Peace and goodwill versus pop music

Half past eight on a Monday morning and I already feel like it’s time to go to bed. It’s too dark out there inspire feelings of wakefulness. At least it’s dry and not too cold.

Baku is getting very much into the ‘Christmas spirit’ it would appear (as you may have already gathered, this is not the strictest of Muslim states) and it looks like two very large Christmas trees are being constructed down on Boulevard at the moment. Several bars, restaurants and shops are sporting tinsel, fairy lights and/or a tree. Unfortunately some of them are also playing exactly the same compilation CD’s of ‘seasonal’ pop songs that I hoped to have left behind in London. Mutterings of “bah, humbug” may soon be heard in certain parts of the city!

The winds of change

Baku, Sunday 10th December 2006

This seems to be a time of change.  The trees certainly think so as they are showing a belated rush of Autumnal activity and leaves are changing colour and falling off all over the place.  Curiously this is counter-pointed by the sudden appearance of fake trees in various parts of the city with branches covered in thousands of fairy-light blossoms.  They look very fetching at night and come in several colours such as blue, red, white and a particularly attractive purple.  Strange how the government can spend thousands of dollars on such baubles while the school next door has no glass in many of its windows but there’s Baku for you…

The recent action taken by the government against certain media organs might also be seen as a harbinger – most likely of doom in many people’s eyes.  ANS – the Azeri News Service – is the most independent and impartial of Azerbaijan’s television news channels.  It celebrated its fifteenth birthday a few months ago which makes it virtually the same age as the independent state of Azerbaijan.  It also has an associated radio broadcasting arm with activities that include transmission of ‘western’ radio programming such as Azeri-language output from the BBC World Service and shows from VOA Voice of America.

A couple of weeks ago a switch was flicked and ANS ceased broadcasting both television and radio.  The decision to flick that switch was made by the National Broadcasting Council; the name of which speaks for itself and the majority of who’s membership is allegedly hand-picked by President Aliyev.  Their stated reason for cutting ANS’s transmission is the expiry of ANS’s license.  ANS have responded by saying that their license renewal has been in process since 2003 and the only reason they don’t hold a fresh one is because it hasn’t been supplied to them yet.

The same week that saw ANS stop transmitting also saw a popular ‘opposition’ newspaper, Azadliq (translates as Freedom) evicted from its city centre offices – a building that it happened to share with one or two opposition political parties among other tenants.  The reason for the expulsion: alleged rent arrears.  While the details are indistinct it would appear that the premises were essentially supplied free of charge originally and not a single rent invoice has ever been seen (this is not as unusual as it may sound); the rent ‘arrears’ may well have been calculated retrospectively in light of a recent alteration of viewpoint somewhere within the government.

These actions have attracted comment from outside bodies such as the U.S. State Department (a “rare U.S. criticism of the former Soviet republic by the Bush administration”) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe but as far as I am aware the discussions are rumbling on and neither ANS nor Asadliq is making much progress.  International pressure is unlikely to approach the strength required to make much difference though, for obvious reasons.  Let’s hope a solution can be found here one way or the other.  It has been suggested that the actions are not those of a President wishing to stamp out freedom of speech but are the results of in-fighting within the government and an attempt to discredit the President in public.  Whatever the reasons, neither situation is being seen as cause for celebration round here.

Unrelated celebrations have been cautiously taking place in my little corner of the city though during the last week.  With the Swift party (my agency) last night, a Shah Deniz party the previous Saturday and other bits in between, social activities have been picking up and so have my spirits.  Having Dave “the Bentley Boy” to visit certainly helped as he is a good chap and we get on well together both inside the office and out.  I have also made a couple of new friends though and in a time when the trend is keep saying farewell to people leaving town it is proving very heartening to be able to offer welcome instead.  As Bob Dylan once wrote…