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January 23 2014

Goodbye Alexandros Petersen, Prodigious Guide to China in Central Asia

With a sprinkle of humor, Alex slipped seamlessly and gracefully into a region of stories and storytellers, abundance and poverty, toasts and toast-makers. 

The 29 year-old go-to-scholar and commentator was eloquent and big-hearted in everything he did. 

It was with great shock that I comprehended the loss of Alexandros Petersen, co-author of the excellent Eurasian affairs blog ChinainCentralAsia.com, in a suicide bomb attack carried out by the Taliban at a restaurant in central Kabul on January 17, 2014. 

Alexandros Petersen at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Alexandros Petersen at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

This is not an obituary.

Alex was so well-traveled and well-affiliated that compiling his biography would probably be a task beyond any single person, and certainly the author of this post. A great number of people knew Alex in a great number of capacities, all of whom lost something in this brutal, highly coordinated and premeditated attack.

America-born to a Greek mother and a Danish father, he had friends and admirers across the world, with a notable concentration of both in lands sandwiched between the shores of the Black Sea and the sands of the Taklamakan desert.

As an occasional journalist, I had known ‘Alex the source’ – always reliable for an astute and erudite quote – for some time before I knew Alex the person.

While the first Alex will leave a gaping hole in the rolodex of many analysts and reporters covering Central Asia and the Caucasus, it is the second Alex, known by family, friends, colleagues and students, that will be missed even more. 

As a noted expert in energy politics, Alex's scope was global, yet like many that have traveled through, lived and worked in, or wrote about the states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, there was a specific set of countries he found infectious. As he emphasized in his book The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, and later through the ChinainCentralAsia blog and book project, this is a region that western policy-makers ignore at their peril.

Many people that knew Alex, even as briefly as I knew him, will know that he had an aptitude for anecdotes. Through the warm fuzzy memory of one of several excellent dinner evenings at a well-known Georgian restaurant in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (a dash of the Caucasus in Central Asia) I can still hear his tale of the duplicitous Azerbaijani ambassador that summoned him for a dressing down after he had written a critical article about that country, only to promptly stop, smile, and break out a teapot and tea cups. The dressing down, it emerged, had been recorded for the benefit of a political high-up in Baku, while the teapot and tea cups were symbols of the perennial hospitality with which any visitor to the region rapidly becomes familiar. 

On a good night, Alex could reel off a dozen such recollections from his years traveling through countries in Europe and Asia, nearly all of which were outrageously funny. A Petersen punch line could leave your ribs hurting from laughter, a potent and particular gift that the Taliban stole from the world.

China in Central Asia

Through ChinainCentralAsia.com, one of the most readable English-language blogs covering geopolitics in the Eurasian region, Alex had begun in combination with co-writer Raffaello Pantucci and photojournalist Sue Anne Tay, to document what he was convinced, with good reason, would be one of the stories of the 21st century, namely China's giant economic push through the countries lying west of its own restive Xinjiang province. These countries, cobbled together as “the stans” by the western media, lie at the historical heart of some of the greatest land empires the world has known, but are now isolated states increasingly shorn of options. Hamstrung by geography, corruption and various other internal problems, they have few reasons to reject Chinese largesse, and even fewer means to resist it.

Belatedly the chronicle of exponentially increasing Chinese trade and investment in Central Asia has started to turn heads beyond the region and its regular gaggle of foreign observers. Last September, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping's whirlwind tour through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan raised eyebrows across the world by virtue of the sheer size of the deals struck for oil, gas and other giant infrastructure projects in the region. For Petersen, Pantucci and others, this is a plot that has been bubbling for some time, and one that is increasingly central to the epic that is China's rise towards superpower status.   

While Alex diligently tracked every stretch of pipeline built by the Chinese in the region, he also knew that China's influence in Central Asia could not be measured in kilometers of road, barrels of oil, and cubic meters of gas alone. Many of the articles on ChinainCentralAsia.com are enjoyable to read precisely because they gather the testimonies of ordinary Central Asians being affected by the changes that have accompanied China's expanding clout; from university teachers observing the installation of Confucius Institutes in their places of work, to local businessmen whose bank accounts have been swelled by trade with China, and villagers who believe the roads Chinese companies are building in their country – paid for by cheap Chinese credit – are designed to support the weight of Chinese tanks in a future military invasion.

The practitioners of Beijing's westward pivot, and the protagonists in the emergence of what ChinainCentral Asia.com has labelled China's “inadvertant empire” are also human beings rather than mere pawns on a chessboard, a fact Petersen captured in an October article in the Atlantic: 

These actors include Chinese owners of market stalls in Central Asia’s largest bazaars. One I spoke to had lived for years in a shipping container he shared with four other men at the back of a clothes market in Kazakhstan’s largest bazaar. A multi-millionaire, he provided for his children’s Western education, multiple apartments in Shanghai, and even overseas property investments. To him, Central Asia is the land of opportunity. These actors also include Chinese teachers sent to staff the many Confucius Institutes sprouting up around the region. Some I spoke with missed home, but many said they preferred the exciting “frontier life.” CNPC engineers across the region know that they are in for the long haul, as their company and its many subsidiaries build imposing structures in every Eurasian capital. The immense pipeline network CNPC is threading through the region consists of infrastructure set to last half a century.

Alex the Guide

Beyond his writing Alex also inspired as a teacher, and it was during his semester-long stint at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, that I got to know him on a personal level. Among the juniors and seniors in the International and Comparative Politics department (many of whom have written articles for Global Voices) that took his elective courses, and freshmen of all departments undertaking the First Year Seminar, Alex was a universally admired guide and friend, as well as a teller of fantastic stories. To both students and colleagues at the university, he was open, approachable, and a great person to bounce ideas off.

We are thinking of his family.  

A man of many temporary homes, Alex was in Kabul to embark on another research and teaching stint at the American University of Afghanistan. Writing to him a few days before he died I told him I was looking forward to a new series of dispatches on the nature and shape of Chinese influence in this fascinating, beautiful, tortured country. Now those dispatches will never be written and the students he was teaching will miss out on the tremendous wealth of knowledge, experience and color he brought to a classroom. When the Taliban cut his life short so brutally, it was fellow Afghans they punished. 

