CNBC Investigations Inc. presents Filthy Rich

CNBC's Scott Cohn together with CNBC Investigations Inc. have put together a video report on corruption in the world. Broadcasted on Feb. 23, the show features Azerbaijan's first family and their offshore wealth. Check out the full show on channel's web page. Here is the teaser.

Azerbaijan-Iran Tensions Continue, Iranian Journalist Arrested

BAKU - Anar Bayramli, reporter for Iranian Sahar TV channel has been arrested on drug possession charges on Feb. 17 in Azerbaijan. On Feb. 20, court sentenced Bayramli for two months of pre-trial detention.

According to the news reports, police has found 0.387 of heroin in Bayramli’s jacket. The journalist denies allegations and claims that police officers planted the drugs. According to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report, Binagady District Court sentenced Bayramli for two months. If convicted, he can be facing up to three years.

This is not the first case of journalist imprisonment in Azerbaijan. Within the last years a number of journalists, editors and bloggers have been arrested and served different detention terms. In its 2012 report Freedom House has ranked Azerbaijan ‘not free’ describing it as “the region’s most repressive regime.”

Bayramli’s case also occurs amidst increasing tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran. Azerbaijani authorities unveiled an allegedly Iran-backed terroristic group, which planned attacks on a number of Israeli officials. Soon after that, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Azeri ambassador to hand him a protest note against Azerbaijan providing ground for Mossad agents.

Sahar TV, Iranian broadcast channel that employs Bayramli, has been repeatedly accused of spreading pro-Iranian propaganda by Azerbaijani authorities.

Azerbaijan — A Scene For Israeli-Iranian Spy Games

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With the prospect of an Israeli-American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Azerbaijan appears to be dragged in the conflict by becoming a scene for Israeli-Iranian spy games. According to recent news, the post-Soviet country is hosting dozens of Mossad agents and has arrested alleged Iranian terrorists suspected of attacks on the Israeli figures. Although Azerbaijani authorities haven’t openly taken sides in the possible conflict, their position is becoming more obvious with increased tensions with Tehran. Azerbaijan and Iran have a long history of mutual hostility. The two countries used to be part of the Safavi Empire. Later Russo-Persian Wars divided them, leaving 9 million Azeris in modern-day Azerbaijan and an estimated 20 million in northern Iran, which Azerbaijanis call southern Azerbaijan. However, ethnic kinship between Azerbaijani population in Iran and in Azerbaijan is seen as a risk by Iranian authorities.

Today, the Azerbaijanis of Iran are often subject to oppression and human rights violations. They’re not allowed to study in their native language. Their activists are detained and executed on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Azerbaijani authorities always voted against UN’s resolutions to stop ethnic minority oppressions in Iran.

Another point that adds to already difficult relations is Iran’s partnership with Armenia – Azerbaijan’s biggest enemy. The country, which occupied Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, is in close economic cooperation with Tehran.

Iran is also seen as a potential Islamic influence by Azerbaijan’s secular government.

In November 2011, Rafig Tagi, an Azerbaijani writer who published an anti-Islamic article in 2006 and was known for his anti-Iranian views, has been stabbed on his way home in Baku. He later died in the hospital. Azerbaijani media sources quickly reminded the public about the fatwa (proclamation) issued by senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Lankarani six years earlier. Although official Tehran denied any connection, the cleric’s son released a statement congratulating the Muslim world for the writer’s death.

None of these events seemed to bother official Baku as much as they should have… at least not until war loomed on the horizon.

Tension between the neighboring countries increased within the last couple of years with Azerbaijan’s crackdown on religious and pro-Iranian groups. The incident was openly condemned by Iranian clerics.

It continued to grow in 2012 when last month Azerbaijani and Iranian hacker groups exchanged attacks on a handful of official sites in each other’s country.

On Jan. 24 Azerbaijan’s National Security forces had foiled a two-man terrorist group that planned attacks on country’s prominent Jews for alleged reward of $150,000 from Iranian intelligence. According to the reports, two Azerbaijani citizens have been arrested on connection to alleged killings. Even though Tehran has denied any connection to this incident, it was more than enough to infuriate Azerbaijan.

