For the record...| June 22, 2013
Sorry for the delay - busy week and then for some reason the page didn’t want to load properly (not sure if it was on the server end or the fact that the internet access I have at home now - hooray! - does get overwhelmed sometimes). But here I am. :-)
I’ve been extremely lucky weatherwise so far (although for my tastes we’re still on the hot side) but last weekend my lucky streak took a hike. It was quite hot and I found myself hiding in the shade of my room discovering which of my clothes was lightest. The heat knocked me out for 12 hours Sunday evening (which was good, because Monday was a public holiday). Fortunately, it’s back to the 80s this week, and I’m hoping that will continue.
My task this week has been working on a citizens’ handbook for access to information. The local office of the International Center for Not-for-profit Law put it together for the third component of the program, which is about increasing democratic participation. And citizens can’t be engaged in their governance without access to information. Setting up these systems take a lot. Publicly available information has to be stored and organized properly so that it can be found and shared. Some types of material may need special procedures for access. Those seeking access probably need to have their identity checked. For originals, there need to be systems for reproduction or lending. If information should be disclosed publicly, such as through internet publications or annual reports, or both, there have to be people responsible for them, servers, printers, distribution, etc.
All of that’s a lot if you’re starting from scratch. And in post-Soviet countries, really, any post-authoritarian country, the logistics aren’t the problem. The problem is that free information is a check on state power, and communism relied very heavy on a state monopoly of power. Of all the things I learned in college, what struck me most as wise and true was when the professor of Soviet History expressed his disgust for the arrogance of the communist ideology. He believed it was absolute arrogance to think that if they could just organize things efficiently that would create right or justice or equality. Considering the inherent coercion of the communist system, I think that he’s right, because there’s no way to organize efficiently with respect for individual rights, and freedom can’t be a collective right and remain itself. For the “greater good,” dissent can’t be allowed - so information can’t be allowed. One of my favorite stories of the few dissidents in the USSR involved the fact that there were no phone books. You had to get the number from the person, or you had to go to a registry. Once a dissident went to the registry and asked for his own number. The answer? No such person lives in Moscow.
Azerbaijan is a long way from that story, a couple decades and much more freedom. But bureaucracies in motion tend to continue in motion, and so it, along with all the former Soviet states, has inherited systems never designed for individuals to access information. That’s why it’s great to see these laws taking effect. ICNL’s handbook hopefully will help individuals know what their rights are, what restrictions the government can impose on information, and how they can access the information that is available to them. So the answer to bureaucracy is, in a way, more bureacracy, but at least this bureacracy will help people know what's going on. The law even includes things like making sure that laws are actually published online while being adopted and when they come into effect, so putting in these structures really can have a big effect.
It is my hope that the government will continue down this path and also perhaps simplify and clarify the structures a bit more (I won't bore you with the details, but let me say you would be bored with the details), although perhaps that’d put our pamphlet out of business (okay, not a bad thing). My job is making the English translation readable; since it was prepared by lawyers, it is on the technical side and the translator did his best but I think legal training is necessary to make it clear what's going on. So I'm going in not to fix grammar, but to get it up to snuff so that the work being done here can be followed and understood in the home offices back in the U.S. All of these things help keep projects like this going. There are a few bits I think ICNL will have to re-translate themselves, but mostly I understand what's going on and can fix it.
Azerbaijan really does feel like a crossroads, as I think I’ve mentioned before. It’s Russian but not, Middle Eastern but not... all its own but also kind of familiar. And I can say with great relief that Azerbaijanis are much more open than Muscovites. Also, I’ve heard that many really don’t speak Russian anymore, but here in the center they do - and they don’t consider me rude for speaking that instead of Azerbaijani. I feel a bit ambivalent about it - in a way, because it’s a second language for both of us, it seems fair, but considering the Russian history of expansion and taking over these former parts of the empire and Soviet Republic, I am kind of concerned that Russian language today carries with it a long history. When I listen to conversations in Azerbaijani, however, I think I’m not alone in this tension; the language is peppered with words I know and use, surrounded by the strange sounds of a language unlike any other I’ve learned.
My acquaintance with the neighbors continues; I have lovely no-language-needed conversations with a little girl who looks not more than 3 or 4. (I started it: we both have painted toenails, so I pointed at her toes and then mine... since then we make faces and silly noises.) I haven’t spoken as much to Rasim, but everyone around here’s nice. They also do stay up super late; I think the little pre-schooler stays up later than I do! I’m also now known to the local grocery store. It is a pseudo-Soviet experience - you can pick some things up yourself, but each section has almost its own little bureau and cash register.
I also learned I could get eggs there, by the egg. Having had 2 years already soulless cartons (10 eggs), I bought instead a dozen (which were given to me in a plastic bag - none broke, thankfully!). I think the produce here is generally quite good and, while expensive for this part of the world, cheap compared to the U.S. Meat is a bit dicier unless you want to eat a lot of sausage (as any other good Slavic girl does, I love sausage, but not every day , thank you, can I have some chicken breast please?).
Last weekends culinary adventures turned into good pizza, still-in-testing-stage pita bread, a bit too sweet but still good cherry jam (now in dumplings (vareniki (which are just sweet pierogi/pelmeni)) in the freezer), and homemade pasta (first real time making it... verdict: not so much better than box pasta to justify the effort). Also, the ladies at work always encourage me to try their salads. One brought a green bean and eggplant salad and warmed it up - it was amazing. Maybe my next mission will be to get the recipe from her, both so I can make a typical Azerbaijani dish, and because I have only eaten eggplant in that dish and eggplant “caviar,” have never cooked it, never had it growing up, and frankly don’t know what to do with it. On the other hand, maybe I’ll wait on that one. :-) The plan is to get to the old town finally this weekend (last weekend was Much Too Hot).