Sunday, September 03, 2006

Canada's embarassing ignorance about Azerbaijan

My fellow Canadians know nothing about Azerbaijan.

It's a Catch-22. If you try to tell them about the place, they don't want to know. It's simply not on the list of things they are curious about, as they've never even heard about Azerbaijan in the first place.

I'm struggling to change that.

As a print journalist who started in the inky trade 26 years back, I sadly confess that I'm not entirely proud of the way media sometimes approaches stories. The first time I had my faith shaken occured when a dear friend died in an accident. It became the front-page story in a local rag, probably because the tabloid obtained a rather glamorous photo of her. The article was so full of mistakes that I permanently lost some of my faith in the entire news conveying industry.

One way to judge for yourself is to read a travel article about your city. They're frequently so full of obvious errors and hackneyed generalizations that it shakes your faith in what you're being told.

As an amateur Azerbaijanologist I had one of those faith-shaking media moments this evening courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. A host named Brian Stewart interviewed British filmmaker Ivan O'Mahoney about his documentary called How to Plan a Revolution.

Director O'Mahoney works for a BBC show called Insight and flits from country to country, doing shows about suicide in Lithuania and ethnic intermarriage in the Netherlands.

The producer Shahida Tulaganova has been described elsewhere as "an Uzbek activist living abroad."

So I'm not entirely convinced their Azerbaijanology creditials measure up to the standards set by myself and Eddie Izzard.

Prior to this documentary, I don't recall the CBC ever mentioning Azerbaijan in any other context, even in passing. Not a word this summer about the opening of the massive BTC pipeline (the world's second largest), nothing about the Karabakh War for the last decade, or even about the suspicious fires which have claimed about one tenth of all the forestland in the country this summer.

But they show this documentary over and over.

The documentary focuses on Murad Hasanli, (aka Murad Gassanly) a high-spirited young Brit who cruised back into the country of his birth to participate in an opposition to the Aliyev government while importantly striding around and dashing in front of the camera like the Beatles in a Hard Days Night.

Hasanli aims to promote an Orange Revolution in Azerbaijan, similar to that which took place in the Ukraine and Georgia (where they called it a Rose Revolution). He is presented as a swashbuckling devil-may-care idealist, but I guess to those less enamored by him, he's just another aspiring politician. He too wants a piece of tasty government pie.

As many who lived Orange have learned, just because that pie has a nice orange colour, it doesn't mean that it's always sweet. As blogger Sean Guillory writes about the Ukraine, "Revolution doesn't mean automatic change. Sometimes it means simply putting the other guy in power."

I admire the two young high-spirited bucks featured in the film. Such watchdogs are important to the organic process of governing. But it's important that they be scrutinized as well.

The documentary would be a total snoozer without extensive footage of the police cracking down on a demonstration organized by the Orange revolutionaries. The cameramen got ample footage of cops pushing the protesters back, the type you rarely see, as most police forces are savvy enough to cover the cameras before forcing demonstrators back. The director muses about his good filmic fortune, ultimately ascribing it to the naivete of Azerbaijani riot squad.

These images were presented as proof that Azerbaijan is a repressive, anti-democratic regime. By those standards Canada is a repressive country too, just ask Jaggi Singh and other demonstrators who were brutally repressed and jailed here in Canada during the Quebec City summit.

Months after they first started showing this unflattering portrait of Azerbaijan, it's on our Canadian TV screens again, this time with an extra interview with the director, conducted practically with the interviewer sitting on the floor, looking up lovingly at the guy.

Director and CBC guy both agree that the orange boys are the good guy. The baddies are, as usual, Turks. The Turkish authorities, Azeris included, have long been sitting ducks for faceless vilification. Call it the Midnight Express Syndrome, (a film, which like Gallipoli, presents Turks as knuckle dragging apes). Turks seem disinclined to fight back when portrayed in such an unflattering manner. These days cultures who can spin news effectively can often control their own destinies.