As his friend and writing partner Raffaello Pantucci communicated via email, “a bright light has gone out.”

Chris Rickleton manages the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

December 30 2013

A Different Kind of Free Speech

Political demonstration in Azerbaijan. Photo by Jahangir Yusif, used with permission.

Political demonstration in Azerbaijan. Photo by Jahangir Yusif, used with permission.

Today is the birthday of the friend of the youth, our Mr. President. I sincerely congratulate you on behalf of “Azerbaijani Youth Alliance” public union and myself. I wish you lots of luck in all the work you do for turning our Azerbaijan in the worlds most strongest states! We are proud of you!

She was wishing him a happy birthday, on Facebook. The man’s whose birthday she was so candidly celebrating was Ilham Aliyev, the current President of a small country called Azerbaijan. She is a young woman from Baku who works for a government institution.

Reading the message was heart wrenching. At the time of its writing, there are people behind bars for doing something not unlike what this user was doing – expressing their opinions. Perhaps this young woman doesn’t know them, but I do. They are not hooligans or terrorists — they represent no threat. They are innocent men who have families and friends waiting for them to get out.

According to the Baku-based Human Rights Club, currently there are 142 people “in detention or imprisoned for politically motivated reasons” in Azerbaijan. The comprehensive list includes the names of journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, activists, religious figures and others. To be more precise, this group includes ten journalists and bloggers; two human rights defenders; eleven youth activists (so much for the caring love and compassion of the president); six political activists; seventy-four religious activists; seventeen people (of various background including police, former employees of the executive authorities, militia, and former prime ministers) serving lifetime prison sentences; and nineteen cases involving other politically motivated charges.

On December 18 of this year, Anar Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) landed behind bars on charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship (failure to obtain proper institutional permits) and “abuse of office” (Criminal Code Article 308.3), suggesting that he sought to interfere with election results. Mammadli’s arrest was seen as yet another politically motivated move by the government.

The EMDS Center is one of the few independent election observation bodies that does transparent work and publishes its findings in Azerbaijan. When the case against EMDS was originally brought in late October, following national elections, the Center’s offices were searched and equipment, reports, news releases and financial documents were confiscated.

Overall, 2013 was not a good year for human rights in Azerbaijan. While many protests shook the country starting in early January of this year, organizers and participants in these protests are now paying a high price for their activism. Advocates who share information with foreign media and international institutions have been warned. In a recent speech in Baku, Ali Hasanov, a senior political aid and regime loyalist argued that it is the “Western influence” and so-called “donor grants” that are corrupting the minds of Azerbaijanis and letting them “engage in an anti- Azerbaijani activity for some AZN 2,000-3,000 (approximately EUR 2,000-3,000).”

Last year, Azerbaijan hosted the 7th international Internet Governance Forum — the annual multistakeholder meeting organized by the United Nations to discuss public policy issues related to the Internet. Many government representatives attending the event repeated over and over again that human rights, press freedom and Internet freedom were all doing just fine in Azerbaijan. Ironically, as over 1500 international delegates attended the event, at least eight journalists and three human rights defenders were serving prison terms for criticizing public officials and for writing on sensitive government issues. All were sentenced on dubious charges.

A year later, similar remarks and statements were heard during the 8th annual Internet Governance Forum, held in Bali, Indonesia. A session titled “Azerbaijani government open forum building bridges: elimination of the digital divide” brought together a panel of like-minded people praising each other and commenting on successful partnership rather than on the pressing issues in Azerbaijan. This affable atmosphere was interrupted with a question from the audience on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and government persecution of activists. Nariman Hajiyev, an Azerbaijani government representative to the United Nations, responded: “I could easily say there are no concrete human rights violations or concrete freedom of speech [violations].”

The Azerbaijani government is working hard to present a rosy picture of our country abroad. Government supporters — like the young woman wishing Aliyev a happy birthday — have helped this effort. Like anyone else, she used the Internet to express her views on government activities — she’s exercising her right to free speech. But this woman will not find herself in jail. She will get a pat on a shoulder and a golden star for her immaculate behavior. How many more gold stars will be issued and innocent lives ruined before things really change?

 

Arzu Geybullayeva is an Azerbaijani blogger and regional analyst based in Istanbul.

August 31 2013

Un projet de « grand palais des sports » sur le front de mer de Bakou, à la place d'installations…

Un projet de « grand palais des sports » sur le front de mer de Bakou, à la place d’installations portuaires appelées à disparaître.

Bakıda möhtəşəm saray tikilir – FOTOLAR – Editor.az
http://editor.az/?p=294035

http://editor.az/wp-content/uploads1/2013/08/187.jpg
#Bakou #azerbaïdjan #Baku #azerbaijan #construction

July 02 2013

Pour la première fois, l'opposition azerbaïdjanaise aura un seul candidat aux élections, qui plus…

Pour la première fois, l'opposition azerbaïdjanaise aura un seul candidat aux élections, qui plus est une figure avec une visibilité internationale et qui n'est pas marqué dus sceau infamant de la période 91-93. à suivre

http://www.rferl.org/content/azerbaijan-opposition-chooses-ibragimbekov/25034055.html

#azerbaijan #azerbaïdjan #présidentielles_2013

May 21 2013

Laughing at Russia's Eurovision Shooting Spirit

In 1945, following a visit by the USSR's Dynamo soccer team, George Orwell wrote that sports are “war minus the shooting.” He also said that “serious” sports have “nothing to do with fair play.” Earlier today, May 21, 2013, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to echo this spirit, when he commented on his country's fifth place finish in this year's Eurovision Song Contest.

At a joint press conference [ru] with his counterpart from Azerbaijan, Lavrov denounced supposed voting irregularities surrounding Russia's representative, Dina Garipova, whom he believes should have earned another ten points from Azerbaijan's voters. Claiming that the points were “stolen,” Russia's chief diplomat called the anomaly “an outrageous act” and promised Russian retaliation. Azerbaijani national security officials have already responded [ru], calling in for questioning several citizens who voted in past Eurovision contests. The uproar has even prompted a statement to Eurovision's organizers, who warned that “any form of political pressure on professional juries” would have consequences.


