NOTES FROM THE TRIPS TO AZERBAIJAN
To address my trips to Azerbaijan, I must begin with a small prologue. The summer had already begun in Paris, as I walked along; bathed in the brilliant sunshine of one of those rare days our capital occasionally offers us, suddenly I receive a phone call.
- Hello Olivier! It is Jean-Yves Chevalier. How are you? What are your plans for this summer? Would you like to come to Baku in Azerbaijan?
Classes were over, the business school and university students were all on holiday, so I was free. Baku, Azerbaijan, the Caucus, and the Caspian Sea: the destination seemed full of adventure to me. My answer was simple.
- I am coming!
Joyfully, I went off to inform my friends of my future destination, most of them, knowing little or nothing about the country and out of ignorance, warned me of all the dangers of the far off, mystical land! Nothing could be more motivating. Faced with all the comments full of apprehensions, my enthusiasm grew stronger!
My first trip:
It is the end of August, it is morning and the sun has risen. I am at Charles de Gaulle airport, impatient to get on the airplane to Baku.
After a few hours of flight, it is evening when we arrive at Heydar Aliyev airport, a taxi awaits us. The powerful German sedan transports us to the Hyatt hotel along the motorway bordered by fields of derricks.
For the first part of this foremost trip, my colleague Jean-Yves Chevalier and I were asked to express consecutive opinions to the answers of the “Work group for the implementation of international standards in matters concerning Human rights in Azerbaijan,” concerning the opinions and propositions of the OSCE-ODHIR and the Commission of Venice of the Council of Europe relative to the additions and amendments to the electoral code of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The working document, the report upon which we reflected, was of great quality and the ensemble of NGO’s and Foundations of Azerbaijan, through their ideas, demonstrated and proved to us that a process of democratization was already in place.
This country, oh so interesting on a cultural and historic level, is situated on the ancient silk road. One imagines, while crossing the old city of Baku, the arrival of the caravans and their halts in the caravan saraïs and the history of Marco Polo returns to us from a distant place in our memory.
Today, the situation of Azerbaijan is strategic and leads us to understand the political vision of this country which falls under continuity by integration in European institutions and a diplomacy which successfully reconciles a pro-Western orientation and good relationships with Russia. This policy allowed stability, economic progress thanks to the oil incomes injected, which caused the increase in the industrial production and thus an improvement in the living standards of the inhabitants.
The second part of this trip was marked by an expedition to the south of the country, towards the city of Lankaran which borders the Caspian Sea. The journey was extraordinary and allowed me to whiteness the extreme diversity of the landscapes and climate. The hot, dry climate of the flat deserts, where we crossed a sea of salt, left way to forests carpeting high mountains full of thick magnificent vegetation and comfortable temperatures, further up the mountains the vegetation thinned leading us to imagine the harsh climate that prevails in the heights.
Throughout this first trip, I was met with grand hospitality, both by the officials and the citizens. I witnessed the welcoming attitudes of the population as a whole and their pacifistic nature in their willingness to interact with the traveler that I was. They are a people proud of their past and their extensive history as I was able to witness in their numerous museums, one of which was situated in a small village on the Iranian border. They are a friendly people who accompany the beauty of their landscapes with dignity.
My excursion to the south lasted but a few days and was followed by my return to Baku and then Paris.
My second trip:
On my second trip to Azerbaijan, I was an international observer for the October 2008 presidential elections, and as always I was accompanied by my dear colleague, Jean-Yves Chevalier. My role was to go to the voting stations and ensure that the voting processes were followed correctly. At the hotel, the observers are divided by geographic zones and/or by cities. I was assigned to Guba, a city located in the north of the country near the border with Russia.
The morning envelopes Baku, the road to Guba is under construction, so I am given a four wheel drive Toyota. The team accompanying me is young and dynamic. The trip is long and hard but the beauty of the landscapes here too is breathtaking.
After a few visits to voting stations within the city, we decided to head for the mountains, the high Caucus which we read about in adventure novels. Our objective was the highest village in all of Azerbaijan at an altitude of about 3000 meters. The path is reputed to be all but smooth. In effect, we would travel on tar roads for a small distance before continuing on half-gravel, half-mud tracks. These tracks wound through the mountains, along cliffs, over summits, and finally plunging down into the deep, magnificent valleys. The mountain sides are dotted with a few habitations which, one can imagine, are well organized to face the rugged, unforgiving mountain climate. One of my companions tells me that this is wolf territory. Car trouble seems quit undesirable right now…
First we traverse a thickly forested area. Then, we emerge from the trees to a landscape which appears to have been pealed by the icy winds, we see a few sheep, some homes built into the mountain sides, and finally, the highest village in Azerbaijan appears before us at the end of the track. The locals are farmers and breeders. Russia is only a few kilometers away. They are happy and proud to welcome us. Their smiles light up their faces, in their eyes we can see the hardships of mountain life. Their hospitality, as in the rest of the country, is a way of life. We are the first Observers to sign the books in the voting stations. One of the villagers makes a telephone call to signal our presence. Democracy and its voting slips have arrived in the mountains of the high Caucus. We take a few pictures with the director of the local school in which the voting station has been set up. It is time to leave, as it seems the trip back down the treacherous track is safer during the day…
We return to Baku and take part in the debriefing along with the other observers. The meetings, press conferences and interviews follow. There are always the walks through the beautiful old city of Baku and the hospitality of our Azeri friends to end this trip in the most agreeable way.
My third trip:
My third trip was the shortest. Jean-Yves and I participated in an international press conference on the referendum of March 2009. On this trip I was able to establish collaboration between IPAG Paris and the Khazar University in Baku so as to offer a double diploma in the new academic year: an MBA on energy.
Following these different trips, I invite my friends in France to adopt a different view of Azerbaijan. I always insist on this when I discuss the beauty of the landscapes, the hospitality, the pride and the kindness of this pacifistic people.
PS: The program of the MBA Energy for which I am responsible is on the IPAG website: http://www.ipag.fr/en/home/programmes/mba/energy-sustainable-development-management-mba.html
NB: Mr. Jean-Yves CHEVALIER, International Consultant, Honorary President of the ACEDS http://aceds.fr/