It was a bad idea and everyone knew it. Well, everyone except our professor. The assignment for our class was to go out into the more downtrodden neighborhoods surrounding Baku, Azerbaijan and ask people how oil wealth and government policies affected their lives. The professor would grade the questions for their inquisitiveness. Basically, the task was to get people to speak their minds about sensitive topic in public. “Better” questions were those that would provoke the average person into a diatribe about society, politics, economics or energy policies. This was something few Azeris seemed likely to do, and thus none of the students in the class were enthusiastic to conduct the experiment. We would look more like journalists than researchers, and independent journalists were suffering in Baku.
By this time, my first piece for Glimpse from the Globe had been published, which painted a decidedly negative picture of Azerbaijan’s political landscape; I had no idea if anyone in Baku was aware of it, but it was possible. Azerbaijan is known for its powerful class of political elites, floating on a geyser of Caspian oil. They are busy enough with international political and commercial affairs, so they rely on manipulated elections and a vast security apparatus to maintain stability in the domestic arena. I knew the society well, I knew the neighborhoods we were supposed to visit, and I already knew the silent opinions of many citizens. The last thing I wanted to do was ask pushy questions like “Do you think the government has managed oil wealth fairly?” in some of Baku’s poorest neighborhoods.
Further complicating the situation was the ethnic makeup of my research team: one Azeri and five foreigners, three of whom had absolutely no chance of blending in. The native student and I could speak Azerbaijani and conduct interviews, but the rest of the team would be useless. They were doomed to attract the attention of people who had never before seen foreigners roaming their neighborhoods and bazaars en masse. I knew how to blend in well enough on my own, but with two Africans and a blonde Aussie on my team, there would be no escaping the wary stares of thousands of Azeris who had probably never seen people from other continents in their neighborhoods.. Inevitably, there would be undercover police officers among them.
The inevitable approach from the local cops happened at our second of four locations. We were interviewing a man on the street – who was rather apprehensive from the outset – about how things have changed in the last decade. Instead of asking directly about energy policies, income inequality or other controversial topics, we asked about the quality of healthcare and education, job opportunities and the affordability of food, knowing that the answers would be positive. In 2004 the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline opened, wealth surged into Baku and life began to improve dramatically for many people. According to World Bank figures, Azerbaijan’s GDP per capita increased from under $2,000 to over $7,000 by 2013. Our strategy turned out to be a safe move, and we avoided triggering negative opinions. But as we interviewed the man on the sidewalk, a crowd of onlookers gathered around the unusual group of foreigners jotting notes about the conversation. They interrupted, asking what we were doing. I fended off nosy pedestrians by answering that we were students doing research, enabling the rest to keep going with the interview.
One man was particularly rude and kept asking us questions. Where were we from? Why were we asking these questions? Why did we come to this neighborhood? After explaining our project, I asked if he would be willing to do an interview himself, which he declined. Then he pulled out a government identification card, revealing himself as an undercover policeman.
We were surrounded. It was obvious that several other men around us worked with the officer questioning us. Others may have just been curious pedestrians. Uniformed policemen showed up a few minutes later, but the plainclothes officer was clearly in charge. He wanted to see identification from all of us and various government registration documents as proof we had permission to conduct our research. Naturally, we had no such documents. We spotted our professor down the street, so I broke out of the circle and got him to come explain the situation since he could speak Russian.
Upon being introduced to the professor, the officer said: “I represent Azerbaijan, I must speak Azerbaijani.” Azeris are very proud of their heritage, and tend to display serious and heartfelt nationalism. For all I know, the officer probably could have been charged with neglecting his duties if he had not shown us his robust patriotism. Our Azeri group member offered to translate, but eventually the cops acquiesced and switched to Russian. Azerbaijan’s schools used Russian throughout the Soviet period, but switched to Azeri after declaring independence in 1991. Most of the population still speaks Russian fluently. We slipped around the corner and back to the bus during our professor’s conversation with the police, who had lost interest in what was clearly a student assignment.
I could understand the officer’s position; he was doing his job. I was more disappointed with how the professor handled the class. He did not seem to think that there would be any issues with his assigned research project, and took none of the precautions that I assumed would be common sense, like sharing his cell phone number with the class. Additionally, I felt that he was on some kind of moral crusade to open the minds of Azeris to the injustices of their government. But the injustices he had in mind were related to poverty, not security or freedom of expression.
Our professor wanted us to understand that the quality of life of most Azeris had not improved as a result of the energy boom. But everyone in our class already knew the facts of life in Azerbaijan; a relatively small number of citizens are making incredible gains while the rest of the country struggles to keep up. Stability and order are strictly enforced by the government, which fears popular dissent for a variety of reasons. The government must sanction public events of any kind, no matter the size. At home, Americans can encounter musicians, reporters, pollsters and vendors on the streets virtually anywhere. In former Soviet states, this is less common since their rigorous security apparatuses can and do question “suspicious” pedestrians.