On Feb. 1 a 15-minute video report on ATV, Azerbaijani’s state-controlled channel, reminded the public about the long, difficult history of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations. The narrative underlined Iran’s “political jealousy” toward its neighbor and the “dirty ways” of the “Mullah regime.”

In addition, a group of Azerbaijani lawmakers proposed to rename the country as Northern Azerbaijan the following day—a clear message meant to annoy Iran.

On the other side there is warm Azerbaijani-Israeli relationship. Despite the fact that Organization of Islamic Conference doesn’t recognize Israel as a country and thus restricts Azerbaijan from having a diplomatic presence there, one-fifth of Israel’s oil imports come from Azerbaijan. This strong economic cooperation has boosted Israel to one of Azerbaijan’s five biggest partners in only 10 years and is also often criticized by Iranian authorities.

When the London Times published an article on Feb. 11 about an anonymous Mossad agent nicknamed Shimon Iran reacted quickly. According to the agent, Mossad has increased its presence in Azerbaijan in recent years so it would be closer to Iran.

The next day, Iran summoned the Azeri ambassador and gave him a protest note, which angered official Baku. The country’s foreign ministry called Iran’s allegations a “slander” and an “absurd reaction.”

Despite the fact that Azerbaijan has always announced impartiality in the U.S.-Iranian conflict, this time it seems to be dragged in it nevertheless.

It is still not clear whether Azerbaijan will allow the allies to use its military bases, which the U.S. has been using for its Afghanistan mission or whether it will openly admit its involvement in a military operation against its powerful neighbor anytime soon. However, one of the factors Azerbaijan will need to take into consideration is safety of its people on both sides of the border.

Rafig Tagi and the Concept of Freedom

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"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire

Several days ago Azerbaijani writer Rafig Tagi was stabbed and later passed away in the hospital. The alleged motive? In 2006 he wrote an article, in which he expressed his negative views about Islam. He got a fatwa from Ayatollah Lenkerani from Iran. After his death, ayatollah's son issued a statement, congratulating the believers with "this blessed day."

This incident divided Azerbaijani internet public to two camps: those condemning the killing and those condemning the first group... because "they support what he wrote about Islam."

Sad fact: Azeris don't understand the concept of free speech. Why? For many reasons.

We are not flexible to changes unless they're imposed, that's how we got our democracy, equal rights and women empowerment. During the first oil boom in early 20th century, Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiyev, one of our millionaires built the first school for girls. What happened? He had to walk door to door and ask people to let their daughters receive education. Several years later, a group of educated individuals used the collapse of the Russian Empire to build the first Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. And that's how emancipation and equal rights were implemented. Yes, implemented, not fought for.

We are not used to thinking differently, probably, because critical thinking is extremely rare here. I refuse to think it's a result of the Islamic influence, because we've been exposed to too many cultures to limit ourselves to a single concept. No, it's not a classical religious radicalism, it's a cultural one.

During Emin and Adnan's support campaign I've had hundreds of discussions with all kinds of people. Sadly, most of them had one common point: "There are things that shouldn't be said." My response to that was: "Why? Why should we censor ourselves to unwritten rules, especially in cases with media or anything remotely close to it?" The answer: "It's against our culture." Exactly. Our culture, something we are used to believing in, something that is within our comfort zone, something our granpas would approve of.

Azeris don't understand the concept of free speech because they are too afraid of consequences. The consequences of freedom might be more than we can take. Our daughters might want independence; our sons might leave the nest and, God forbid, marry a non-virgin; our own mistakes might get exposed; our people might demand the quality of life they deserve. This is all too much to cope with and takes much more work that everyday chai meetings with friends. As a result, we only understand whatever we agree with, because everything else is too scary to even think about. And even the word "freedom" is something one can rarely hear in Azerbaijan, unless it's an oppositional gathering.

We don't understand the concept of free speech because it doesn't occur to us that it's about every single person. Example: when Azerbaijani police violently dispersed a demonstration of the religious community, I saw atheists and deists and agnostics being furious and sharing videos and information about it. Does it mean they support the religious groups? No. It means they support their rights. That easy.