Thus the media-unsavy Azeri government gets described as a "regime," the reason being that the elections which brought Aliyev to power merited some suspicion from the international community, although the exact nature of these criticisms never seem to have been fully fleshed out.

The implication is that Aliyev rigged the elections. But logically speaking, unspecified accusations of election irregularities do not infer rigged elections, although the CBC host feels entirely comfortable making this logical leap.

Perhaps in an effort to compensate for such criticisms, Aliyev has since loaded up government committees with members of the opposition and has agreed to put its petrobucks into a transparent fund for all to monitor. Freedom of speech has been so free that even the Azerbaijan Press Council criticizes the slander that small papers get away with. Admittedly, Azerbaijan's democracy isn't yet as polished as ours is, but they're taking steps in the right direction.

Thomas Goltz, whose brilliant Azerbaijan Diary criticized many aspects of the political process in the country, offers some insight into its electoral habits. In the 90s opposition candidates regularly accused electoral victors of fraud and yet the extensive exit polls that Goltz conducted confirmed the results, although in those early days the totals were exagerrated, Soviet-style, for emphasis. In other words, the announced winners were legitimate victors, but sometimes election administrators, new to democracy, would exagerrate the margins of victory. Presumably they've been instructed not to do this anymore.

I have nothing against London School of Economics radicals such as Murad Hasanli returning to their parents' homeland to liven things up and spray paint their slogans on walls throughout the city.

But I'm not convinced that the ragtag gang of oppositionists had a chance to win that election or even run the country competently in this crucial era. Perhaps opposition parties believe that there's an appetite for change in Azerbaijan but my sense is that Azeris realize that there's a lot of work to be done. I just don't see the people throwing their lot in with Murad and his gang who stride around with pickets reading "Oil is Shit."

Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, Azerbaijan has some pressing preoccupations and incredibly large projects to manage. For one, the government has an entire infrastructure to organize, roads, train tracks, and social institutions need to be built. 2-There are major international contracts to manage and 3- there is a WAR going on.

Amazingly, nowhere in this documentary nor Stewart's interview with the director was it mentioned that one fifth of Azerbaijan is occupied by Armenian military forces. Perhaps such a tidbit would be too much information for the TV media to try to convey to us viewers.

Unlike Canada, Azerbaijan also has to worry about neighbouring Iranians, Russians and Armenians slipping in to destabilize the country. The Great Game as it has long been played in the Caucasus deems that larger powers always try to divide and rule countries like Azerbaijan. The Azeris have a legitimate fear of agents provocateurs, particularly as the oil stakes and military conflict remain high stakes games. This doesn't excuse cops for wailing away at protesters with billy-clubs, but when your country is partly occupied and in a tense war footing, it's not a huge surprise that its patience for self-described revolutionaries might be a bit thin. Failing to mention this context makes for pretty dubious reporting.

So once again, I salute the CBC for at least mentioning Azerbaijan, but I also sigh that they opportunistically show only a corner of the jigsaw puzzle.

The old adage of 'if it bleeds it leads' remains the dominant dictum and the complex challenges faced by this former Soviet colony remain sadly overlooked.


Blogger Adrian said...

hello, i have been surfing idly and came upon this post, sorry for the comment several months after the fact. i am a Brit who was working and living in Azerbaijan during the period covered by the BBC film "How to plan a revolution" and you really have your story backwards. A lot of what little information about Azerbaijan that makes its way out into the world is spin generated by the Ilham Aliyev government, which is more media savvy than you think. You can buy savvy with oil money, you know, in the form of PR firms and lobbyists in the US and Europe. This film was a rare bit of unvarnished truth about this government, which is repressive indeed and getting worse. it's ridiculous to compare it to Canada. and the elections last year were terribly fraudulent, there's not really any debate about it -- the only debate was whether Western governments should make a point of getting upset about fraudulent elections in an oil-rich state. They didn't, what a surprise.

4:52 PM  

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