Today, I have a guest- the following post is an external contribution, written by Mahir Zeynalov, the Zaman Daily's (published in Azerbaijan) Istanbul representative. Mahir also writes for Today's Zaman (Turkey based newspaper) on issues related to Turkish Foreign Policy. You can reach Mahir at the displayed below e-mail address for comments, ideas and thoughts: email@example.com
In most nations today, a head of state addresses the nation on the eve of the new year, listing achievements his/her government has made in this unnamed campaign to be able to get elected in upcoming elections and elevate their popularity. Azerbaijan’s leader, Ilham Aliyev, delivered his traditional annual remarks on Dec. 31, with a goal to make his tenure last longer. But here are a few pieces of advice for the president -- though I am sure his team will remain indifferent and contemptuous to this -- to make him stay in power longer and his policies to succeed.
In one of her previous posts, Arzu was outraged and angered as Aliyev listed his government’s achievements in the past year. In a harsh judgment of the government, she was furious and dismissed his claims as belying the truth. I am not obsessed if the government has made much progress, if any, and I will not remind you of much-hyped statements for which purpose this “progress” is directed and how much money is being illegally confiscated by officials. I am particularly interested in if recently launched plans to improve human conditions will succeed in the future or not. Large-scale social transformation and big projects the government has undertaken are doomed (and I hope I am completely wrong) to fail if the authorities give no leeway for experts and people who these projects target to speak out.
In brief, the government should allow the free media to function because it will courageously unveil ailing parts of its policies, make it more effective and the government more enduring. This post is a consciousness raising effort to call attention to a possible failure the government might face in forthcoming years.
In open societies, there are both links between the public and their governments, and connections among members of the societies so that they can mobilize their resources, marshal people and effectively articulate their demands to the authorities once policies they adopt start failing.
But as authorities suppress discontent, quash individuals who become potential leaders and who might mobilize dissent and block authentic debate, the feedback mechanism that is supposed to warn the authorities in areas where they fail is stalled.
In his seminal work of man-made disasters, “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed," James Scott claims that failures crop up when authoritarian governments commence gigantic projects that are based on “scientific” intelligence in a bid to make societies more “modern.” He argues that revolutionary leaders usually embrace such large-scale transformations because they will seemingly result in “progress” and “modernity.”
Despite a huge amount of money spent on these ventures, these far-reaching makeovers usually become a ruinous failure because authoritarian leaders make themselves blind to their blunders as a result of misguided policies by not allowing nonconformist opinions to mark out ailing sides of the sweeping changes.
Scott says in his book that large-scale schemes to improve human conditions have faced failure in highly modernist, authoritarian states because centrally controlled plans overlooked what he calls metis -- a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural human environment. In short, he says that projects the authorities undertake should be “analoqu olan” (with a precedent) for them to have a bigger chance of success.
He argues that not every characteristic of a plot, people or environment is “quantifiable” and could be measured. Noting that the builders of the modern nation-state do not merely describe, observe and map, Scott asserts that they also strive to shape a people and landscape that will fit their techniques of observation.
Scott provides a compelling analysis and brings up well demonstrated examples like scientific forest management in Germany that planted trees in straight rows without regard for ecological diversity and speaks about the high urban modernism of Le Courbusier that caused counterproductive results such as cities like Brasilia. He also extensively talks about the forced resettlement of people into villages in Tanzania without wielding practical knowledge and without considering local milieu.
Scott notes that the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements, which Azerbaijan tragically possesses. The first is a simplification and aggregation of facts, a bird’s eye view of the projects without relying on local knowledge or know-how. The second element he argues is "high-modernist ideology" -- a mixture of scientific and technical progress, and a satisfaction of human desires. Scott states that these two elements might lead to man-made disasters when these misguided policies are coupled with (3) authoritarian state and (4) a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.
While mass media is originally destined to inquire about the authorities' policies, transmit and articulate problems of societies, media in Azerbaijan is effectively exploited to drape “analoqu olmayan” (without a precedent/unmatched) schemes for people to give a round of applause. Because authorities suppress dissent, they may not anticipate that their “analoqu olmayan” projects are failing until it is too late to prevent potentially devastating consequences they might face.
It should be acknowledged that Azerbaijan has been making huge strides in most spheres in the past few years. With an aim to rebuild itself from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the government has largely mastered the capability to modernize secondary schools, which is unprecedented in any former Soviet republic, and added hundreds of new schools to already 5,000 schools nationwide.
Infrastructure in transportation in major cities, and particularly in the capital Baku, has undergone heavy surgery, largely alleviating traffic jams and shortening long distances. It has also modernized the attire of the city, cleaning buildings of centuries of dust and installing modern roadside lights.
Azerbaijan is also awash with parks and other fine-looking monuments named after the late President Heydar Aliyev, and surprisingly others, and authorities are keen on building more national parks across the country to glorify the late president, who was successful in consolidating authority during his term in office. These types of encroachment have become dominant motifs in the government’s program. On the surface, the country has returned to normalcy. If modernity and aesthetics are its destiny, then Azerbaijan’s future is secure. But all these may be more flawed than meets the eye.
At close inspection, with a construction boom in the capital city, many new long and beautiful bridges and connectors, two- to four-storey highways, the destruction of slum neighborhoods, the construction of cultural and sports centers -- sometimes in the heart of the city, the authorities need to keep the feedback channel open until it is clear there won’t be another Brasilia, Mexico City or Istanbul -- places that have become almost impossible to live in in peace. If the government does not heed the warning calls from its citizens, the future of these plans is in serious doubt.
In sum, the Azerbaijani government deserves credit for some of its triumph in the past year, but the future will illustrate how these (misguided) policies will fare when tested. Without genuine debate and an effective feedback apparatus, these policies are more likely predestined to not be up to snuff. Let’s hope I’m wrong.