Freedom of speech is one of the basic rights granted to all of us by the constitution. By opposing the right we compromise our national values to cultural ones, which is a foundation for destruction. Whoever you are and whatever you do, if you compromise someone else's right of free expression to your personal views or religious affiliation and stay silent towards injustice, you betray yourself and your rights.

And the last thought on the case of Rafig Tagi: in a country where Fatwa takes place, it should be included in Criminal Code and prosecuted. Especially, if issued by foreign citizens. Because this is about national values - a concept we are yet to learn and fight for.

Exploring, Dreaming and Discovering America. Part I. Washington, DC.

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Living in the U.S. was something I dreamed of ever since I was 14 and never thought would happen. Against all odds, I'm here, on the other side of the Earth and 50 years into the future from where I lived before. I left Baku late night on Tuesday. Surrounded by the closest friends and my mom, I came to the airport to join 12 other excited and frightened Edmund S. Muskie fellows from Azerbaijan. After months of preparations and hundreds of ways we pictured this moment, that was it. It was time to say goodbye to everything and everyone we knew. So we did. I crossed the border and called my dad, who decided not to take me to the airport. We both decided. I knew it would be a special conversation, the kind we don't usually have. After all, we're too alike to show emotions. This time, we made an exception: he told me he believed in me, I told him I loved him. I hung up and allowed myself to cry just a little bit. Then a little more on the plane.

Setting my foot in Washington, DC's Dulles Airport, I looked around to find America be the same as I left it 7 months ago - a different world I already knew so much about. However, this time something was different and I knew exactly what it was. This time I was coming home, even if only for two years.

 

Washington greeted us with rain and surprised with its European aura. Whether it was the architecture, lack of sky-scrappers or just the way people looked that gave it such a non-American look, was uncertain. The only thing definite to us from first minutes was its own special spirit, which we were very eager to feel.

We joined the rest of the group - 120 other Muskie fellows from all around the post-Soviet area for a 4-day-long orientation conference prior to our departures to the cities of stay. As interesting and informative the conference part was, the anticipation of going out to the city of American history clouded everything else, at least for me. As soon as the official part was over, we were gone.

Walking around the city in smaller groups, almost all of us looked like a 9-year-old in Disney World - agape and curious about every little thing. Of course, the first thing to do was seeing the memorials - glorious Lincoln, inspiring Franklin Delano Roosevelt, historical Washington, Korean war, Vietnam war, Air and Space Museum, Capitol, White House, quotes to remember, phrases to facebook (yes, I'm using it as a verb), hundreds of pictures and miles of walking made us barely alive but absolutely happy by the end of both sightseeing days.

Then came what we called "a celebration of achievements", or, in other words, we went out to drink and observe. The best description of every city is its people: they way they're dressed, the pace they walk with or even the food they eat. Washington fashion is as descriptive as possible: young people in suits with heavy backpacks atilt and obvious great political ambitions all looked the same - worried and in a hurry; young girls had one thing in common - work heels in their hands and comfortable flats on their tired feet. On weekends they join endless flows of tourists in crowded pubs to drink up the fear of undefined future. Observing that, I felt them, after all, we were all in the same boat.

Moving to America was the first time I have ever left home for more than two months. Drinking for it in Washington three months ago, I had no idea what to expect. The fear of unknown was mixed with excitement and anticipation. I was about to start a completely new life in a strange place, where I could only count on myself. No friends, no parents, nothing I knew or was used to. On the other hand, education, independence and completely new world to explore seemed (and proved to be) so worth it.

After 4 days in Washington, I felt like leaving a huge plate of delicious food unfinished and promised myself to go back there the first chance I get. On August 7th another plane took me hundreds of miles away and several degrees hotter - to laid back and southern Tucson, Arizona, where the new chapter of my life was beginning.

To be continued...

 

 

 

 

Related posts:

Exploring, Dreaming and Discovering America. Part II. Tucson, AZ

The Azeris: Alim Qasimov

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"Björk "adores" a whole range of singers: "Chaka Khan, Beyoncé, Antony" – the latter being Antony Hegarty, a former collaborator who is here in the audience – though her "favourite singer alive today" is Azerbaijani devotional singer Alim Qasimov."

Björk's  yesterday's interview to Guardian

 

I read this today and couldn't be more proud.

