Saturday, September 09, 2006

Interview with Azerbaijan Diary author Thomas Goltz

I'm thrilled to offer readers the following exclusive interview with Azerbaijan Diary author Thomas Goltz. Goltz was an American living in Turkey when he moved to Azerbaijan in 1991 to become a unique outside witness to the transformation of the country, from the bloody Black January massacre of Azeris committed by Russians, to the Karabakh War, to the dealmaking which set the Azeri oil wealth into full flow. This true story makes for a spellbinding action adventure, packed with intrigue, passion and politics, it's a must-read for anybody who wants to lay peepers on a crackling good yarn.

Now Azerbaijan Diary has been translated and will be on the shelves in Azerbaijan in early 2007. It will surely become the major buzz of the year in Azerbaijan, as the book offers unique depth of detail and description of the events in this country during a crucial time in independent Azerbaijan's short history.

Here are my questions and his answers:

Q: Azerbaijan Diary tells the story of a time and place that no other book tells, how was it received in Azerbaijan?

There’s been a project floating around for four or five years now, trying to get Azerbaijan Diary translated and published in Azeri. It’s finally going forward thanks to a series of happy chances and coincidences. The book doesn’t pull any punches and it’s certainly not a propaganda piece for anybody atop of the Azerbaijan leadership so there’s a very healthy ambivalence about the book there.

Q: Your book deals with a lot of incredibly charged issues and some have come right out and challenged some of your accounts, such as the dreadful Khojaly Massacre where Azerbaijani civilians were killed in big numbers by the Armenians.

Nobody challenged my description of Khojaly in public but they did it behind the scenes in nasty ways. So if you were to punch my name or book on Amazon where readers and buyers get to post their own reviews, there are about 44 of them and some of them get very, very brittle and nasty. The nastiest one that I recall was one that - in addition to accusing me of being paid by Turkish MIT or state intelligence, CIA, Mossad, KGB and maybe even the Chinese thrown in for a change, as well as big oil - that I was the mastermind of the Khojaly non-event. It’s ridiculous but I have had that sort of stuff as a result of the book and death threats as well. How serious were they? One doesn’t really know. As well, there was a general bunch of nastiness from the usual suspects but it goes with the territory if you’re going to be writing about these kinds of subjects, you have to expect such results.

Q: There are some pretty naked descriptions in Azerbaijan Diary, and I’m thinking of, for example, your account of Azerbaijani-Karabakh residents in Imaret Kervat having their homes burnt down by the same neighbouring Armenians they had long lived near and went to school with. And yet I’ve seen you praised by some Armenians for your honest account of the Karabakh War. Have such vivid descriptions made you public enemy number one in Armenia?

No, although I hasten to say that I’ve got a fan club – a very small one - but a fan club nonetheless in Yerevan, Armenia. The book is not completely unknown there and I’ve received some very curiously favorable reviews and comments and things like that. Sadly, I’d say that those are in the extreme minority.

Q: I’ve read recently that the Armenian settlers have largely abandoned the occupied territories adjacent to Karabakh. Some suggest that this is a sign that Armenia is ready to hand this area back over to Azerbaijan. Have you got a sense of what’s going on behind the diplomatic curtain in Karabakh now?

I haven’t been to the occupied territories in a very long time, nor mountainous Karabakh itself but I try to keep my finger on the pulse there. I try to talk to people who have traveled there legally or illegally and my impression is that the occupied territories have been looted and abandoned. Whether it’s in anticipation of a deal or not, I don’t know. Then there’s the mysterious forest fires in western Azerbaijan in the Fizuli region which have been raging all this summer. The question is: were they set or are they natural? I’ve seen some satellite photos of these areas and it would appear that the burns are on remarkably straight lines. Maybe it’s because these lines are roads, and fires don’t jump roads. Is it that the conditions have been so dry that suddenly a lightning strike has ignited a fire in the general area? Then why are they only burning in side the occupied territories and not on the immediate other side of the engagement? These are rhetorical questions. I can’t answer them. And nobody can until they get boots on the ground to take a look to see if they’re man-made. Let’s make an assumption then. We have to ask why, if they’re man-made, then why are the Armenians burning down the forests and fields in this area? Fields come back after the first rain, but forests are more serious, they take a generation or two to regenerate.

Q: Azerbaijan seems insistent on the issues of the fires, they brought it up in the United Nations Security Council this week and seem strongly convinced that the Armenians are behind this. Do you think that they have intelligence suggesting Armenians set the fire?

