Monday, October 8

What do I wish for my country (my speech from the opening ceremony at Forum 2000 in Prague)


These have been tough times for democracy advocates and proponents. 

We are living in liquid times, trying to stand on moving sands in a world that is full of unprecedented challenges. 

One of my favorite writers, Elif Safak, sums it well in a story she shared in one of her recent talks. Safak mentions this club called “Worried, and depressed, international writers club”. 

Each time its members who come from countries like Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, Venezuela, Nigeria would come together at international conferences and events, recalls Safak, they would smile at each other in sympathy as comradery of the doomed. 

But more recently explains Safak, the club has welcomed new members from places like Poland, Hungary, Greece, Austria, France, UK, the Netherlands and the United States. 

“Suddenly there were more of us worried about our nations, and the future of our world”, explained Safak in her talk. 

I might not be a member of this club, but I am too worried about the future of my country and the world. 

So here I am, standing in front of you, tonight, tasked with a very tough question - of what is it that I wish for my own country, Azerbaijan in these challenging times. 

I love my motherland but a place I call home has never been mine. 

It has been in the hands of illiberal politicians exploiting it. These so-called leaders have looted its resources, gained power at the expense of others, and who have turned my motherland, into a fiefdom. 

As a result, Azerbaijan is known for its devastating press freedom record, grave human rights abuses, abducting its journalists and smuggling them back into the country, for money laundering, secret slush funds, and Panama Paper leaks. 

So what can someone like me, who has never had a chance to have a say in the present and the future of my country wish for it? a chance for free and fair election, a plurality of opinions and voices, ensuring equality, and fostering transparency. 

To me, these are some of the most important pillars of democracy. 

Now how to achieve these, that's the hardest part. I think a good place to start would be by getting some inspiration from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th-century fresco on the allegory of good and bad government. 

For the sake of time, and context, I will focus on the good, because we know all too well how the bad one looks like. 

In the fresco on good government, you see the commune who tells the people that they should be the ones who rule themselves and not their kings or queens. Surrounding commune are his advisors - justice enthroned looking up at the figure of wisdom who supports the scales of justice; harmony binding justice to the citizens; and peace. And watching over the republic is Security with a banner that reads: everyone shall go forth freely and without fear. 

This is how I imagine Azerbaijan. A nation freed of a tyrant, guided by justice, who at present sits in shackles at the feet of our leadership; where civic ideals and a plurality of opinions are celebrated; rather than perish in prisons; where civil society is vibrant and where a nation isn’t governed by fear but by solidarity and freedom. 

Thank you!

Monday, April 2

The myth around Azerbaijan's cotton industry revival

There is one truth about Azerbaijan. If President wants it, whatever it is, it will happen. No matter what it takes. So when President Aliyev junior decided to revive Azerbaijan's cotton industry, aka the white gold, his wish was granted. The way it was granted, however, is rather questionable for it was certainly in violation of labor rights, human rights, forcing people to work in the fields on hours end (including nonfarmers extending the collection to students, pupils, school teachers, and everyone who could be sent off their work for the sake of pleasing the leader and out of fear of losing whatever job these people already had). 

Speaking at the 3rd Cotton Summit, President Ilham Aliyev pointed to a few things:
- that how good cotton has been for the country's economy;
- that it has created employment (tens of thousands according to the president, reaching approximately 200,000people);
- that it has generated revenues;
- that it helps to develop the non-oil economy; 
- that it has grown from 35tons to 207 in just two years (thanks to all the hard work of teachers, students, doctors, and farmers, working shifts to meet the quotas set by the higher ups- but of course the President did not say this part);

But guess what, there are plenty of independent economists who disagree with the president. According to Nemat Aliyev, one of the biggest reasons why Azerbaijani farmers stopped growing and cultivating cotton was because how difficult this was and how little it paid. The government offers 55-60cents for a kilogram of cotton. However either the government does want to understand or simply does not want to help, these amounts do not meet all the work and effort that goes into this work. These economists say, according to calculations, the kilogram must cost at least 90cents. And only then can the government create interest in a farmer. 

Vahid Maharramli, who is an agriculture expert, the cotton collected in the country is also of poor quality. Its main buyer is Russia. Russia buys it from Azerbaijan for 1.30$/kg (while the costs on an international market is 1.50$/kg). There is also devaluation that hit the country and its residents, which dropped the value for money farmers were fetting before. Before the devaluation says Maharramli, a farmer could sell collected cotton at 60cents. Now, he/she sells it at 30cents. The government claim that they are going to raise the fees by 5 cents won't make a difference for an average farmer argues Maharramli. 

As always, nothing is done accordingly- rather than focusing on building the infrastructure in regions, and assisting farmers with subsidies, equipment, and simply allocating funds to improve their conditions, the government decided to simply act upon it. Without a plan, without needs assessment, without addressing the questions of infrastructure. But that's how everything is often done in the land of absurdistan, the land of myths, wishes, and commands.

Stay tuned for more updates.