elected by popular vote and a 150 seat unicameral Parliament in which 75 members are elected by proportional representation and 75 members are elected by majority vote in single-member constituencies- all of them serve for 5-year terms.

Naturally, having a Parliamentary system with multiple political parties is much more dynamic than the two-party system we have in the United States (yes, I know there are Greens and Libertarians and whatever-the-hell Ralph Nader is calling himself this year – but get serious…)

Political parties in Parliamentary systems rarely achieve enough votes in elections or hold enough seats in parliament to govern on their own – so different parties for “coalitions,” “blocks” or “alliances” to work towards common goals. This is especially common among the minor political parties who otherwise can’t gain seats in Parliament unless they combine their votes.

In Georgia, the major political parties include:
  • United National Movement

  • Labor Party

  • Republican Party

  • Christian-Democratic Party

  • Georgian Politics

  • National Movement of Radical Democrats of Georgia

  • Union of Georgian Sportsmen

  • Our Country

I stopped by to say hello, but Newt Gingrich wasn't home...

There are also several minor parties that have combined to form blocs and alliances, including:

  • United Opposition-National Council-New Rights Bloc – includes the New Rights Party, Conservative Party, Georgia's Way, Freedom, On Our Own, Party of People, Movement for United Georgia, Georgian Troupe, and National Forum

  • Traditionalists Party Bloc – includes the Our Georgia Party and the Women's Party
    New Rights Alliance – includes the Industry Will Save Georgia Party, National Democratic Party, and the Ertoba (Unity) Party

  • Christian-Democratic Alliance – not to be confused with the Christian-Democratic Party…

All this - for a nation of 4.6 million people and 3.4 million registered voters.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lennon & McCartney...Butch & Sundance... Breaux & Segzdaviciute???

There are always two things that short-term election observers on an OSCE mission are most curious about - where will they be stationed once they arrive in-country, and who will their partner be.

The "where" is usually just a matter of logistics - how far they will have to travel from the capital to get there, what will the accomidations be like, and are there any cool sites to see when they get there.

But the "who" can really make a difference in the entire election experience,since our partner will be our nearly constant companion in a strnage environment, working long hours under enormous pressure. Your partner makes the difference between the election observation expericence being an adventure or a nightmare.

The OSCE always creates multinational teams - so the only thing I know going into this is that my partner won't be an American.

During the briefing process in Tbilisi, I discovered that I would be deployed to the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, in the south-central part of the country along the mountainous boarder with Turkey, and that my partner was named Indre Segzdaviciute.

Indre Segzdaviciute

I'll pay $10 to anyone who can say that last name correctly on the first try, and another $10 who can tell me the entimology without resorting to an internet search...

I first met my partner when a lovely young woman on the bus for Akhaltsikhe asked "Does anyone know who Steve Breaux is?"

Indre works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Republic of Lithuania ("Foreign Service at your service") and, like myself, has served on two previous OSCE election missions.

Unlike myself, she is attractive, charming, and multilingual - all of which are very useful when working as an election observer...

Over the course of five days traveling on the rough roads between polling stations around the town of Aspindza, she would prove to be exactly the kind of teammate that everyone on OSCE missions dreams about - a talented hard worker who also knows how to take advantage of the opportunity to make new friends and explore some amazing local sites.

The circumstances of all of our hard work and the amazing sites we saw will, of course, be the subject of upcoming posts!

More to follow...


Monday, May 26, 2008

Tbilisi - Gateway to Georgia

A crucial first step as a short-term observer (STO) during an election observation mission (EOM) - besides learning all the acronyms and abbreviations - is to get oriented to your new surroundings.

This usually isn't too hard when you first arrive. Most of the STOs have flights routed through a common airport in central Europe - this time, Munich - and make up the majority of passengers on the connecting flights into the capitol city of the country we're working in. We're met at our destination by the logistics team of the OSCE, who have buses waiting to take us to our hotels.

View from my window at the Marriott

Saint George - namesake of Georgia - slaying the Dragon

Members of the mission are usually scattered among the largest hotels in the city - in Tbilisi, the Sheraton and the Marriott - plus a few smaller ones, and our first day is dedicated to overcoming the jet-lag. Of course, this gives us a bit of time to socialize with our fellow STOs and do some local sightseeing.

After getting caught up on my sleep, I decided to go to a local open-air market with my roommate - a retired Foreign Service officer named Frank Crump from Virginia. Neither of us speaks Georgian, but Frank picked up Russian somewhere along the way, which helped us get where we were going.

The open-air market in Tbilisi isn't too different from the farmers markets that I've been to in places like Santa Monica, Gig Harbor, and Olympia - full of goods and produce from local vendors, the sights, sounds and smells of which were a great introduction to the way people live in Georgia...





Frank, buying Georgian cheese - which is quite salty

After exploring Tbilisi, we had a series of briefings on the political environment and election procedures that we would be observing, and received our deployment assignments - which will be the subject of my next post...

More to come...