Friday, October 31, 2008
Halloween started early in Lawrence, with special events at Prairie Park and the residence halls on the Sunday prior to the holiday. Carter and Erik wandered through the nature center trails, encountering characters from fairy tales distributing candy. Carter met mermaids, trolls, nymphs, witches, and Robin Hood (who went out of character to express his fondness for Pac-Man). Unfortunately, Sunday was cold and extremely windy. Poor Carter was chilled to the bone after the park, and was unsure of trick-or-treating at the residence halls. Erik convinced him to give it a try, and he was rewarded amply for this choice. Erik and Lea agree that he was rewarded too amply.
The young women of Corbin and GSP halls were charmed by Carter, lavishing praise on his outfit (it is definitely 80s-retro cool), snapping his photo, and giving him candy... lots of candy. Carter was thrilled by the attention, and became an expert at knocking on the door, saying "trick or treat," and holding out his plastic jack-o-lantern for prizes. By the end of the evening, Erik carried the pumpkin bucket because it was too heavy - laden with 80 pieces of candy. We know that there were 80 because upon his arrival home, Carter held a census. While we hoped to give some of it away on Halloween day, Carter knows every piece that he received and has set up a plan for when he will eat each piece.
Halloween day trick-or-treating venues were at school and in the neighborhood. Carter's pre-school invited all of the kids to come in costume and march in a parade. Carter's friends dressed as a robot, turtle, witch, spider, and other creatures. In the evening, Lea and Carter took advantage of the gorgeous weather to stroll from house to house, politely requesting candy. Erik stayed home to pass out treats. After an hour or so, Lea and Carter returned to conduct a final candy tally. The total? 110 pieces!
Monday, October 20, 2008
We will continue to harass him for being old, although Carter is unconvinced that daddy had a birthday since he does not look any taller!
Thursday, October 16, 2008
He also talked with some street food purveyors. Azeri cuisine seems to be a true fusion food, combining elements of Turkish, Georgian, Persian, and other traditions. For example, Erik has tasted a delicate yogurt soup, as well as the heavy flavors of lamb organ meat (kidneys, liver, etc.) wrapped in intestinal lining and grilled. After thanking many of the people who helped him on this trip, Erik had a nice dinner with Elchin (eggplant salad and an Azeri soup with dumplings).
Erik learned alot on his trip, and owes his successes to his many friends in Baku. He hopes to return to Baku once again in the future (Inshallah)!
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
As the polls opened, the first voters filed through. Although a young, uniformed man was the first person to cast a ballot, the "prize" for the first voter went to an elderly woman. During the Soviet period, and in some post-Soviet elections that Erik has witnessed, the first voter received a present and the applause of all present. Today's election was no different. The polling station director had a gift not only for the first voter, but for all voters casting their first ballot ever.
The occasion was festive, with polling stations blaring popular Azeri music (see the video above). At the polling station for a fine arts university, students played folk music and dressed in traditional costumes (see the photo at the top).
The Central Electoral Commission has announced a big win for Ilham Aliyev. Preliminary results indicate that turnout was 75.64%, and the president received 89.04% of the vote. Turnout varied across the country; the districts where Arzu and Erik observed had relatively low reported turnout (falling to 107th, 120th, and 122nd place out of 125 districts).
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
At the Central Electoral Commission press conference that Erik attended on Tuesday, the CEC chair touted innovations in the administration process. Azerbaijan's CEC has a substantial amount of material available online in several languages, and also has an Information Center dedicated to election coverage. Its technological prowess is featured in some of its advertisements. As you see on the poster to the right, the CEC is not only online, but it endorses Microsoft IE over open-source competitors like Firefox.
The most interesting moment of the press conference came when the CEC chair demonstrated the webcams that have been placed in 500 polling stations around the country (just under 10% of all polling stations). Erik was quite skeptical that this plan would be realized. The CEC announced that webcams would be used late in the process, and many of the facilities that house polling stations are unlikely to have reliable high-speed Internet connections. But, all of the test cameras seemed to work, showing polling stations (see the photo above). Most polling stations were empty, but people were visible milling about in a few cases. In answer to a reporter's question, the CEC chair indicated that Azerbaijan was the "first country in Europe" to use the Internet in this way (an assertion which is probably true, except perhaps the part about being in Europe). He also indicated that the cameras were supposed to stay on during the vote count. After the press conference, Erik tried to access the site, but it was password protected. Presumably this will change by tomorrow.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Saturday and Sunday were light work days (a visit to a local university was the work highlight), so Erik took the opportunity to walk around. In the evening, Elchin and Farhad (another scholar who has spent time in Lawrence) strolled a bit along the Caspian Sea boardwalk. But, chilly, rainy weather ended the evening early.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
As an earlier dispatch noted, construction is booming in Baku. Old neighborhoods are being leveled and replaced with high-rise buildings, but in a disorderly fashion. No zoning codes dictate how close buildings may be placed to one another, how high they may be built, or how the mix of commercial and residential properties should be balanced. In addition, shoddy and corrupt construction practices have led to horrible accidents. A building recently collapsed near Erik's hotel (prior to his arrival), killing many workers. The construction company had been selling the concrete designed for load-bearing walls, filling them instead with sand.