I've heard him sing live only once but it was enough. It was my friend's wedding, where Alim Qasimov was invited as a guest. During the wedding, people would surround him trying to chat or take pictures. He would response affably to each and one of them and never refused any of the requests. By the end of the wedding he was invited to the stage and asked to sing.

He did.

It wasn't just singing, it was him making music and us feeling it. His performance took me to the deepest corners of my soul and I felt goose bumps all over my body. Most of the people stood up enchanted and listened in silence. When he finished, I felt tears in my eyes, while people burst into applause.

I've heard him sing only once, but it was enough to realize his value.

 

Info:

Alim Qasimov (1957) is a prominent mugham singer named a "Living National Treasure" of Azerbaijan. He has been passionate about mugham since his early childhood, but initially Qasimov sang mugham solely for his own enjoyment. Only at the age of nineteen, after having held various jobs as an agricultural worker and driver, did he decide to pursue a career in music. Qasimov studied at the Asaf Zeynalli Music College (1978-1982) and the Azerbaijan University of Arts (1982-1989). His teacher was well-known mugham singer Aghakhan Abdullayev.

Qasimov's first remarkable international success occurred in 1988 when he won first prize at the International Festival and Symposium on Traditional Music in Samargand, Uzbekistan. Since then, he has been traveling worldwide to spread the art of Azerbaijani mugham.

Alim appears on 12 CDs released in Europe and the United States, on one of them, Love's Deep Ocean (1999, Network Medien, Frankfurt, Germany) together with his daughter and student Fargana Qasimova. In addition to performing with the Silk Road Ensemble, Qasimov performs with the Kronos Quartet as part of his collaboration with the Aga Khan Initiative in Central Asia.

http://www.worldmusic.co.uk/alim_qasimov_ensemble

 

"Alim Qasimov is simply one of the greatest singers alive, with a searing spontaneity that conjures passion and devotion, contemplation and incantation."

The New York Times

 

Here he is - one of the greatest Azerbaijanis, legendary mugam singer Alim Qasimov.

 

Alim Qasimov performing "What will you say" with Jeff Buckley in 1995 on Festival of Sacred Music in France.

 

 

Alim Qasimov with daughter Fargana

 

Alim Qasimov on Facebook

Alim Qasimov on Wikipedia

 

Iranian Dream

As any developing country Azerbaijan is a land of contrasts. There is Baku, with its street lights, numerous luxurious hotels and posh boutiques and there are regions. The video I saw today on Radio Liberty is a no-comment one. It shows Azerbaijani city on the border with Iran. And hundreds of people trying to get out of the country. Yes, you are seeing people who are looking for a better life... in Iran.

Watch the video here: http://www.azadliq.org/video/16122.html

10 Opening Credits You Have To Recognize...

...if you were growing up in 80-90s in a post-Soviet country. Special thanks to my brother for having an awesome memory!

I'll go chronologically backwards, from the ones you remember for sure, to the ones that'll awaken your earliest memories.

1. Sunset Beach 1997-1999

Yes, we were young, stupid and were watching this blah

2. Hélène et Les Garçons 1992-1994

I mean... Yeah, we were all in love with this cute bass-guitar guy, who probably had no idea how to play it.

3. Twin Peaks 1990-1991

Would scare me to death every time they show the dead girl.

4. Agatha Christie's Poirot 1989-2010

Loved reading it, loved watching it.

5. Crime Story 1986-1988

This was one of my favorites. It was my favorite time of the day, when I would climb on my dad's laps and pretend to understand why these men shoot each other. But I definitely loved the theme song.

6. Moonlighting 1985-1989

This was when I fell in love with Bruce Willis and I'm still faithful, even after a number of trashy action movies. When the series ended, me and my brother were dreaming about writing the continuation.

7. Santa-Barbara 1984-1993

The most favorite guilty-pleasure of our parents.

8. Mike Hammer 1984-1987

The cool guy.

9. La Piovra 1984 (Mini-series)

Every Azerbaijani remembers and loves this one.

10. Return to Eden 1983 (mini-series)

I even remember some quotes, goddammit.

Of course there was much more - I didn't include the Latin American ones. I'm just wondering did no one have lives back then?!

Anyway, enjoy :)