Dina Garipova performs her song, “What If,” in Eurovision's final round, 18 May 2013.

While Eurovision 2013 is over and Russia's contestant has been defeated, Russian Twitter users continue to find entertainment in Lavrov's bellicose comments. Many juxtaposed the federal government's sensitivity about Eurovision voting to its largely indifferent attitude about election violations in Russia's own, real elections.

Mocking Russia's recently-instituted webcam-monitoring project for polling stations, Oleg Kozyrev tweeted:

В следующем году с целью обеспечения прозрачности голосования на Евровидении Владимир Путин установит в домах всех европейцев веб-камеры

Next year, in order to ensure Eurovision's voting transparency, Putin will place webcams in the homes of every European.

Noting Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko's similar complaints about Eurovision, activist Ilya Yashin wrote:

ЕС заявлял о фальсификациях на выборах в России и Беларуси. Лавров и Лукашенко заявили о фальсификации на Евровидении. Шах и мат, европейцы.

The European Union declared voting falsifications in Russia and Belarus. Lavrov and Lukashenko declared falsifications in Eurovision. Checkmate, Europeans.

Twitter user VRebyata wrote sarcastically:

В ходе Евровидения оказалось, что Российские власти могут проявлять чрезвычайную принципиальность в подведении итогов голосования

In this year's Eurovision, it turned out that the Russian authorities can indeed display special commitment to vote tabulation.

Oppositionist and anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny spun Lavrov's comments into an attack on Russia's leading political party, tweeting facetiously:

Глава МИД Лавров заявил, что в ответ на неправильный подсчет голосов на ‘Евровидении', ‘ЕдРо’ получит дополнительные 15% голосов на выборах

Foreign Affairs Head Lavrov has announced that, in response to the incorrect counting of votes for Eurovision, United Russia will receive an extra 15% of the votes in [future] elections.

Billionaire and Novaya Gazeta newspaper co-owner Alexander Lebedev teased Lavrov with feigned congratulations:

Молодец Лавров по случаю Евровидения!Это и есть внешняя политика

Well done, Lavrov, on [dealing with] Eurovision! Now that's what I call foreign policy

Twitter user Stanislav Burdelyov joked that Vladimir Putin's longtime domination of Russian elections affected voters’ behavior, writing:

Дина Гарипова не выиграла Евровидение потому, что россияне по привычке проголосовали за Путина.

Dina Garipova didn't win Eurovision because Russians [everywhere] are used to voting [only] for Putin.

Ridiculing Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's dwindling political clout, Andrey Girich tweeted:

Надо было Медведева на Евровидение отправить

They should have sent Medvedev to Eurovision [instead of Garipova]

Sasha Grey in Vladivostok, Russia, 15 May 2013, screen capture from YouTube.

Sasha Grey in Vladivostok, Russia, 15 May 2013, screen capture from YouTube.

Twitter user Bernard Galt tied Lavrov's hostile remarks to Russia's two other ongoing entertainment-news imbroglios: a nationwide road-trip by former porn star Sasha Grey, and Gérard Depardieu's latest police-motorcaded visit [ru] to Chechnya. Galt wrote:

Депардье ездит с мигалкой. Саша Грей читает лекции в Екатеринбурге. Лавров возмущается, что на Евровидении украли голоса. Упоротая Россия

Depardieu drives around with a siren. Sasha Grey is giving lectures in Ekaterinburg. Lavrov is is outraged that they stole our votes on Eurovision. This country is stoned.

With over 300 retweets, the best-loved Eurovision-related quip belongs to a Twitter account called Fake_MIDRF (The Fake Foreign Affairs Ministry of the Russian Federation). That anonymous satirist mocked the country's past attempts to retaliate against perceived slights by foreigners, alluding to Russia's ban on U.S. adoptions (known as the “Dima Yakovlev law” inside Russia):

В ответ на кражу голосов на “Евровидении” у России будет принят закон Дины Гариповой о запрете концертов иностранных граждан в РФ.

In response to the theft of our votes at Eurovision, Russia will enact the Dina Garipova law, banning music concerts by foreign citizens in the Russian Federation.

February 07 2013

Imgur.com blocked in Azerbaijan?

The Azerbaijani government has a fairly unique way of controlling the Internet. Seldom are websites blocked. It does not behave like the governments of China, Iran or Saudi Arabia. But for a few weeks, one particular website has been inaccessible.

Imgur is a popular image sharing site. This isn’t Flickr or Snapfish where people post photos from their holiday party, it is a site where people post funny pictures, memes, and jokes. It is searchable, but people do not usually tag their photos, rather it is based on social sharing. And, most importantly, it is entirely anonymous and one does not even have to register or sign up for an account to post an image. It is quite popular for sites like Reddit.

Imgur front page

Imgur.com homepage

A few weeks ago I sent a link to an Imgur picture to a friend in Azerbaijan and she couldn’t open it. Though unusual, this may have been due to an error in the system. But since then it seems to have happened multiple times. Users in Azerbaijan can access direct links to photographs, but otherwise Imgur.com is not working in Azerbaijan. This post begins with speculation on the problem, and then presents some technical evidence.

Speculation

Why would Imgur be blocked in Azerbaijan? Why wouldn't Azerbaijan want people to look at LOLcats and cute animals? There is little evidence that Imgur is popular in Azerbaijan. For instance, a term search for Azerbaijan on the site turns up this delightful photo of Caucasian Shepherd puppies.

