I spent my first week at home with no travel plans looming, listening to recordings of interviews from my last trip and putting together the beginnings of what will be a five or six-part series. On Thursday, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Washington D.C., not far from Capitol Hill, listening to the chatter of responsible people holding work meetings and networking, ambition buzzing in the air. "My boss believes...," began a Senate staffer seated at the table behind me. An Australian woman sitting next to me sipped a hot chocolate with copious amounts of whipped cream as she scribbled in a tiny notebook with neat handwriting. "What about the state sponsor of terrorism bill?" a woman at a separate table asked her interlocutor. I stuck my phone to my ear to hear the voices of Ukrainians in Poland echo back at me through time and distance and realized I should probably invest in a pair of headphones that are compatible with my phone.
It's good to be back.
Here's a quick announcement about something I'm up to in case you want to join:
Welcome to the 195 series, where I take you on a mini-tour of every country (and maybe some places that want to be countries). Each week I'll feature a new location. Some you may have heard of, while others may be new to you. The point is to learn and nurture our curiosity about the wider world. Maybe you'll find a new artist or musician you like, too.
Here's the link to copy and paste in your browser if you're interested in supporting this project: https://lazo-letters.ghost.io/#/portal/signup. You can sign up for $2 a month or $22 a year. Help me buy those headphones. ;-)
Population: Roughly 10.11 million.
Current government: Azerbaijan's constitution - approved in 1995 – says the country is a presidential republic with three branches of power: executive, legislative, and judicial.
The U.S. State Department notes that "although the Government of Azerbaijan consists of three branches, Azerbaijan has a strong presidential system in which the legislative and judicial branches have only limited independence."
Ilham Aliyev is Azerbaijan's fourth president since the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He's had the job since 2003. But there have been numerous allegations of election fraud since he took on the presidency, including in the election that initially landed him in power.
The current president is the son of former Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev. He seized power following his father's death.
The organization Freedom House says that:
Power in Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime remains heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev, who has served as president since 2003, and his extended family. Corruption is rampant, and the formal political opposition has been weakened by years of persecution. The authorities have carried out an extensive crackdown on civil liberties in recent years, leaving little room for independent expression or activism.
Western governments sometimes give Azerbaijan a pass because the country has oil.
Languages spoken: Azerbaijani is the only official language, a Turkish language. The most commonly spoken minority languages are Lezgian, Talysh, Avar, Russian, and Tat.
Here's a good video breaking down the differences between Turkish and Azerbaijani.
Religion: Most people practice Islam, and around 85% of the country is Shiite.
The country experienced a religious revival after the fall of the Soviet Union. But a 2020 article in the journal Central Asian Affairs claims that "the state superimposed its bureaucratic categories on the Muslim communities of the country. Then, it proceeded to transform local religious figures into state employees. Yet, at the same time, the government insists that it does not interfere [with] theological issues and that all of its bureaucratic initiatives are aimed at ensuring freedom of belief and protecting the public order."
Standout artist: Tora Aghabayova. You can follow her on Instagram or check out her website here.
Standout musician: Violet Cold is an experimental music project launched in 2013 by artist Emin Guliyev in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital. Their song Baku Nights is totally up my alley.
Standout film: The Caviar Connection, a 2021 documentary starring, among others, two of Azerbaijan's journalists who have been jailed for their work, Emin Huseynov and investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova. The film explores how dictatorships like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan use their wealth to launder their reputations in what has come to be known as "caviar diplomacy." It's worth your time.
A surprising thing: The name Azerbaijan means protector of fire, a throwback from the days when people practiced Zoroastrianism and worshipped fire. Azerbaijan's government claims that the Prophet Zoroaster was born in southern Azerbaijan.
