Sunday, June 13, 2010

Treasures in the Land of Az, Part 1


Oh, sorry.

I'm starting yet another series, though I have many ongoing.

First, let's consider Bad Blood in Baku, by Thomas Goltz, June 11, 2010:

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN -- If I were still a journalist, I would have had juicy scoop last Saturday when I learned of the imminent but still unannounced arrival in Azerbaijan of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates had been tasked with hitting the reset button -- there are a lot of those in the former Soviet Union these days -- on Washington's increasingly problematic relationship with Baku.

I learned of the emergency visit when an old friend of mine called to say he knew I was in the Azerbaijani capital, and that his former boss, a U.S. intelligence officer, wanted to buy me a few beers and chat about my nearly 20-year hobby of reading tea leaves and goat entrails in the Land of Az.

"The American chargé d'affaires told me not to talk to you, but he is State Department and I am not," the official said -- I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but closely -- putting initial pleasantries out of the way. "I am here to set up the Gates visit tomorrow. We finally decided to give the Azerbaijanis something before this thing deteriorates any further." Then he sort of smirked while saying the following: "We frankly don't care about human rights or democracy-building, or Israel and Turkey, or peace in Karabakh or Georgia, or even Azerbaijani energy. There is only one thing we really care about right now, and that is Afghanistan."

I was not surprised, but had to ask:

"Afghanistan," he said, and then repeated the word.


Of course, we are thinking of Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan's role as a stop along the way to and from... and, to be sure, that is the context in which the article addresses it, as well. In fact, on page 2, the article makes the point bluntly:

"Our attitude is that Washington should stop thinking of Azerbaijan in terms of Afghanistan and start thinking of Azerbaijan in terms of Azerbaijan," my old pal Araz Azimov, now deputy foreign affairs minister, told me. "The official attitude as enunciated by the president is, 'We want respect.'"

But, a stop along the way to Afghanistan isn't the only treasure that the Land of Az has, is it? In fact, the word "Azerbaijan" was ādurbādagān in the Pahlavi geographical text Shahrestānihā i Erānshahr, translatable in modern Persian as "the treasury" or "the treasurer" - and treasures are abundant in Baku!

We now consider Azerbaijan Grapples with Growing Drug Addiction, dated February 22, 2007:

In the past decade, the official number of registered drug addicts has more than tripled -- from 6,000-7,000 drug addicts in 1996-1997, to almost 20,000 by 2006, according to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Health.

The interior ministry reports that every eighth crime committed in Azerbaijan in 2006 -- or some 2,309 registered offenses -- was related to drugs. Police seized 531 kilograms of various drugs that year, including 50 kilograms of heroin.

As an aside, drug abuse is only part of the problem. Drug addicts pay for their drugs through street crime. If you interdict the supply of, say, heroin, what happens to its price? And, if its price goes up due to the interdiction (supply and demand), what happens to street crime as addicts try to pay for it? Keep in mind, heroin is VERY addictive, and addicts will do whatever they have to do to get their fix....

By the way, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, drug abuse is only part of the problem. Another part is the offical corruption that accompanies the movement of drugs into a place where the drugs are in demand.... :)

One expert, however, believes that the true number of drug-related crimes -- and drug addicts -- is actually much higher.

Citing his own statistical analysis, Mazahir Effendiyev, chief of the United Nations Development Program Law Enforcement Unit in Baku, puts the real number of addicts in Azerbaijan at "not less than 300,000." The number would amount to roughly four percent of the country's estimated 2006 population of over 7.96 million.

Similarly, official statistics on drug-related crimes, he said, are only "ten percent of the real drug turnover." Effendiyev, who formerly worked as chief coordinator for the UN's drug prevention program for the South Caucasus, estimates that "at least 500 kilograms" of heroin were sold and used in Azerbaijan last year. "It is a big number which shows how serious the problem is."

One thing I've noticed is that, anywhere in south or southwest Asia where heroin addiction is rising dramatically in the past decade tends to be a place important in trafficking heroin from Afghanistan to markets in Russia or Europe... just a general rule-of-thumb, you know.