It’s the satellite photography that has keyed them off. They paid up and hired a satellite photographer to take a look. It’s quite clever of them. But the problem is that Azerbaijan has its hands tied, because in order to determine what the source was, you have to get in on the ground. At the same time they’re raising the level of rhetoric and debate at the UN and elsewhere. From my perspective is a rather clever thing to do.

Q: In Azerbaijan Diary, you repeatedly mention how the international media was disinterested in even the biggest war stories out of Azerbaijan. Do you think that the world is still overlooking Azerbaijan, or are things different now?

Has it changed? I would say yes, although the dynamic is different because right now we’re not in a hot war situation and we have other wars, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan. But given the hand of cards that Azerbaijan has been dealt recently they’re playing it cleverly. They’re keeping Karabakh on the international agenda through the fires, etcetera and they’re in a general outreach mode of thought that they were not in before. For example, they invited certain artists to perform for in the Baku Jazz Festival, which was originally funded by British Petroleum, now it’s funded by local companies. They’re cottoning onto the idea of promoting themselves in the world at large and in the region as well as Azerbaijan and I applaud that. It’s a little bit late but they’re catching up quick and in the best possible way because it’s not just nastiness, and starving people anymore. They still may rely on showing refugees to journalists; but now there are also these other aspects: music, culture, and architecture, and fun things that deserve to be known to the larger world.

Q: Azerbaijan can’t really permanently resettle its refugees because that would make it look like they’ve accepted the loss of land, but having them live in bad conditions seems inhumane. Is there a solution to that dilemma?

Any country that has a refugee problem will be stuck with the same dynamic and it’s sad, because the moment you settle your refugees you admit that you have lost forever. So keeping some refugees in some photo-op nastiness is just one of the things that happens to refugees. It still pertains to Armenia and Georgia as well, although the Georgians are a bit more proud and don’t show it off as much. So they’re sort of obligated to show their wounds, at the same time there are programs for more permanent housing even though it’ll never be called that. We’re talking building blocks made with low quality mortar. The idea being that when the occupied territories are liberated they can deconstruct these homes, put them on blocks and onto trucks and move them within 24 hours into well into the occupied territories.

Q: Near the end of Azerbaijan Diary you bemoan a speech Heydar Aliyev gives upon ascending to the presidency for vowing to win back the territories lost to Armenia. You suggest that it will doom another generation to bloodshed. Do you believe this now?

I remain really ambivalent about that and it comes from hating this thing called war on a profound, visceral level. I’ve just seen way too much of it. At the same time I can understand my Azerbaijani friends and their frustrations with the negotiating process. And whether that means they’ve got to include the threat of renewed violence in order to get back the occupied territories and maybe Karabakh. I’m not going to second guess them. It’s just that if it does go bang, it’ll be really nasty as both sides are determined and entrenched. If Azerbaijan were to go forward, they’d be going forward against an entrenched opposition that has been there for 10 years waiting for an attack and they’ll be attacking uphill which isn’t ideal.

Q: Journalists tend to dwell on the same themes when addressing Azerbaijan– rigged elections, the possibility of religious resurgence, corruption and yet they don't tend to mention the obvious good things happening in the country, the increased prosperity, the opening of the BTC pipeline this summer, which was a pretty big deal but got virtually no coverage here in Canada?

No, the opening of the pipeline was huge on TV everywhere else. The government trotted it out as a grand event. If anything, they were exaggerating the importance of it, but it was an important event. It was a political victory, an example of when politics trumps economics, which is not supposed to happen. And oil is also at $70 a barrel as opposed to $30 or $13 a barrel. That means there’s going to be a ton of money coming into Azerbaijan, a so-called wall of money. Whether that can be used successfully is, of course, a huge question. They have an oil fund. Will it be used or abused? We really don’t know. There’s even the perception of the country being phenomenally wealthy and if the guy on the street keeps on hearing in the news that the annual average income of the Azerbaijan citize is, eight million people divided into some huge number, he will then look and see that he doesn’t have that Rolls Royce. He's going to start asking why he's not benefiting from this prosperity. And what happens after that It is impossible to predict.

Q: Do you see that crisis of rising expectations as a serious potential problem? Do you have some intuition of the future of Azerbaijan, whether the future holds many curveballs for the country?

It’s not just Azerbaijan, it’s the entire South Caucasusian mindset, as in many ways there’s not a lot of difference between Georgians and Azerbaijanis, who are both coming out of the so-called Seventy Year Experiment. The difference in Azerbaijan is that suddenly they are going to be getting all this money without having worked for it. It is going to be dwarf whatever cash can be given the Armenian diaspora, which is what Armenia survives on. You add oil money into that sort of environment and it’s potentially explosive, it could be a real firecracker or perhaps something lovelier. I hate to be vague but it can go either way. Is the glass half empty or half full?

