Monday, August 21, 2006

Personality Goes A Long Way

On my trip so far I have been to many autocratic regimes with dodgy leaders and dubious dictators, but never have I seen such a blatantly overt personality cult being promoted like it is here in Azerbaijan. Buildings, billboards and most other unoccupied spaces are covered by posters and quotes from Heydar Aliyev and his son Ilham, even in such remote and far-flung villages as Xinaliq. Truck drivers are offered $20 to put stickers of them on their windshields, and of course no town would be complete without a Heydar Aliyev street. Particularly scary are the billboards of the two together: little Heydar, with his evil, scheming grin and Ilham, the big, bumbling son; they look just like a cliched movie baddie and his incompetent henchman. What makes this all the more surprising is that Aliyev pere, though president for 12 years, has now been dead for the past three, and that, theoretically, this is a democracy with elections enshrined in the constitution. Nevertheless when Aliyev Sr. saw that he was going to croak he quickly shoe-horned his son into the presidency. Then, during last year's elections, Junior, despite having a huge propaganda machine and a muzzled press, thought it best to crack down heavily on democracy marches with heavy-handed police tactics and arbitrary imprisonments. Although this raised some objections in the West, they were rather half-hearted due to the immense strategic importance of Azerbaijan in supplying oil to Europe and America, especially with the opening of the new Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline that pumps oil to Europe's doorstep.

Anyway, we have continued our path eastwards, though with one small side-trip to another remote village in the mountains called Lahic. The main draw to this charming place is its singular culture and language (though to me it seems as if every valley in the Caucasus is home to a different ethnic group with its own language). Some 1000 years ago a Persian shah 'imported' some Persian master-craftsmen to the area and set up the village for them. The place was prosperous and thrived right through to the 19th century and managed to preserve its Persian language (which still exists to this day, though it has changed too much for me to be able to properly understand it). Then under Russian rule it went into decline, going from a population of 15,000 at its peak to 2,000 today. But it is now making a comeback as a tourist destination and things seem to be picking up. But, as is so often the case, the cultural and historic showcase was upstaged by a random oddity: a half-built motorway bridge across the valley, connected to nothing and going nowhere, the relic of an ambitious Soviet plan that ran out of money and into the breakup of the Union.

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