It’s Showtime!!!

Wednesday, 9:30am:  I‘m driven to Villa Petrolea, headquarters of British Petroleum, Azerbaijan’s primary oil partner, to meet with company VP Seymour Khalilov.  He agrees to participate at Saturday night’s premier taping at the historic Ismailiyya building where we’ll discuss developments from this week’s multi-national energy summit here in Baku.  Elshad Nassirov, VP of SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic has agreed as well.

Wednesday, 12:30pm:  The issue of set furniture for our one-time location is settled as we find someone willing to lend us what we need.  We select two European classically-designed couches, matching chairs, coffee tables, rugs, schedule the Saturday delivery, and are back at the ADA.  

Wednesday, 2:30pm:  We are on our way for a meeting with Natiq Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Energy at Government House, Dom Soviet, built by German POWs during World War ll to specific designs ordered by Stalin.  Aliyev, sharply dressed, and looking a lot like George Segal, greets us warmly, even though he’s deep into planning Thursday’s key, 15-nation energy ministers meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel which will set the agenda for Friday’s presidential summit.government-house In his spacious, recently-refurbished office with unobstructed view of the Caspian Sea, Aliyev helps us select a half dozen ministers who Aliyev will “encourage” to participate in our taped roundtable discussion immediately following their meeting.  Poland, Greece, Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and USA all will be there.  Aliyev, representing Azerbaijan, as well.  It will become the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s premier. And then we have tea.


Back in the USSR

 450px-ismailiyya2If all goes as planned…

…on Saturday evening, November 15, one black Mercedes-Benz after another will deliver ambassadors from Poland, Georgia, Turkey, and the United States, among other countries, to the entrance of the historic Ismailiyya building, one of Baku’s most beautiful.  It was built at the turn of the 20th century by Musa Naghiyev, Azerbaijan’s wealthiest oil barons, in memory of his late son, Ismail.  Bolshevik-supported Armenians nearly destroyed the building during the 1918 revolution. imgp27441The Soviet Union restored it, preserving the Venetian Gothic architecture, but replacing Muslim symbols on the facade with those from the Communist Party.  For decades, the Ismailiyya building served as the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and it retains a scientific function today.   image067The Ismailiyya building also will be the location of the first ADA Majlis!  The acoustics inside will be challenging, to say the least.  However, the completion date for our permanent ADA site, promised by our Turkish architect, has come and gone, and we had to scramble.  We have spent the past week surveying alternate sites; museums, hotels, restaurants. We visited a dozen furniture (mebel) stores searching for Ismailiyya-appropriate sofas and chairs of European classical design.


We also worked the phones assembling panels of program participants from among the energy ministers, analysts, and journalists who will be in Baku for this week’s multi-national energy summit.  The ambassadors will be among the select audience members invited to witness taping of the broadcast.  Scheduled air date on the Azerbaijan Public Television Network is Sunday evening. 

imgp2747It is cold and rainy in Baku, as it has been for most of the week.  I tried to turn on the heat in my apartment, only to be told the heat won’t make its debut in this building for another week.  And I thought Baku was flush with affordable energy!



Half a world away

imgp2718The invitation read, Good morning, Mr. President.  It was sent by US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse, inviting a group of American citizens, living in Baku, to eat breakfast and watch the election returns at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.  I arrived shortly before 7am, and it was well worth the early rise, even with Wolf Blitzer barking at us from the big screen.  Just before 8am, 11pm Tuesday in the east, I alerted the local Baku TV camera crews to get to the front of the room expecting Wolf would call the election at the top of the hour.  imgp2722I was surprised at the emotions I felt this morning, as I’m sure many of you were.  But my experience had to be different.  As I walked to work, Obama’s words, “all things are possible,” stuck with me.  As I’ve come to realize during my time in Baku, all things are not possible in Azerbaijan.  Not yet, anyway.  When I arrived at work, one colleague after another congratulated me!  I understood they were congratulating America.  And as I talked with one young woman about the election this afternoon, she looked at me in all seriousness and said, “I would love to be in America.”

I put together a short video of the sights and sounds from this morning.  I’m sure it was a scene repeated all around the world, and provides a bit of insight into why the election of Barack Obama transcends American politics.  You’ll hear from Chuck Rice, the country director for the International Center for Journalists.  After spending a year in Baku, he leaves Thursday for a stint in East Timor.  I also talked with Maksud Mirzoyev, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan, and general manager of the five McDonald’s in Azerbaijan.  (In fact, Obama once intervened on McDonald’s behalf during a trip to Baku.) And finally, Munir Jawed, a recent Georgetown graduate, now a Fulbright Scholar here in Azerbaijan.  Look and listen.

In early June of 2004, I got a call from Elizabeth Brackett, our NewsHour correspondent in Chicago, and a longtime friend.  0727starobama3-1“Hey!  Let me do a story on Barack Obama.  He’s running for Senate, and you’ve never seen anything like this guy!  He’s phenomenal.  Axelrod is running his campaign, and he can get me the interviews.”

