Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 1: The More Things Change...

Four years ago, Erik had the opportunity to visit Baku, Azerbaijan on his whirlwind tour of Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan (with airport stops in Beijing, Berlin, and London along the way). That trip focused on developing connections with local universities by establishing Internet videoconferencing capacities and conducting collaborative classes. Baku was at the tail end of the trip, and a combination of technical problems setting up the equipment, fatigue, and illness prevented him from fully enjoying the visit. On the first day of this trip, it became clear that Baku has changed alot over the years: signs of new construction are everywhere, glass skyscrapers pepper the skyline and fresh pavement has been laid all around.

After navigating the somewhat Byzantine visa acquisition process, Erik was greeted by his good friend and colleague, Elchin. The initial drive into town revealed some changes Erik could recognize: the road from the airport was new and the route that the driver took was a bit longer. Since it was the middle of the night, he did not encounter the most notable change on the roads. The number of cars has increased substantially, creating terrible traffic congestion problems. Erik was late to one of his meetings due to traffic (see the photo on the right) and Elchin mentioned that this is the most common excuse for being late in Baku nowadays.

In the last four years Baku has also received recognition for one of its greatest challenges - pollution. While the scent of oil did not permeate the air as it did in 2004, the oil industry is the main reason for Baku's position on the list of the world's most polluted cities. Increased traffic will only compound the problem.

Erik's sightseeing was limited today, however. He spent most of the time meeting with NGOs about the upcoming presidential election. The main purpose of the trip is to conduct research about election procedures. Erik reviewed complaints and appeals processes (a controversial issue with new institutional solutions) and learned about some procedures to make the process more transparent (the Central Electoral Commission authorized the placement of several hundred web cams in precincts so that anyone can watch live video feeds of the process).

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