Story of the week: The Israeli government is opening temporary camps in Azerbaijan and Finland for Russian Jews seeking to move to Israel in the wake of the war in Ukraine. The Jerusalem Post has the original story. EurasiaNet also later reported on the camps, writing that:
While Russians have been fleeing by the hundreds of thousands since the beginning of the war in February, Azerbaijan has received comparatively few of them. Many of those who have come to Azerbaijan have been ethnic Azerbaijanis, though there are no official statistics. From January through August about 263,000 people had come to Azerbaijan from Russia, a 70 percent increase from the year before.
What I'm reading:
• In the heaviest wave of missile and rocket attacks since the opening week of the war, Russia hit cities across Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv, the Washington Post reported. Russia appears to be deliberately targeting civilians and critical infrastructure to terrorize the Ukrainian population ahead of a harsh winter.
• Russia's mass bombardments of Ukrainian cities constitute war crimes under international law, the presidents of the Bucharest Nine group of countries – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia – accompanied by the presidents of North Macedonia and Montenegro, said in a statement. Reuters has the report.
• Ukrainian officials urged the Red Cross (ICRC) to conduct a mission to a notorious prison camp in the illegally occupied Donetsk region. The Ukrainian president's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, demanded that the ICRC visit the Olenivka prison within three days. "We just can't waste more time. Human lives are at stake," he tweeted. The BBC has the report.
• Russia’s domestic intelligence service announced the arrest of eight people in connection with the bombing of the Kerch Bridge, which linked Russia to Crimea and was Russian President Vladimir Putin's pet project. Five of those arrested are citizens of Russia, and the others are Ukrainian and Armenian, the New York Times reports. The FSB said Ukraine’s military intelligence service masterminded the blast. A senior Ukrainian official confirmed that Ukraine’s intelligence services carried it out.
• Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said he ordered troops to deploy with Russian forces near Ukraine, Reuters reports.
• The Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan unilaterally canceled joint military drills between the six countries making up the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Associated Press reports.
• Uzbekistan has issued a warrant for the arrest of a Karakalpak activist based in neighboring Kazakhstan as Tashkent keeps up its hunt for Karakalpak exiles in the wake of deadly political unrest that broke out in the west of the country in early July, EurasiaNet reports.
• For Foreign Policy, Colleen Wood writes that viewing recent conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia through the lens of Moscow’s political calculus overlooks important internal dynamics.
• There is growing alarm along the European Union’s eastern edge about a spike in migrants using the Western Balkans — and Serbia, specifically — as a gateway to enter the bloc, Politico Europe reports.
• Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán called for direct talks between the U.S. and Russia, arguing that only former president Trump could end the war in Ukraine, the Financial Times reports.
• The European Commission recommended that the Council grant Bosnia and Herzegovina EU candidate status, conditional on the country completing a list of critical reforms. A decision by the leaders of EU countries is expected at a December summit, Politico Europe reports.
• Hong Kong’s leader John Lee said he would only implement United Nations sanctions after a luxury yacht connected to Russian tycoon Alexey Mordashov docked in the city, the Associated Press reports. Mordashov was sanctioned by the U.S., the UK, and the European Union.
• The new health journalism magazine Peste has some horrific interviews with men detained in Haiti's national penitentiary, which is experiencing a cholera outbreak.
• The Democratic chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee called for a freeze on cooperation with Saudi Arabia after OPEC announced it would reduce oil production, NBC News reports.
• Video footage emerged showing Iranian security forces shooting at fleeing people with a gun mounted on the back of a pick-up truck. The BBC Persian service verified the video.
• At least 23 children were killed by security forces during protests in Iran in the last ten days of September alone, according to a report by Amnesty International.
• Top Biden administration officials met with the Taliban last weekend, CNN reports. The talks mark the first time officials from the two governments have met since the U.S. killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in late July. The CIA's Deputy Director, David Cohen, attended the meeting.
• North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward its eastern waters, the Associated Press reports. The launch was North Korea’s seventh round of weapons tests in two weeks and came hours after the U.S. and South Korea wrapped up two days of naval drills off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast.
• Two banners criticizing Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his policies could be seen hung on an overpass in Beijing in a rare protest ahead of the Communist Party national congress, CNN reports.
What the State Department says:
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