Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Azerbaijan’

Back in Baku

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 8th February, 2020

6CD508CA-6105-4DE0-8CD2-DAAA28284A03It’s 10 years since I was last in Azerbaijan and it is fascinating to see how much the capital city, Baku, has changed. Lots of new buildings, of course, including a flower-like shopping centre under construction just next to the (new and magnificent) carpet museum. But both the fin-de-siecle edifices put up during the first oil boom more than a century ago and the historic old town are in much better nick than in 2010, and everywhere is fantastically clean and tidy (London take note!). The traffic is much heavier (and sometimes drives alarmingly fast!). But walking along the corniche on the banks of the Caspian Sea is a delight, especially when the weather is unseasonably warm, as it was yesterday — 18 degrees, though it is predicted to snow tomorrow. That’s unfortunate, as voters go to the polls in parliamentary elections then. I’m here as an election monitor and am keen to see how recent political reforms in Azerbaijan are panning out in practice. The Azeris are a handsome, proud and hospitable people; in the old Soviet Union it used to annoy me how rude some Russians were about them. And the country has clearly been investing a good part of its hydrocarbons wealth in improving the lives of local people, certainly in the capital, at least. It will be interesting one day to travel to the interior to see how things are in rural areas.

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

EU Action on Human Rights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th July, 2012

When Cathy Ashton was appointed High Representative in charge of the EU’s external action service, she declared that she wanted human rights to run like a ‘silver thread’ through the service’s policies. But as Edward McMillan-Scott — Liberal Democrat MEP and a Vice President of the European Parliament — said at  a roundtable at Europe House in Westminster this lunchtime, human rights have sometimes played second fiddle to trade matters and other practical concerns. He, the Labour MP Michael Connarty (the senior Labour figure on the House of Commons EU Scrutiny Committee) and Nicholas Beger (from Amnesty International’s Brussels office dealing with the European institutions) were therefore not surprisingly all in favour of the proposed appointment of an EU Special Representative for Human Rights, whose specific job it would be to focus on human rights concerns, wherever they occur in the world, irrespective of other considerations. As Nicholas Beger pointed out, there is currently often a lack of balance in the EU’s stance regarding the transgressions of other states; Belarus rightly comes under criticism for its many shortcomings, but why not Azerbaijan? Oil is a sad but obvious answer, but the putative Special Representative must be above such considerations and look at the world’s nations objectively. I said that I thought the litmus test for the new human rights action plan — of which the Special Representative would be the most high profile part — will come with regard to Israel/Palestine. Michael Connarty rightly touched on Israeli violations in his introductory remarks, but I believe the EU’s credibillity on human rights will only be proven when it does take an objective stand and condemns various elements of the occupation, house demolitions, administrative detention and so forth — though the wide divergence of views among member states relating to Israel could prove to be a problem. By coincidence, while our roundtable was discussing these matters, the House of Commons was getting ready to debate to desirability of appointing the EU Special Representative. Michael Connarty was worried some eurosceptic Tories might use this as an opportunity to further their prejudices, but it is to be hoped that the British parliament will indeed give the initiative its blessing. It would be shameful otherwise.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

European Liberal Democrats in the Caucasus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th May, 2012