Caucasian Shepherd puppies

Image submitted by tappimus

The site is not known for political or anti-government content. There may be some pornography hosted on Imgur, a common problem with free photo-sharing sites, but Imgur is certainly not known for this. As in many parts of the world, Facebook and Instagram are popular photo-sharing sites in Azerbaijan – not for memes, per se, but for personal photographs. Another issue could be the degree of anonymity that Imgur provides. Anyone can upload any picture without leaving a trace like one does on Facebook or Instagram. For users concerned about government monitoring, this could make it seem safer to share information — this in turn could be a threat to a government that wants to monitor information shared on the Internet. This is the Imgur privacy policy:

Imgur does not disclose to any third party Private Data you have given us, except to the extent necessary for credit card processing; in such cases your Private Data is used by credit card processors only for that purpose (including guarding against credit card fraud). The only exception, obviously, is if we are forced to disclose the information as a result of a subpoena or other legal process. You may correct, amend, or delete inaccurate Private Data information you have given us, although any credit card transactions that have already taken place will be unaffected. For legal reasons we may retain backup and/or archival copies of information prior to your corrections, amendments, or deletions. We take every reasonable precaution to protect your Private Data from loss, misuse, unauthorized access, disclosure, alteration, or destruction. You are responsible for taking every reasonable precaution on your end to protect any unauthorized person from accessing your Imgur account.

But those likely are not the reasons why Imgur is blocked in Azerbaijan. A few weeks ago the hacker group Anonymous released a huge volume of documents leaked from Special State Protection Service of Azerbaijan. In total, there were 1.7 GB of documents released, but someone went through much of it and made the most interesting documents available on another website – Imgur.com (see album here).

It is easy to see why a government might want to block a website hosting sensitive material of this sort. But what about Azerbaijanis that want to enjoy these?

Technical evidence

To determine that Imgur is blocked in Azerbaijan, I asked multiple people located in Azerbaijan to test http://www.imgur.com using multiple Internet service providers — all reported that they could not access the site, but were instead met with a blank screen. I also used a proxy server (this made my computer think it is in Azerbaijan) to test it myself.

proxy server

Browser screenshot taken by author

The above screenshot shows my browser checking that it thinks that it is located in Azerbaijan.

Error message screenshot taken by author

I typed http://www.imgur.com and http://imgur.com into my browser and displayed the message above. I then tried to search for imgur.com on Google.az (Google.az was the default Google because my computer thought it was in Azerbaijan.)

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 10.52.47 AM

Google search screenshot taken by author

Next I tried to open Google Cache, a service that takes and stores “pictures” of websites so that if they go down, users can still see a version of that site's content. Google Cache did load for imgur.com, but as I understand it, Google Cache is universal, not country-specific. Next I tested it with a few sites that can verify whether a website's servers are down, including http://www.downforeveryoneorjustme.com/. The site indicated (see below) that while it was not accessible for me (being “in” Azerbaijan), the site was perfectly accessible elsewhere.

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 10.31.54 AM

Screenshot taken by author

My next step was to try to figure out where the blockage began with a traceroute — this is a way to see the road that your computer travels, so to speak, to see a particular website.

Azerbaijan to ford.com

Azerbaijan to ford.com

Neither told me anything. It is as if you can’t really do a traceroute from Azerbaijan. So imgur.com appears to be blocked. It may be blocked for a legitimate reason, from the perspective of state security, but it demonstrates that the government is capable of blocking websites. What else might be blocked now or in the future?

If the site being blocked were Facebook, Azerbaijanis would likely be up in arms about the blocking. But because Imgur is not that popular, there may be little reaction.

January 27 2013

Prominent Blogger Detained in Azerbaijan

Screen capture of Facebook page ‘Support Azerbaijani Activists in Administrative Detention'

(more…)

November 30 2012

Virtual Game Leads to Real Job as Football Manager in Azerbaijan

On November 21, 2012, Vugar Huseynzade, a 21-year-old university graduate whose favourite past-time is playing the computer game Football Manager was confirmed as the new manager for Azerbaijan side FC Baku's reserve team. In an unprecedented move this gamer pipped former footballers including Frenchman Jean Pierre Papin to secure the job.

21-year-old Vugar Huseynzade, new manager for Azerbaijan's FC Baku's A team. Image courtesy of Azerbaijan FC Baku's official facebook page

Tyler Lee writing for the tech-blog Ubergizmo writes:

While we’re sure many of us out there dream of being able to become professional gamers and basically get paid to play games competitively, not all of us have the chops to get to that level, which is why it’s always nice to read about people who actually succeed while playing video games although in this case, it seems that this particular gamer was so good at playing the game that he was actually offered a job in real life which basically did the same thing. 21-year old gamer Vugar Huseynzade of Sweden has reportedly managed to land a job as a supporting manager of a football team despite having no experience managing a football team before – unless you count Sega and Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series. Huseynzade will be a manager in a support role of one of the Azerbaijan’s top football clubs, and it seems that despite his lack of experience, he has managed to beat out big names who have applied for the position including French legend, Jean-Pierre Papin. Not too shabby!

But is this 21-year-old up to the task? Sportsnewsireland.com says this on its blog:

Vugar Huseynzade was appointed to the role as manager of FC Baku’s A side despite never having managed a real life team before. The 21 year old’s only qualification for the job is his experience playing the computer game for the past 10 years.

The student has a degree in Business Management from Boston University and gained some experience in the sports world interning for an American sports agency.

Huseynzade somehow found himself in Azerbaijan where he was hired by the Premier League club as an assistant earlier this year. The club were so impressed by his prowess at Football Manager that he was promoted to his new position. So for all those Football Manager fans who spent hours on their computers dreaming they were managing their team to glory, their dreams may come true. Who knows maybe Roman Abramovich might be taking note as he searches for Chelsea’s next manager!

 

So as the bloggers say, next time you decide to play a computer game, do so with the firm commitment that one day you might be the next manager of your favourite team, the driver of your favourite motoring team or the best martial artist in your side of town!

 

 

November 07 2012

Azerbaijan: “A Country that Portrays Social-Networkers as Mentally Ill”

While all eyes were on the presidential election in the United States, a major international conference started on Tuesday in Baku, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. The 7th United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) claims to bring “all stakeholders” as equal partners to discuss major issues relating not only to the future of the Internet but also to matters of policing, management, and of course, freedom of expression online.

The choice of Baku to host the event has been controversial all along. Azerbaijan is hardly known for its respect of human rights.

According to Human Rights Watch, there are currently at least eight journalists and three human rights defenders behind bars in Azerbaijan. Authorities have banned all unsanctioned peaceful public assemblies in central Baku or anywhere else in the country.