Q: Since your first went to Azerbaijan in the early 90s there has been an entire new generation of young people that have come along with their own priorities, not necessarily those of their parents. What impact do you think this will have?

My impression is that with younger generation is much more profoundly Azerbaijanified, they grew up with this theoretically independent state. The older generation may be inured to the idea of Soviet Azerbaijan, the way things always worked, everybody was employed and all state artists were sufficiently respected, etcetera. But those days are gone and there will be lingering bitterness there. But the 20-to-30 year-old crowd that I run into and - being the author of my book helps because I m a hero to some of them - I meet and greet all these folks and they seem to be much more attached to the idea of an independent Azerbaijan and all that entails: language, environment, culture, return to traditional musical modes, and then you infuse that with the fat of all the oil money coming in. You also have all these individuals traveling the world. I had the pleasure to attend a couple of different meetings of the youth of Azerbaijan; one was of graduates of English language institutions. It was held by the Azerbaijan Alumni Association (AAA) they tended to be grads of US universities but other schools too. There was a panel of four guys from the ministry of foreign affairs, one was the consul general of Los Angeles, one was the ambassador to Brussels of the European Union and Council of Europe, the ambassador to Austria as well, and an OSCE rep and then finally the individual responsible for press information and intelligence at the foreign ministry and they held this open panel. The language of the evening was English and that too was an extraordinary thing. Five or 10 or 15 years ago there would be no possibility of such an exchange. It was intensive; there was a Q&A on some delicate subjects, from the evaluation of the entrance exams of the Foreign Ministry to policy in Karabakh. It was very impressive to watch these youth conducting themselves like that. Two days before I was at a soiree where all of the ambassadors of Azerbaijan were called back to reacquaint themselves with Azerbaijan. There were 48 embassies abroad represented, plus generals. Once again, it was impressive. I was thinking of my days in 1991 and 92 when they first established the foreign ministry when they had me as the one talking to the world. I was helping draft their documents. I had to assure them that they wanted recognition, that they wanted that to be the situation. Now they have the money to do all this. They’re retooling, sending their people to see the refugee camps and to see military training, as well as the oil culture, a bit of this and that. There was also this collegial solidarity. It was extraordinary. I couldn’t have imagined this happening.

Q: The state of democracy is Azerbaijan is rregularly assailed. What’s your view of its development?

I hate to go into relative-land but let me start with the concept of democracy in the USA. What is the paradigm we are looking for all other countries to strive for and achieve and in what period of time? When I hear the world democracy I think George Bush and Condoleeza Rice and that’s not a good sign at all. In terms of this thing called participatory government, you can ask: can Azerbaijan do more? And the answer to that is yes of course. But at the same thing is true for all the lands of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, as well as UK elsewhere too. Democracy has yet to be perfected anywhere that I know of and I’m not going to hold Azerbaijan up as an example of what can be achieved, although certainly that doesn’t mean that cops should be out hitting protesters with truncheons.

Q: What’s your feeling about Ilham Aliyev, have you met the president and what's your impression of him?

We met quite a few times before he became president. He was VP of Socar and periodically when I’d see his old man he’d be in the room. We’ve been aware of each other 10 years or so. I’m still withholding even partial judgment. He’s got big shoes to fill. His old man was this fascinating, interesting, contradictory guy that I had the pleasure of meeting when out of power and then back in power but Ilham is slowly but surely attempting to fill those shoes. He’s getting rid of some of his dad’s cronies and filling those positions with other individuals. What I find interesting now is - and this is speculative: what is that wall of money going to do? My sense is the last time I was in Baku meeting with a bunch of individuals, I was meeting people who might be considered corrupt, or not corrupt, but they were clearly post-Soviet. They seemed to be cleaning up their act and they were confident of living in a wealthy country so that they weren’t trying to squirrel away their money and I regard that as a good sign.

Q: How did you manage to pick up all these languages, Turkish, Azeri and Russian?

I’ve got a good ear I guess. I started Turkish as a second language in university. That obviously helped and then I ended up in Turkey and ended up married to a Turkish woman and exploited that opportunity shall.

Q: What are you doing now?

I am a visiting scholar here at the University of Montana, which has a longtime engagement with the rest of the world. There has been an East Asian connection for 20,or 30 yars, through Japanese and Korean and now there is this Central Asia component which is now expanding west to the Caspian and Caucasus which is why they brought me in, although I’ve had some connection as a visiting lecturer for 10 years. Now they’ve formalized it, so I have a course, an introduction to the post-Soviet Caucasus. It’s a bit of literature, music, culture a lot of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Chechnya. You can’t look at these places in isolation.