What does that tell us about Azerbaijan? Skipping down:

Meanwhile, the obstacles for access to illicit drugs are steadily decreasing. In Baku, large supplies of low-quality heroin have pushed prices down from the approximate $50-per-dose norm to as low as $3, said Dr. Shaig Sultanov, chief physician at Baku's #2 psychiatric hospital. "It has increased the number of potential addicts," he commented. "Not only rich people can afford [heroin] now."

That would make sense. Skipping down again:

Pure geography is one. Azerbaijan now features as part of drug smuggling routes running from Afghanistan to Europe via neighbor Iran and from Afghanistan to Russia via the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Some observers point to reported police involvement in the drugs trade as minimizing the obstacles to supply by silencing public criticism. A 2004 op-ed by political analyst Zardush Alizade that accused the interior ministry's anti-narcotics unit of working with drug syndicates resulted in a lawsuit that makes "people afraid to openly speak about it," charged Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, head of the DEVAM human rights center and imam for Baku's Juma mosque community.

Geography and corruption....

Without questioning this imam's sincerity, I would like to point out that some imams don't have a problem with narcotics trafficking.

But what else is mixed in the brew, here? From Azerbaijan oil: a mixed blessing, by Yigal Schleifer, December 30, 2005:

On the outskirts of the Azeri capital, one can find the starting point of the $4 billion Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, a marvel of 21st-century construction and engineering that has just begun to pump oil on a 1,093-mile journey from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

On the other end of town, one can also find Veli Garacayli's crumbling cement apartment building, the product of 1960s-era Soviet construction and engineering. Hot water hasn't flowed through the radiators in a decade, after the boiler that serves the building and several others nearby broke down, and water for bathing and drinking is available only two or three hours a day.

Mr. Garacayli, a radio and television repairman who has been unemployed for the past five years, says the sorry state of his building and the ones around it makes him question whether any of the growing oil revenues in Azerbaijan - one of the world's most corrupt countries - will make their way to his neighborhood.

Now, a quick blurb from Echoing Moscow attack, Dagestan bombings underscore Russia's terrorism threat, by Fred Weir, March 31, 2010:

Two suicide bombers, one disguised as a policeman, killed at least 12 people and injured 23 in attacks against Russian security forces in the turbulent southern republic of Dagestan Wednesday.

Bombings, murders, and gunfights between authorities and a rising extremist insurgency on Russia's seething southern flank have become so common in recent months that even Russian media might have scarcely noticed Wednesday's attacks, had it not been for a pair of devastating terrorists strikes in the Russian capital Moscow on Monday that killed 39 people and riveted the world's attention on Russia's growing terrorist problem.

"In the northern Caucasus, terrorist acts like this have been routine for the past several years," says Pavel Salin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political Conjuncture in Moscow.

You know, it seems to me Dagestan is on Azerbaijan's northern border....

Finally, Medvedev vows revenge on visit to Dagestan, from April 1, 2010:

Russia's pain is mixed with a thirst for vengeance as it continues to bury the remaining victims from Monday's Moscow metro attacks.

Earlier, while more funerals of the 39 dead were being held in the Russian capital, President Dmitry Medvedev made a surprise visit to the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan.

After holding a minutes silence with top security chiefs, Medvedev vowed to destroy the bombers.

"Recently we have had some success in the fight against terrorism," Russia's president said.

"We have succeeded in destroying the most hateful bandits. But apparently this is not enough. In any case we will find them all in good time, and we will punish them all like we did before. Only this way things will happen," he added.

That tougher tone follows yesterday's chilling video posting by Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov. He promised to bring war to Russia's streets after claiming he was behind Monday's bloodshed.

Medvedev's visit to the Caucasus comes amid growing unrest in the region and fears Islamist militants may attempt to launch a major bombing offensive in Russia’s heartland.

Overnight, a further two people were killed in Dagestan when their car blew up. It is thought they were carrying explosives. That came only hours after another 12 people died in a twin suicide attack in the north of the country.

A wayside stop on the way from the West to the War on Terror, a wayside stop on the way from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the heroin markets in the West, and a wayside stop on the way from Caspian Basin's petroleum reserves to an oil-thirsty world... with extremist Islamic holy warriors based in the region, waging war on nuclear-armed permanent members of the UN Security Council... yes, the Land of Az has many treasures indeed, and their mix is explosive.

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