Emin Milli, a prominent Azerbaijani blogger and youth activist, highlighted the problems facing Internet users and political activists in his country when he published  an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev on Tuesday, November 6, challenging the authorities’ claims that the Internet was free. He writes:

As someone who was jailed for using the internet to criticize you and your policies, I have experienced an inconvenient truth – the internet is not free in Azerbaijan and it is definitely not free from fear.

On Tuesday, a consortium of Azerbaijani human rights organizations, the Expression Online Initiative, published an open letter voicing concerns over “violations of UN main principles” that the group says are taking place during the UN-sponsored gathering. The group claims that the IGF Secretariat, a body responsible for organizing the event and accrediting participants, refused its requests to have a booth at the IGF village. According to the letter, the restrictions went even further:

[T]he Secretariat tried to prevent distribution of the Expression Online Initiative’s reports Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan and The Right to Remain Silent: Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan ahead of the 7th Internet Governance Forum. The IGF coordinator told our representatives “You are not allowed to distribute these reports within IGF premises.” Our attempt to distribute these reports, which examine issues in Azerbaijan which are directly relevant to the IGF, were perceived by the Secretariat as an attempt to “attack one of the stakeholder group,” i.e. the Azerbaijani government.

Expression Online Initiative also says that the registration desk repeatedly asked one of their representatives whether he was planning to stage a protest at the event and eventually handed over his ID card to local authorities.

To draw attention to the problems faced by Internet users in Azerbaijan, Amnesty International, is publishing a brief which documents several key cases where people have been persecuted for their online activities. “There is a deep irony to holding an international forum on internet governance in Azerbaijan,” the organisation’s Azerbaijan campaigner is quoted saying. He adds, “This is a country where the government intercepts individuals’ correspondence at a whim, imprisons bloggers, and portrays social-networkers as mentally ill.”

On Tuesday, prior to the official opening of the conference, IGF Watch reported that Indonesian civil society organisation ICT Watch was prevented from distributing postcards that read “Government Censorship: Protecting You From Reality.”

A UN official removed the postcards, according to IGF Watch, on the basis that they might upset certain governments. The website reports that the IGF Secretariat later retracted the statement, claiming that the removal of the postcards were merely due to advertising and accreditation issues.

A number of civil society organisations present in Baku are putting together a statement asking the IGF secretariat for clarifications on the incident, which they describe as “highly objectionable” and “completely unacceptable.”

This is not the first time that the host country of an IGF conference has raised controversy. It was the case when the IGF’s mandate was first established in Ben Ali’s Tunisia in 2005. It was also the case in Mubarak's Egypt in 2006. Both leaders thought they could harness the emancipating power of the Internet while painting an image of openness to the outside world. They both failed. Should President Aliyev be worried? Only time can tell.

November 06 2012

Azerbaijan: Open Letter to President Aliyev Ahead of International Governance Forum in Baku

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a UN-sponsored conference which aims to “bring[ ] together all stakeholders in the internet governance debate.” This year it is held in Baku, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan where, starting on Tuesday, government officials, representatives of the private sector, the civil society and academia are to discuss major issues related to the use, policing, management and future of the internet.

Also on Tuesday, Emin Milli, a well known Azerbaijani youth activist and former political prisoner, is publishing an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. The document is meant to coincide with the opening of the IGF, and is published by the London-based The Independent newspaper. In it, Mr. Milli challenges claims by the government that the internet is free is his country. He writes:

You once suggested in a speech that the internet is free in Azerbaijan. I am sure you will repeat this message at this global forum. It is true that people in Azerbaijan are free to use the internet, but it is also a fact that they can be severely punished afterwards for doing so.

Mr. Milli’s letter denounces widespread and warrantless surveillance of the web which, he says, has helped create a climate of fear reminiscent of the Soviet era, effectively preventing people from speaking out:

Today many of our fellow citizens do not dare to speak out against your policies, online or offline. You have successfully managed to silence them.

On July 8, 2009, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada, a video-blogger and pro-democracy activist, were sentenced to 2 and 2.5 years in jail respectively, on trumped-up charges of “hooliganism”. Most observers and rights organizations at the time condemned the verdict as political, declaring both men prisoners of conscience. Many believe they were punished for their irreverent criticism of the regime of Ilham Aliyev and for their efforts to establish alternative communication channels for the youth.

Following an international outcry, both men were conditionally released in 2010.

The regime of Mr. Aliyev has since attempted to paint a picture of a country open to the outside world. The organization of this year's IGF conference is all but one example of that policy. Informed observers of the situation in Azerbaijan describe the emergence of a new kind of authoritarianism there—a “networked authoritarianism” that has successfully taken advantage of an open internet to discourage users to exercise political activism online, and to demonize those who, like Mr. Melli, dare to speak up.

The full text of Mr. Emin Melli’s open letter to President Aliyev can be found on The Independent’s website, following this link:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-internet-is-not-free-in-azerbaijan-a-letter-to-president-ilham-aliyev-8282022.html

September 29 2012

Azerbaijan: Youth Activist Believed Arrested

Emin Milli's Blog comments on the apparent disappearance of a youth activist in Azerbaijan. The blog says it believes Zaur Gurbanly's believed arrest was because of anti-presidential leaflets that were also confiscated.

September 22 2012

Azerbaijan: Political Forces United on Pardoned Axe Murderer

In Mutatione Fortitudo says that the two main opposition parties in Azerbaijan have united behind the government in its criticism of a European Parliament ruling condemning the 31 August pardon, release, and promotion of an Azerbaijani soldier who axed to death a sleeping Armenian counterpart on a NATO Partnership for Peace program in Budapest, Hungary, in 2004.

September 07 2012

Biking from Tunisia to China for Wetland Conservation

Seven months ago, Arafet Ben Marzou, a 31-year-old Tunisian who graduated from a Biological and Environmental Engineering School, gave up his job as a university teacher and decided to pursue his childhood dream - traveling from Tunisia to China on a bike.