Transitioning to “democracy”, as many in the West think of it, means making societal changes that simply do not work well in some countries. It will never be easy to convince an entire police force that student activism, street reporting, impromptu performances or other “unusual” activities are nothing to fear. Many Western citizens who visit these places come to believe democracy and human rights don’t have a snowflake’s chance in hell of thriving in “oppressive” nations.
The reality is that outside the West, many nations are culturally, institutionally and practically unprepared to become “Western democracies”, regardless of what their constitutions say. Azerbaijan and many other former Soviet states have little historical experiences with Western-style democracy. Their Soviet legacies are also incredibly strong, so their government institutions tend to model those first implemented by the Kremlin. Institutions born of Soviet lineage continue to shape societies in ways that reflect the Soviet period. Therefore, incidents like my experience occur regularly. As a result, nations like Azerbaijan are condemned by moral authorities such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Human Rights Watch, the US State Department and the EU for not allowing protests, jailing journalists and other incidents. Granted, some incidents do merit international exposure and condemnation. But simply condemning regimes for human rights abuses will do nothing except document and publicize the incidents.
Am I unhappy about the status of human rights in many countries? Of course. But another problem lies in the misperceptions of those Westerners who think they have all the answers, but who don’t actually offer meaningful solutions. Despite unsuccessful Western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade and a half, Americans still habitually delude themselves into thinking that we can somehow manipulate regimes into adopting a stronger rule of law. Military interventions, economic aid packages and sanctions, training programs and a host of other activities have failed to produce functioning, favorable or idealistic governments in various states.
The world can be improved, but not overnight. Transformations in states and societies take time, and we must know that from history. The US took its merry time in establishing civil rights for citizens of all races. Two centuries, in fact, and it still has problems with race relations. No nation has an innocent history. Those governments pursuing morally inspired foreign policies need to run forensics on their own souls before passing judgment on other nations. They also need to examine the practicality of a morally driven foreign policy, both for the sake of preserving amoral strategic interests and ensuring that their foreign policy goals are realistically attainable. As President Eisenhower once said, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.” Maybe we should work on our World Press Freedom Rankings before lecturing others on media rights—the US stands at 46th worldwide.
Being briefly investigated by undercover cops was an unpleasant experience. After all, being jailed in Baku was not on my bucket list during my semester abroad. The interaction was a firsthand lesson in the everyday realities faced by independent reporters in Azerbaijan. I don’t envy their positions, and their work is laudable. But the work of a free press is meaningless when the audience of ordinary citizens is unreachable, cowed, uninspired or hopeless. Just as a population strangled by fear is unlikely to change a regime, a regime in fear will not easily change itself in any manner that would sacrifice its security.
So what does it take? What does it take for the West to understand, and for developing countries to learn? Anyone with a laptop can peruse Radio Free Europe and then write a fairly well informed blog post about the status of journalistic liberties in Azerbaijan, or an article on civil liberties in just about any nation. But understanding the causes requires experience. I had no intention of becoming a journalist of any kind when I took off for Baku last June. I had no intention of writing about my experience on the research trip until long after it had ended. But I realized that the lessons offered by that excursion and a host of other classes and experiences enabled me to realize the complexity of a seemingly straightforward situation. Just as an average American may not wholly appreciate the finer aspects of conducting journalism in a place like Azerbaijan, the average Azeri – and even the most extraordinary Azeri officials, who are quite talented – may not comprehend how a free press serves its nation by operating independently. As I learned the complexity of Azeri strategic calculus with regards to controlling the media by learning firsthand, an Azeri could learn about the workings and benefits of a free press through personal experience.
More international exchanges between the West and nations like Azerbaijan should be encouraged in order to bring the realities of Western societies to bear in developing countries. Societal changes occur one citizen at a time. Almost every Azeri I met who had travelled to the West could talk for hours about how different those countries were. I ran into dozens of students who had completed year-long student exchange programs during high school and college, and every one of them could talk for hours about how that time abroad totally changed their lives. They became fluent in English, learned the true value of education and realized that they are actually capable of starting their own businesses and becoming successful without a government job or a family connection. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of Azeris travel overseas, and foreign ideas are slow to filter into the country. American, French, Spanish and British flags can be seen on shirts and soccer jerseys throughout Baku, but the societies they represent are all but absent.
Azerbaijan is not alone in this condition. Similar political and social realities exist in countries worldwide. Nations large and small continue to dampen popular dissent for a variety of reasons. They range from more respectable goals, such as preserving national sovereignty or maintaining stable governance, to sheer abominations, like covering up war crimes. Residents of politically undeveloped countries need to experience foreign excursions in order to understand that alternatives do exist, and that they themselves are capable of implementing changes in their home nations. Encouraging citizens of politically underdeveloped countries to travel abroad might help them gain insights about what can be possible in their homelands. After all, a nation’s history is written primarily by its own people. Providing new perspectives to regular Azeris, Congolese or Venezuelans can give those citizens the tools to reshape their nations in ways the West has been dreaming about for decades. I would happily gamble a round trip ticket from Baku to New York that a certain cop would never have stopped me in the street if he had spent a week in Manhattan.
Actually, he definitely would stop me. I’ve never met a foreigner who had been to New York and didn’t have five stories to tell about it.