We knew David Axelrod from his days as a political columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and knew he had good political sense. 0727staraxel2 I was convinced, but my bosses wouldn’t buy a story on an unknown Illinois Senate candidate.  One month later, when Obama was asked to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Elizabeth called me again.  This time, I was able to give her the thumbs up!  She produced a good story with local voices, including that of wife, Michelle.  0727starmichelleI’m sure it was the first television story about Barack Obama to air nationally, and we positioned it in the NewsHour’s convention coverage just before he delivered his speech.  The rest, as they say, is history.  tipofthehatebayBeing there first also helped us secure the first interview with Obama immediately after he left the convention podium.  It kind of made us look like we knew what we were doing.  And so, Elizabeth, thanx and a hat tip!

One of the attractions of coming to Baku was the chance to add some new voices to the television airwaves given Azerbaijan’s reputation for restricting the media.  Now we’ve learned that, come January, there will be fewer voices on the radio. 

The BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, have lost their FM frequencies by order of Nushirvan Magerramli, Chairman of the National Broadcasting Council.  



“Azerbaijan is not interested in foreign radios on its national frequencies,” he said.  Locally-originating broadcasts will stop by the end of the year.  They could continue broadcasting by satellite or cable.  Magerramli pointed out that, over the past few years, Russian and Turkish-owned televisions stations, as well as French and Russian radio, also have lost their frequencies.

Terry Davidson, the spokesman for the US Embassy in Baku said he’s seeking clarification of the order.  He said foreign broadcasts contribute “greatly to enriching the space for public debate and understanding.”  The US Broadcasting Board of Governors, a quasi-independent agency which supports VOA and RFE/RL, said it “strongly objects” to the action.  One board member called it a “disturbing pattern” of action taken against private media ownership in Azerbaijan.  

However, Ilgar Mamedov, one of the Azerbaijan government’s most vocal critics, believes the decision could be reversed.”  I think this announcement is just a declaration of intentions and under the US pressure the Azerbaijani authorities will have to reject their decision.  But if they come to execute their threat, these radio stations will pass to short and medium waves like in the Soviet times and will continue broadcasting in Azerbaijan.”

Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter of appeal to President Ilham Aliyev, and asking him to intervene.

Stay tuned!

Roberta and I thought dinner with Fariz and his wife on Saturday night would be at a downtown Baku restaurant.  Instead, we were treated to a home cooked meal at the home of his parents and soon-to-be-married sister. Dinner with the family has become a tradition for visiting foreigners who Fariz brings to Baku to train diplomats at the ADA’s Advanced Foreign Service Program.  We ate well, drank homemade fruits juices, and looked at wedding photos.  Fariz’s parents held us riveted with stories of the Soviet Union collapse, and the extremely difficult economic times that followed in Azerbaijan.  As a ten-year old, Fariz would wake every morning at 5:00 to wait in line 3 hours to get bread.  At the end of the evening, Fariz’s father showed us his well-kept backyard garden, and pulled two pomegranates from a tree for us to take home.  It was a very warm and special evening.

Another glorious day in Baku and, after we were treated to lunch by Khazar and his wife at a popular Turkish restaurant, Roberta and I wandered over to the Old City, and into the rug shop that was the focus of VFB’s most popular video to date.  We were treated to the same presentation, and came close to making a purchase, but did not.  However, I think it’s inevitable before I leave.

And now, a VFB consumer investigation!  Well, more of a tour of a most unlikely shopping “mall.”  I wandered down into Besh Mertebe when I first arrived in Baku, and wondered if I ever was going to get out!  It was extremely claustrophobic with no air ventilation.  Today, I returned with Roberta and, having traversed the gauntlet once, it was a bit more fun!

Roberta was startled by the number of stores below, and above, ground that sell only black shoes and black boots.  No other colors!  Khazar said Besh Mertebe will close in a few weeks for renovations to meet health and safety standards.  Of course, that may rid the underpass of some of its charm and, probably, raise prices as well!



The Home Stretch!

I‘ll be home in three weeks but, just this week alone, I missed Vanessa’s last high school soccer game, Halloween, and the climax of the fall foliage season.  However, Roberta is here, and I can’t remember a more spectacular day in Baku since I arrived!  This morning, we went to the Old City, and climbed to the top of Maiden’s Tower, Baku’s most popular tourist site.  According to Baku legend, the 115-foot tower was built by the ruler of the Shirvan dynasty in the 6th or 7th century at the request of his daughter whom he wanted to marry. Once completed, the princess climbed to the top and jumped to her death in the Caspian Sea.  Today, however, Roberta and I simply enjoyed the view.

This afternoon, Roberta was the guest at a luncheon of the new Azerbaijan Women’s Diplomatic Club.  Several of the women will be heading to embassy posts in other countries. 

Program note:  The Doha Debates on BBC World News (all times Eastern.\

Saturday, November 1: 11:10am, 4:10pm, and 8:10pm

Sunday, November 2: 7:10am, 12:10pm, and 3:10pm.

The 87%-13% vote against John McCain at the debate we attended this week was the largest margin ever recorded during the program’s 5-year history.

Meanwhile, our first taping of ADA Majlis is tentatively scheduled for November 14 to air two days later. The focus will be the Baku Energy Summit involving representatives from 15 nations.  There is so much sill to do, including issuing invitations to the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia, and Turkey, as well as other participants, coordinating a similar energy debate to be recorded in Washington and inserted in our program, researching questions about oil, gas, pipeline, and other geopolitical issues, purchasing couches and tables for our set, technical rehearsals with the crew from ITV, and studio rehearsals with Khazar who never has hosted a television program.  I’ll keep you posted.