He started his journey in Tunisia and crossed the Mediterranean sea to Istanbul. He cycled through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. He is now in Xinjiang, China.

Ben Marzou has been providing updates about his trip through his Facebook page Tabba'ani (translated as “follow me” from the Tunisian dialect). On August 30, he wrote:

in china… alive.. i will update soon :)))

Xinjiang, China photo via Facebook page Follow Me

Xinjiang, China photo via Facebook page Follow Me

This travel project, entitled Wet-bike [fr], comes within the framework of an environmental battle for the conversation of wetlands and their resources. Ben Marzou's West Asia bike tour from one Ramsar site to another aims at raising awareness about the human and environmental value of wetlands and the dangers that threaten such areas. Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Photo taken in Azerbaijan. Via Ben Marzou's Facebook page Follow Me.

Photo taken in Azerbaijan. Via Ben Marzou's Facebook page Follow Me.

On February, 2, the day Ben Marzou hit the road, the World Wildlife Fund Tunis office wrote [fr]:

Pour cette initiative le message transmis est principalement un message d’une dimension humaine et environnementale.
A travers ce périple, il essayerai entre autres de porter une réflexion autour des lacs et des zones humides, et ceci par le partage des photos, vidéos, le contact des gens sur place et le partage de leurs expériences…

This initiative's message is mainly of a human and environmental dimension. Through this trek, he [Ben Marzou] will try to reflect on lakes and wetland areas, by sharing photos, videos and by getting in touch with local peoples and sharing their experiences…

Challenges

To make his dream come true, Ben Marzou came face to face with several challenges which he shared via his Facebook page. On July 26, he said:

encore la.. pour le malheur de la route qui reste :))) , des aventures a couper le souffle.. encore en Afghanistan et encore a velo.. merci pour vos messages touchants et sympa, hamdoullah tout va bien, traverser le Hidu kush a becane etait un fort challenge, 5 jours, 120 km et 3400 m d'altitude, sinon je suis quelques part entre kabul et Mazar-sherif

I'm still here..for the remaining road misfortunes :))), breathtaking adventures..I'm still biking in Afghanistan…thanks for your moving and compassionate messages. Praise to God, everything is fine. Crossing the Hindu Kush [a long mountain range that stretches between central Afghanistan and northern Pakistan] was a big challenge: 5 days, 120 km, and an altitude of 3,400 meters. Otherwise, I'm somewhere between Kabul and Mazar Sharif
Fortunately, Ben Marzou did not fall hostage to the Taliban. He was rather welcomed to spend the night in an Afghani viallge. Photo via Ben Marzou's Facebook page

Fortunately, Ben Marzou did not fall hostage to the Taliban. He was rather welcomed to spend the night in an Afghani viallge. Photo via Ben Marzou's Facebook page

One week earlier he shared tips to follow in case he was detained by the Taliban:

Première leçon enseignée dictée et ordonné par les militaires afghans, en cas où je tombe en otage par les talibans, il ne faut en aucun cas parler en anglais, l’arabe peux être très utile, ta religion peux aussi te sauver, si tu arrives à leur faire expliquer que t’es musulman avant qu’ils te tirent dessus, t’a une chance de survivre…

The first lesson given, dictated and ordered by Afghani soldiers: in case I am taken hostage by the Taliban, under no circumstances should I speak in English. Arabic could be very useful. My religion could also save me. If I succeed explaining to them that I'm a Muslim before they shoot at me, I would have a survival chance…

On August 5, he reported [fr]:

la route du Pamir est fermee… cela complique d'avantage le trajet :/ cette incroyable route qui traverse les Himalaya a travers le tajikistan et le kyrgyzestan est temporairement fermee… des affrontement avec les talibans en cause… pour ma part je serai reellement en impasse..
des suggestions..??

Pamir road [a road which crosses the Pamir Mountains through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia] is closed…this further complicates the journey :/ this incredible road which crosses the Himalayas through Tajikistan and Kyrgystan is temporarily closed…owing to clashes with the Taliban…for me this represents a real dead-end. Any suggestions?

On August 10, he disclosed the greatest challenge he faced during this venture [fr]:

je crois que, plus que tout, le vrai challenge dans cette aventure, c'est le fait d'affronter le blocus administratif et reglementaire de ces ex-republiques sovietiques avec mon cher passeport Tunisien

I believe that more than any other thing, the real challenge in this adventure is confronting the administrative and regulatory blockade imposed by former Soviet countries with my dear Tunisian passport
Ben Marzou cycling in Afghanistan. Photo via Facebook page Follow Me

Ben Marzou cycling in Afghanistan. Photo via Facebook page Follow Me

Iran: First encounter with Shia Islam

Shia shrine in Iran

Shia shrine in Iran

On his Facebook page, Ben Marzou shared with his fans once in a life time experiences, and lessons he learned from this seven month-long journey. As I neither have the space nor the energy to translate all of Ben Marzou's interesting stories, I decided to share with Global Voices readers his Iran journey.

In Iran, Ben Marzou, who comes from a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, encountered Shia Islam. Some differences in beliefs and practices, between the two major Islam sects sometimes led to sectarian violence in countries like Iraq, and Lebanon.

On July 16, he published the following post:

Et c'est la fin d’une aventure persane qui a duré 70 jours, 700 km de vélo et plusieurs milliers de km de route, c’est une des étapes les plus intenses dont je me rappellerai toujours, ce grand pays plein de contrastes, plein de vie et de désir, je me rappellerai toujours de cette hospitalité inégalable, de cet amour du partage, « almousafér 7abibou allah » tel croient les descendants d’Ali…

Ce fut aussi ma première rencontre avec le chiisme, que loin de toute comparaison inutile je respecte…

«T’es chiite ou sunnite » c’est une des questions qui s’est fréquemment posée
« Je suis musulman tout court » tel était ma réponse,

Et là curieusement, et presque toujours, un grand sourire se dessine sur le visage de mon interlocuteur…

It is the end of a Persian experience which lasted 70 days, 700km on bike, and thousands more kilometers driving. It is one of the most intense stages, which I will always remember. A large country [Iran], full of contrasts, of life, and desire. I will always remember this incomparable hospitality, and this love to share. “The traveller is the Beloved of God”, that is how Ali's descendants think…[In Shia Islam Ali is regarded as the rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad]

It was my first encounter with Shia Islam, which away from any useless comparison I do respect(…)
“Are you a Shia or a Sunni Muslim?” was one of the frequently asked questions.
“I'm just a Muslim,” I would answer.
Then strangely, and almost always a big smile takes shape on the face of the person addressing me…

September 03 2012

August 24 2012

Chessmaster Gary Kasparov's Arrest During Pussy Riot Trial

Perhaps the most surprising thing to emerge out of the media saturated Pussy Riot trials other than the trial itself, was the attendance and subsequent arrest of the former Chessmaster of Caucasian descent, Gary Kasparov, at the reading of the verdict on August 17, which saw the three women accused of illegally performing  a “punk prayer” in a church receive a two year prison term.

