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!