Thursday, May 9, 2013

An Uneasy Feeling in Azerbaijan

May 9th is Victory Day in post-Soviet countries.  This honors the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.  In Central European countries, like Czech Republic, the celebrations are on May 8th and the day celebrates the end of WWII in Europe.  Whereas in 'May 9th countries', there seems to be this belief that the Soviet Union alone won WWII.  As if the western allies played only a very small part in contributing to the war effort.  Don't even get me started with this one.

Tomorrow is Flower Day in Azerbaijan.  However, this year it also coincides with the 90th birthday celebration of Heydar Aliyev who is regarded as the Father of the Azeri Nation.  He died in 2003, which is also when his son Ilham Aliyev took over the presidency. 

The country appears to be run by this single family and there is a definite personality cult.  Everything here is named after him.  In Baku there is the Heydar Aliyev Airport, the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, the Heydar Aliyev Sports and Exhibition Complex as well as Heydar Aliyev Avenue.  There are streets named after him in almost every city in the country.  And his picture is everywhere.  I wonder if this is what it was like in Soviet times with pictures of Lenin all over the place.

The people here have all been very nice and friendly.  Every person that I've asked directions of has gone out of his or her way to help.  Everyone wants to know where I'm from and more importantly, why I'm there.  It's just that when they ask, they come in a little closer and speak a bit softer.  A bit odd.

Baku is riding a wave of oil money and they are spending it like crazy to create a remarkable city.  Everything is so clean.  The underground stations are absolutely spotless, without a trace of graffiti.  That's a huge plus.

The city seems very safe.  You can't go 20 meters (65 feet) without coming across police officers.  Or security guards or private security or soldiers.  I definitely get the uncomfortable feeling that big brother is watching here.

Czech friends have said that under communism it was sort of the same way.  You may have felt safer or more economically secure but the trade off was that you felt the watchful eye of the government and the secret police.  I've only had a brief taste of it and find it an uneasy feeling.  I don't know how my friends from former communist countries grew up with such systems.

Whilst the festivities begin tomorrow, I'll miss them as my time in the Caucasus comes to an end.  I have an early bus in the morning back to Tbilisi. Then a 4 am flight on Saturday back to Prague.

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