Kasparov, born in Baku, Azerbaijan, to an Armenian mother and Jewish father, adapted his last name from his mother's Armenian maiden name, Gasparyan, after the death of his father. Kasparov and his family escaped the pogrom of Armenians in Baku  during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and settled in Moscow. He went on to become the youngest World Chess Champion and is considered to be the greatest chess player of all time.

The news of his arrest was posted by admins on Kasparov's Facebook page, which saw a sharp increase in activity after news spread of the events.

[Editors] Garry Kasparov has just been arrested outside the Moscow courthouse where the Pussy Riot trial is taking place. He was not there to protest, simply to attend, and the police cornered him and dragged him into the police van. This photo shows the police assaulting him inside the van. We hope he is all right and we will provide updates when we have them.

The first photo to come out of the arrest, which the page posted was taken by  Moscow-based journalist Olaf Koens, who tweeted it with a caption:

@obk: This is the police wrestling with Garry Kasparov inside the paddy van. Are they beating him?

Garry Kasparov after he was detained by police outside the Pussy Riot verdict hearing/Photo by Olaf Koens via Twitter

Those close to him were quick to dispel rumor that he had been protesting.

Mig Greengard, Kasparov's “aide-de-camp,” was the first to clarify:

@chessninja: At least one report that Garry Kasparov has been arrested at the Pussy Riot courthouse. He wasn't protesting, just trying to get in!

The tweet was followed by a post on chessmaster's Facebook page:

 [Editors] We just spoke to Garry on the phone. He is at the police station. He was beaten but says he is okay. He isn't sure what will happen next. It seems the police are waiting for orders from above. He says he was standing calmly speaking with journalists when police pushed through and grabbed him. Thanks to everyone for the support.

 

Many took to Twitter to praise Kasparov, a political activist and outspoken Putin critic  who took part in setting up The Other Russia, an anti-Kremlin coalition.

@johnhm5235: Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion & current Russian democracy advocate, on CNBC. He is a hero to people who love freedom.

@RSiljanoski: Just imagine if Garry Kasparov was president of Russia what a smart country Russia would be! #FreePussyRiot girls!

Kasparov was accused of biting an officer's hand during the scuffle and was yelling slogans such as “Russia Without Putin,” as The Other Russia suggests in a post on alleged falsified reports in Kasparov's arrest. Video taken during the scuffle, in which biting or yelling cannot be seen or heard, seem to tell a different story.

ChessBase.com, in a recent blog post, also refutes the allegations:

Our contacts tell us that he was outside the court house speaking to Radio Svoboda journalists when police pushed through to seize him. The 49-year-old Kasparov insisted he was not protesting, but the police grabbed him and violently dragged him into a police van, where he was further physically assaulted by the police, as documented by a photographer.

Earlier this week, Kasparov told fans on Facebook that he had gone to the Investigative Committee of Russia to submit complaints on his “illegal arrest, assault and libel” and also saw the officer he is accused of having bitten:

Unfortunately I did not have the chance to give him a strong handshake, but his hands looked fine to me… A full updating coming here tonight, with more photos and videos coming out. I am fighting bites with bytes!

Follow BBC's Moscow correspondent, Daniel Sandford, who is live tweeting from Kasparov's trial taking place today.

 

 

August 22 2012

Azerbaijan: An Alternative Energy Partner for Europe?

Baku Views, a blog on economic commentary and opinion from Azerbaijan reflects on a recent NY Times column by Paul Krugman on Europe's dependence on Russian energy, noting that with its gas pipelines projects, Azerbaijan could be an alternative, reliable energy partner. In its opening notes, the blog also compares America's sliding approval rating of  Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney with Azerbaijan giving up on expecting Armenia to withdraw forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

 

August 18 2012

The South Caucasus at the 2012 Olympics

Arsen Julfalakyan of Armenia, Roman Vlasov of Russia, Aleksandr Kazakevic of Lithuania and Emin Ahmadov of Azerbaijan after the Men's Greco-Roman 74 kg Wrestling match/ via London 2012

The three South Caucasus countries have been participating  independently in the Olympics since 1996, and they each followed up their records in Beijing this summer in London to walk away with gold, silver and bronze in the physically strenuous activities the region generally excels in, much to the enjoyment of fans and fellow country men and women.

Armenia walked away with one silver and bronze in Men's Greco-Roman wrestling and a surprise bronze medal in women's weightlifting by Hripsime Khurshudyan, which caused a flurry of social media activity. The win even elicited a comment, albeit in transliterated Armenian, from  a member of America's most famous Armenian family, the Kardashians.

@RobKardashian: Yes shat hupart yev uraxem mer bolor Hye marsiknerits vor masnaktsumen 2012 tvi Olympiadayum. #Armenia

 ”I am very proud and happy with all of our Armenian athletes who are participating in the 2012 Olympics.”

@RobKardashian: Armenian Woman KHURSHUDYAN just medaled in Women's Weightlifting (Clean & Jerk)! #ArmenianPride#LondonOlympics2012

Azerbaijan on the other hand took 10 medals home, including two gold in men's freestyle wrestling by Toghrul Asgarov and Sharif Sharifov. This year's Eurovision host country also earned two silver (both in wrestling) and six bronze (wrestling, weightlifting and boxing).