Poor quality construction is evident everywhere. The Caspian Palace hotel is located in the Caspian Business Center, a relatively new building. But, cracking walls, poorly fitted fixtures, and other evidence of limited quality control abound. Upon Erik's arrival, the entire curtain assembly fell from his ceiling (and he had no curtains for a couple of nights). The cheap plastic parts had been connected to the ceiling with small screws. In addition, the bare wood in the ceiling revealed that this was probably not the first time the assembly had fallen (a point backed up by the maid who shook her head and told Erik that it had happened before).
Unfortunately, Baku may be headed toward a grisly catastrophe similar to what we witnessed in China a few months ago. According to Elchin, local seismologists have noted that even a 4.0 earthquake could bring down much of the new construction in Baku. Baku is in an area of elevated seismic activity; the last major earthquake around 8 years ago was more intense than the feared 4.0. However, the construction boom post-dates that earthquake, so it will not be tested until the next major temblor.
On Friday, Erik attended a roundtable featuring political scientists and a former opposition party official. The roundtable's theme was the election, and all of the participants reflected pessimistically on the current state of pluralism in Azerbaijan. Of course, the fact that participants could talk openly about these matters is a good sign. But, the space for political dialogue is limited. Erik asked whether or not construction issues could be used as a springboard for the opposition (just as citizens have protested corruption and inadequate regulation of construction in China). He was told that in the wake of the building collapse noted above, some individuals attempted to force the issue, laying flowers and meeting at the site. Their efforts were thwarted by the police who removed the flowers and did not allow protests to continue.
Mosque under construction.
New sidewalks near the Caspian Sea boardwalk.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
"As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement; the election is the daily theme of the public papers, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present. As soon as the choice is determined, this ardor is dispelled; and as a calmer season returns, the current of the State, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level: but who can refrain from astonishment at the causes of the storm." (Full text of Democracy in America is available at the Gutenberg Project).
In Azerbaijan, no threatening storm draws near. Aside from a few campaign posters of President Ilham Aliyev displayed in store windows, there is no evidence that the presidential election is less than one week away. The major opposition parties are boycotting the election and the results are entirely predictable: President Aliyev will be re-elected.
Six of the seven candidates were scheduled to take part in a roundtable discussion today, and Erik attended the event with Elchin. Only two of the candidates actually attended, and two sent surrogates. One of the candidates, Fazil Gazanfaroglu (person on the left in the picture on the left), served in government in the early 1990s, and is currently a member of parliament. He criticized the electoral process, but especially the OSCE's report which stated that the opposition candidates have no real policy differences (he noted that his policies differed from others in many ways). Hafiz Hajiyev (picture on the right), the other candidate present, is nicknamed "Fish Hafiz" because his resume includes a stint in the Department of Fish and Wildlife. He also criticized the election process, the media, and NGOs. His comment that democracy aid from the West has probably furnished the homes of opposition elites provoked the most laughter during the fairly somber affair.
The major unanswered question for this election is whether or not voters will come to the polls. Central Electoral Commission efforts to encourage voter turnout have produced a great, kitschy election souvenir. On the left, you see a pen with a young Azeri woman in a tank top and jeans, and the CEC logo. Upon closer inspection, you find that the picture unscrolls into a flag. Since the pen is produced by Azerbaijan's CEC, there is no risk of any salacious images inside. Unfurling the banner reveals the image on the right: "Choose or Lose" Azeri style.
Aside from the roundtable and another research-oriented meeting, Erik also made a presentation to youth activists at the IRI office (see the photo at the top of the post). His talk focused on various election issues, but substantively addressed the upcoming US presidential election. The participants were surprisingly split in their opinions on the US campaign. John McCain is generally the preferred candidate in Azerbaijan because of his policies related to the South Caucasus region and his unwillingness to support resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide in Turkey during the early part of the 20th century. Many of the attendees indeed favored McCain, but Obama also had many supporters.