Dateline: Baku

It took us three flights and 24 hours to travel 12 time zones—halfway around the world. But we managed our sleep in transit and were able to rise with the sun over the Caspian Sea on the morning of our first day. After an improvised brew of coffee through a tea maker, taken on our tiny balcony, we were ready to explore the streets of Baku.

I’d been hankering to come here for years because, as a kid, I once read that on the outskirts of town an entire mountainside is on fire. Perpetually. We’ll revisit that later.

So when an old college friend of ours, now a Fresno State professor, invited me along on her research trip—because, she said, I was the only American she’d ever known to be aware of Baku–I had no option but to happily accept. The Chief promptly accepted as well.

Alison, an excellent guide, first lead us on a half-day tour of the jagged-walled Old City, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It turns out they’re holding a presidential election in Azerbaijan.

But you won’t find any political posters in the Old City, and you won’t find the plethora you’d expect to in the capital proper or in the wider countryside. Outside the Old City is one message both ubiquitous and identical, reading, in Azerbaijani, “Presidential Election 11 April. Raise your voice.” Sometimes, even that exhortation is omitted.

Meaning there’s only one candidate, of course, and he’s too entrenched to bother mentioning. Like father, like son–like Syria, like North Korea. Like a monarchy. The current Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, succeeded his father, Heydar Aliyev. Ilham, naturally enough, has a son as well.

We’ll see how that future unfolds when Ilham himself is old and infirm.

For now, the new President Aliyev has called for an election something like six months in advance of the one regularly scheduled. The question is why.

Why, if you’re effectively hereditary president for life—a king—would you so much as lift a finger to change the timing of your sham election?

It turns out the Valley Voice is well connected here. Which is to say through Alison, and her own, genuine connections.

She met with a group of former students, now teachers here themselves, and the election arose as a topic of conversation. The consensus, apparently—as reported by Alison—is that there is a jockeying amongst the ruling families, complicated by pressures being applied by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

From its website: “The OSCE has a comprehensive approach to security that encompasses politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects. It therefore addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, including arms control, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratization, policing strategies, counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities. All 57 participating States enjoy equal status, and decisions are taken by consensus on a politically, but not legally binding basis.”

There was an astonishing apathy toward the election, as manifested by everyone we spoke with. Nobody voted because the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Employment apparently comes under similar consideration. Ramiz, the husband of a woman Alison was reconnecting with, said that he refused to consider any governmental employment whatsoever–even though almost every job here is related to the government in some way; those in the public sector, actually, are expected to prove they had voted–because of the rampant corruption.

Alison herself simply thinks shifting the election is a way to keep people off balance—and, by doing so, to make it easier for the regime to retain power.

Our best estimation involved the centennial anniversary of Azerbaijan’s original independence following the First World War. Quite possibly, the election was held early to further legitimize the regime and de-cloud its scheduled celebration.

The Chief and I wandered into Fountain Square the night before the election, and the regime had some children out in force—well, perhaps a tiny, chaperoned platoon. To the tune of some sort of love song to Ilham, and the State of Azerbaijan in general, six-year-olds gyrated, marched and plastically gesticulated. The middle school ribbon twirler seemed enthusiastic, so I twirled my right index finger in turn.

We secured the pound of coffee we were after and got out of there—finally—myself sickened while the Chief, calling me a stick-in-the-mud, declared it all cute.

Cute! So was the Hitler Youth.

Before we’d even left the United States, Alison had hired Elshad—coincidentally an OSCE election observer interpreter—as our guide to the interior. He worked the election two days prior to leading us out, and his own observations were telling.

Elshad said the election was hilarious. The observers were not allowed to look at the returns. The ballots were kept from scrutiny. There was, he said, a situation the observers called a “carousel.” All across the country a select cadre went precinct to precinct casting its vote for Ilham. When there was a glitch with one voter, Elshad reported that, with some indignation, the voter demanded to know what the problem was, claiming that he had already effortlessly voted five times previously. The celebratory fireworks were launched in advance of the results. According to Elshad, the Central Election Commission (CEC) had earlier alerted each precinct as to what its tally should conform to.

According to the CEC, Ilham was re-elected with 86.09% voter participation and something north of 75% voter approval.

The OSCE agreed with Elshad.

As I mentioned–a sham election.

Oh—and that mountainside on fire? Another sham. It’s more like a burning curb. I sure as hell would never have come here–bucket list or not–just for that. But that I did—and I had to. Because the Chief would have divorced me had I refused after having lowed and complained so long.

But part of me came here to experience being the “Other.” To be halfway around the globe, culturally uncluttered, and with absolutely no English in the ambient.

Reconnecting with Alison on this level was wonderful. Imagine the best that old friendship and new technology can accomplish. She was a great tour guide in her own right, and she hired a great guide in Elshad.

“What a great trip,” I thanked her. Everything was fascinating and, with Alison’s translating skills, we felt totally understood–as well as safe.

“Yeah—”she said. “It IS a police state.”

I’d totally forgotten. With its climate and two-tiered economy so similar to ours, we were as at home here as in Tulare County.

So much for being the “Other.”

Use your voice

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