@Farida_Aliyeva: London brought us luck! Azerbaijan got its greatest number of medals - 10 with 2 gold, 2 silver and 6 bronze. #Azerbaijan #AZE#Olympics

@RogerMamedov:  #Azerbaijan wrestling team did really in the Olympics. Maybe now people will know where I'm from.

Georgia won seven medals, with three silver and three bronze (all of them in wrestling) and one gold in Judo, thanks to Lasha Shavdatuashvili

@MirianJugheli: 20-year old Judoist Lasha Shavdatuashvili becomes an olympic champion! #georgia #caucasus #tbilisi #judo #london2012

The Caucasus Tumblr, in a photo montage and round up of the Olympics made an astute observation based on Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia's superior abilities in strength sports:

Never ever, under no circumstances pick up a street fight in the Caucasus.

Athletes with South and North Caucasian descent also participated in London 2012 for Russia as the tumblr notes. Three of Russia's gold medals in judo were won by Tagir Khaybulaev, Mansur Mustafaevich Isaev , both ethnic Avars and Arsen Galstyan, an ethnic Armenian.
The wins prompted an “outpouring of hate from Russian nationalists,” wrote Global Voices author Andrey Tselikov in a post titled, “Russia: The Ugly Side of Olympic Nationalism.”

August 03 2012

Georgia: Civil Society Mobilizes After Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes

With tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the rise in recent weeks, civil society activists and journalists from both countries last month convened in a small ethnic Azeri village in neighboring Georgia to elaborate an independent mechanism for monitoring clashes on the Line of Contact (LOC).

Despite a ceasefire signed in 1994 which put the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh on hold, thousands have died in frontline skirmishes in the 18 years since. And, with no lasting peace agreement in sight, the International Crisis Group (ICG) continues to warn of the danger of an ‘accidental war‘ breaking out.

The event held in Tekali was co-organized by Armenian actor and director turned peace activist Georgi Vanyan, himself recently targeted by nationalists for attempting to screen non-politicized films from Azerbaijan in Armenia, was a small step in trying to defuse tensions and to prevent civilian casualties along the LOC.

Writing on the Caucasian Circle of Peace Journalism, Armenian journalist and editor Yura Manvelyan commented on the initiative.

There was something else that set the meeting in Tekali apart from many other Armenian-Azerbaijani projects: None of the speakers took on the role of spokesperson for official policies, no-one took up the positions held by the presidents, ministers and their spin doctors. The speakers' statements seemed not to target their “opponents” from the other side, but mostly focussed on themselves and their “own people”. The recent deaths on the border were a stark reminder of the high price paid for the atmosphere of hatred and showed the distance between those who shed the blood and others who give the orders and seek to consolidate their power and wealth by exploiting the “external enemy” and delaying justice.

[…]

The overwhelming majority of those present voted in favour of action by citizens. Moreover, they reached an initial agreement on creating a rapid reaction group that will take steps to prevent armed clashes on the border and to investigate the situation in the area directly around the border. If necessary, Georgians might also be included in the group. To start with it might include the residents of two border villages: Doctors, taxi drivers, farmers and village elders, who would establish and stay in constant contact with each other. Due to the open nature of the project, anyone who wanted to could become a part of it.

Georgi Vanyan, Tekali, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian

Yura Manvelyan, Tekali, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian

Ilgar Velizade, a journalist and analyst from Azerbaijan, also made a blog post.

This meeting saw the first urgent discussion of the prospects of public intervention to manage the Karabakh conflict. In the opinion of the participants, society has, to this day, taken no steps to end hostilities, and remains far removed from what goes on at the border. Participants emphasized that over the course of the 24 years of conflict, a huge divide has emerged between the two peoples, and that Armenian and Azerbaijani civil society organizations now need to cooperate with one another in order to resolve the situation.

[…]

And so the meeting in Tekali demonstrated once more the Armenian and Azerbaijani public desire for peace to be established in the conflict zone as quickly as possible – and that hope for an effective means to regulate the conflict lives in the hearts of many of the two countries' citizens. As we say, hope never dies.

Malkhaz Chemia showing a design for a new peacebuilding center, Tekali, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian

Tekali, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian

Azerbaijani analyst Zardusht Alizade, Tekali, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian

The International Crisis Group's Sabine Freizer also remarked on Twitter about the event, as did others observing the peace building processes underway in the South Caucasus.

@peaceforsale: an innovative effort for peace - create a zone for it http://fb.me/23yx8yl1q

@SabineICG: […] @onewmphoto whether war or peace between Armenia + Azerbaijan, civil society can play a key bridging role. Great idea: […]

Global Voices' Caucasus Editor was also in attendance, and commented on Velizade's post along with Vanyan's initiative for Ararat Magazine.

Whether that intent is as widespread, as Velizade says or as much as Vanyan hopes, remains to be seen, but the first meeting to establish the Monitoring and Rapid Reaction Group was held in Tekali on July 21. Present were representatives from the NGOs and the International Crisis Group. So too were Bernard O’Sullivan and Stephen Young from the Brussels-based Nonviolent Peaceforce, an organization already working in Georgia, Mindanao/Philippines, South Sudan, and elsewhere. O’Sullivan spoke to Ararat Magazine following the public discussion.

“The Tekali Process first of all attracts our interest because clearly people have a need for civil society to act amongst and protect themselves,” he said. “However, we work on the principle of acceptance. We only go to conflict zones where we’re accepted and obviously this includes civil society, but critically it also means the political leadership, i.e. the governments, of all sides. What will come out of the Tekali Process? I see there is very good will here. The Tekali group said it’s not in their interest to get involved in military or political outcomes, but it is for civilians across ethnic groups to protect themselves in a non-violent way. That’s why we’re very interested.”

According to the organizers of the Tekali event, a Caucasus Film Festival will be staged this month in the small village turned regional peacemaking center.

Ethnic Azeri child, Tekali, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian

July 30 2012

Caucasus: Olympic Women

Ianyan introduces its readers to the female athletes representing the three countries of the South Caucasus in the Olympic games in London.

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