Q: Are you originally from Montana?

I’m from North Dakota. We’re the butt of all Montana jokes but there’s a family connection out here from the mid 70s. I established a real residence here in 1990.

Q: You’ve also written Georgia Diary and Chechnya Diary and you’ve recently written a book about your times traveling Africa doing Shakespeare in the 70s.

It was brought out in London two months ago but I drafted it 28 years ago and it finally got picked up two years ago after being rejected by 30 publishers. It’s mainly about me wandering around Africa. Azerbaijan Diary is the longest of the three diaries. Chechnya Diary is the shortest and most intensely personal as it’s about a village, not a country. People have been saying that Georgia Diary is the most complex and comprehensive of the lot. The reason is that it reflects on 15 years of association and reflection as opposed to Azerbaijan, which is experiential and Chechnya Diary is brooding, dark and meditative. The Shakespeare in Africa book is completely different and people say that it's not my best book but it may turn out to be the most successful. I suspect it may be true, it’s a lot more approachable than the others.

Q: How well did Azerbaijan Diary sell?

The publisher is a crossover academic publishing house. They’re delighted to sell 2,000 copies. One day when I was sitting around talking about the Chechnya book with Thomas De Waal (The Black Garden) and Sebastian Smith who wrote a book called Allah’s Mountains published by NYU Press. We were sitting around and badmouthing our publishers as are writers will do and it turned out that St. Martin had published 5,000 hardbacks of my Chechnya Diary. These other two were wild with envy. That’s the context here of how many numbers of books of a relatively obscure subject matter get published. I think Sharp published 2,000 maybe more of the hard back and once it sold out it went to paperback and probably sold 15,000 to 20,000 copies of Azerbaijan Diary, which in a book of its size and price and subject matter is an insane best-seller.

Q: So when will it be out in Azeri?

This summer I got together with a translator and noticed it had been completed. I got some money to do it. It was huge to get that albatross off my back. We then started going to various publishers in Azerbaijan and creating a team of proofreaders copyreaders, editors and that’s the process I’m in and am fairly certain we’re going to be doing this, and basically waiting for some starter cash from a benefactor. But after that I’m almost all set and ready to go so I’d like to have it by the first of the year. Whether anybody in Azerbaijan will buy it is another question.

Q: What kind of life are you living now?

I live in a one bedroom apartment not far from campus. I come in on my bicycle or on my feet to my office. I lecture to my students and will be working on a film that I started work on four years ago about he oil odyssey, an insane journey on a three wheel motorcycle along the BTC route before it was sanctioned and before they wanted us to give it any attention at all. The US government, BP, didn’t want to have anything to do with it, then President Heydar Aliyev and (Georgia President Eduard) Shevardnadze realized that his sort of insane stunt circus on wheels might be the thing that would get international attention to this project. The project is like A River Runs Through It meets Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve finally got all the original tapes. I wanted to work in Baku but had to return to teach, so I’ll arrange with the local media centre. I have an expert student cutter. He’ll get credits and hopefully after six hours a week we’ll stitch it together to get a solid rough draft form and start cutting around and see if it can get on PBS or elsewhere We shot it three times, the first time 2000 and then 2001 and 2002. It was a circus. I brought all these traditional singers from the theatre in downtown Baku along with refugee camp people and turned this motorcycle adventure into a Kafka circus, the working title is The Oil Odyssey.

Q: When you think back about your times reporting on the Karabakh conflict, standing in the middle of the war as bombs rained down all over, was it worth it?

I didn’t it give a lot of thought and then I reflected on it and I almost got mystical. I’m not a religious guy but it was one of those situations that in retrospect you were destined, selected. There was no one else there to do it. Whether I would do it again, I don’t think so. I’ve had too many of my nine lives already removed and too many friends killed. Another generation of war hacks deserve the opportunity to do it now.

Q: Are you still bitter that so few newspapers agreed to publish your articles from the frontlines of the Karabakh war, a fact you complained bitterly about throughout the text?

Not really. In retrospect it makes for a better story, a better book. Although I didn’t know I was writing a book about it at the time. It’s also a wake-up call. Let’s go into the land of imagination, let’s say that bringing in Khojaly to world attention would have landed me a staff job at the New York Times. That’s how it works. A stringer files and is on the front page and then gets a staff job, that means being transferred in and out of countries. You get sent to Moscow for two years, then Japan and Argentina two years, all that’s fine and good but it strips one of the intensity of the experience of living in one place over the larger term and being responsible to that place rather than being a parachute journalist.


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