It was daring — even brave — of the Armenian National Movement to invite the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) to convene a Council meeting in Yerevan this week, only days after general elections were held in Armenia, about which they have cried foul. ELDR has never had a meeting on such a scale in the Caucasus before, but it was doubly valuable for European Liberal Democrat Council members as the Liberal International organised a side-trip fact-finding mission to Georgia beforehand. I was involved in both, as the (UK) Liberal Democrats’ representative on the Executive of Liberal International and an elected member of the ELDR Council. I was in Armenia six years ago, travelling widely around the country, so it was fascinating to see how the capital Yerevan has been rapidly modernising, though the countryside has changed little and indeed gives the feeling of still being back in the Soviet era, only friendlier. But there was also a big contrast between Georgia (a first for me) and Armenia. In Tbilisi, our Georgian hosts — the Georgia Dream coalition — gave a very critical appraisal of how they see democracy fumctioning in their homeland, whereas the government — who looked after us for half a day — put a different spin on the state of affairs. But whoever was right about whichever issues there is no denying that Georgia is a place willing itself onto an upward trajectory, much aided by the abolition of widespread earlier corruption and personal insecurity. Most Georgians are anxious to get into NATO and one day into the EU as well; the 12-Star flag of Europe is prominant everywhere alongside the Georgian red cross. We were taken to the Line of Occupation on the edge of South Ossetia to remind us of just how close and real the Russian occupational presence is. In Armenia, in contrast, there is more of a Russian flavour to the capital, but of course there is also a big influence of the Armenian expatriate community from France and the United States, some of whom are presumably financing the massive amount of reconstruction going on. In the ELDR Council and contiguous special sessions we heard a lot from NGOs and others about alleged irregularities in last Sunday’s poll. But there was also, among other things, a fascinating session on LGBT Rights in the South Caucasus, organised in conjunction with the two Dutch Liberal parties (the VVD and D66) as well as International Liberal Youth (IFLRY). Just days ago a gay-friendly bar in Yerevan was set alight by far right activists, but nonetheless there is a lot of positive conscious-raising on equality issues (even in Georgia, where over 90% of the population say they disapprove of LGBT activism). The black hole as far as the Armenians are concerned seems to be Azerbaijan, but as I know from a visit there not all that long ago, things are modernising apace in Baku, financed by oil money, even if the regime is pretty authoritarian. All in all, the Caucasus is a region with huge political and economic potential, desperate to be seen as European, while at the same time retaining its diverse specificities.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Eurovision Comes to Orpington

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th May, 2011

Eurovision is an annual fiesta of kitsch, wherever it is staged. This year it was housed in a converted football stadium in Dusseldorf. But for many of the estimated 120 million TV viewers who watch the event, it’s the atmosphere at Eurovision parties they’re attending that’s important. A number of local Liberal Democrat associations hold fundraising evenings that are a good way of winding down from local elections — particularly important this year, when disappointment was the predominant feeling amongst LibDem campaigners. I joined friends at Orpington Liberal Club, not for the first time. I thought Moldova’s entry and Jedward from Ireland really got into the spirit of things with their entries, though the winning Azerbaijanis, Ell and Nikki, were better than some others. At least Azerbaijan — which I visited on a journalistic assignment a few months ago — has the money and facilities to host next year’s jamboree. I do miss Terry Wogan’s wit, sarcasm and sometimes sheer mental fatigue as the British TV commentator, though. Graham Norton, untypically, was last night more low-key and rarely outrageous, which is surely what was called for.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Unreconciled Differences: Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 1st October, 2010

Scott Taylor is a Canadian war correspondent who is best known for his reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan. But recent years have also seen him in the Caucasus — a region he confesses he knew nothing about until he became involved. That steep learning curve forms the dynamic of his new book Unreconciled Differences: Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan (Esprit de Corps Books), which tries to make sense of the complex tensions and unresolved issues of that region within an admirably succinct 176 pages. Despite the clunky title, it is a smooth, fascinating read, mixing personal experience and impressions with potted history. A central thread is the question of what constitutes genocide, given the onging Armenian campaign (particularly in the Diaspora) to get Turkey to accept that what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was genocide. Given the sensibilities among the various states and individuals, Scott Taylor’s standpoint is bound to infuriate as many as it pleases. Interestingly, Azerbaijan comes out best in his snapshot view of the Caucasus states, which is probably why the Azerbaijan Embassy hosted the book’s London launch the other day. Academic experts on the region will wince at one or two of the author’s assertions and the style is unrelentedly journalistic. That makes it extremely readable, if not always entirely reliable.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Baku Past, Present and Future

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th September, 2010

A century ago, Baku was one of the greatest cities on earth, the old walled settlement on the banks of the Caspian Sea swelled by the ornate mansions of men who made fortunes from oil and the related economic boom. Communism largely put a halt to the city’s growth, as Moscow was wary of giving the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan too much clout and Western customers found their oil supplies elsewhere. But since Azerbaijan’s declaration of independence in 1991, the oil and gas industry has soared in importance once more. The smell of sulphur hits you in the nostrils as you drive into Baku from the airport. Huge skyscrapers are ging up around the old city core, more Dubai than reflecting Azeri heritage. Black Humvees with OTT car horns assert their right of way over chugging Ladas as they race along the new town’s broad avenues. The government is determined to put Azerbaijan firmly back on the map, despite the fact that it has a population of only 9 million and has a festering territorial dispute with neighbouring Armenia that shows no sign of early resolution. Meanwhile, foreign contractors from all over the globe are in town, sniffing for business, as Baku once again savours being at the crossroads of East and West, North and South.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »