Fake Polls in Ukraine: So What?

There's a lot of handwringing in Kyiv about all the bad polls the newspapers are publishing in the weeks before the election on September 30th. The sociologists have their panties in a bunch that the science of statistics is being used to mislead voters. Bloggers like Mark MacKinnon worry that it's evidence that it's 2004 all over again.

I say: So what?

Read more: Fake Polls in Ukraine: So What?

Is Russian Dying Out in The Soviet Republics?

It always comes as a surprise to me that Russian language skills are in such demand for projects in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Radio Free Europe just ran an article asking if the Russian Language is Dying out In the Former Soviet Republics? In many republics, it most definitely is. If you think you're going to conduct your opinion research in Azerbaijan, for example, exclusively in Russian you're making a huge mistake.

According to the article, only five former Republics still use Russian as an official language -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In Ukraine, it's not an official language but a large proportion of the country (the East) speaks it exclusively (with an almost as large proportion, mostly in the West, who refuse to speak it).

In a place like Azerbaijan, it's more complicated than just a decline in the number of Russian-speaking schools since the Soviet Union collapsed. There are political and social factors to consider as well.

During Soviet times, all "educated" people spoke Russian. In fact, you meet plenty of people who grew up in Baku who have secondary and university educations and who never really learned to speak Azeri. Since many government officials got their start during the Soviet period, it's not uncommon for even high ranking officials to not speak the national language very well.

On the other hand, those who are very well-educated, and nationalist often refuse to speak Russian since they view it as a colonial imposition. When I worked in Baku, I rarely attended meetings in which Russian was the medium. Hearing their President speak Azeri grates on many and they mock leaders who are less than fluent.

These days, young people might only be learning Russian as a foreign language, unless they attend a Russian school.

It's different out in the regions, where the Soviet-education system didn't penetrate very well. Very few people speak Russian at all and even fewer are learning it now. The very well-educated and the least well-educated actually share a common tongue.

Even though Azerbaijan's population is largely urbanized, conducting your research in one language or the other will exclude some people and exclude others so you need to use both. Similarly, in Ukraine survey instruments need to written in both Russian and Ukrainian, in order not to exclude those in the East who don't speak Ukrainian at all or those in the west who refuse to speak Russian. Focus groups in either country need to be segregated by language, as some people are much more comfortable speaking one than the other.

This language puzzle makes getting in a taxi in Baku potentially tricky as well: Is the driver in from the regions and therefore, non-conversant in Russian? Is he an ordinary middle class Bakuvian who has spoken Russian his whole life? Or is he a moonlighting history professor who hates Russian and will speak only Azeri? You can never tell (at least until he starts driving).

Mr. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Responds From Baku

Last Friday, I received a phone call from Mr. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the well-known Imam of Baku's Cuma Mosque, who wanted to comment on my post on Islam in Azerbaijan. We spoke briefly through an interpreter.

He followed up with this email, posted in its entirely (with minor language edits for clarity):

Dear Christine Quirk,

I would like to greet you again. Your article "Islam in Azerbaijan: On the Rise?" was a very unexpected pleasure.

Over the last years, both our local mass-media and the foreign mass-media have speculated about the allegedly rising political Islamization. I do not know if is it naiveté, deliberate indoctrination, or the result of an unprofessional approach. But I am absolutely sure that it is very useful for our corrupted and heavy-handed authorities, for some losers and activists in the opposition, and for hawks in the west that want to apply the process in the Middle East to Azerbaijan.

Of course, such an issue is also very useful for the marginalized and adventurers that cover themselves with Islamic slogans.

Concerning me, you pointed absolutely correct that I am focused like a civic activist and an enlightener.

By the way, there is no political scene in which Islamic powers could participate.

In conclusion I express my deep gratitude for your independent approach in this case, that is far away from general stereotypes and dogma.


Ilgar Ibrahimoglu

Mr. Ibrahimoglu brings up a whole angle that I opted not to address in the original post: Who benefits from the perception that Islam is on the rise in Azerbaijan? In his email, he mentions the three entities:

Read more: Mr. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Responds From Baku

U.S. Public Diplomacy Flying Blind

It's really quite surprising in some ways -- and not at all in most others -- that at a time when the U.S. is faced with unprecedented challenges, the U.S. Department of State doesn't use strategic research to guide its communications and public diplomacy.

Last month, the GAO released a report entitled "U.S. Public Diplomacy: Actions Needed to Improve Strategic Use and Coordination of Research." It concluded that the Secretary of State needs to take a research-based "campaign-style" approach to communications and generate "actionable" research to inform its efforts. I love this idea!

Read more: U.S. Public Diplomacy Flying Blind

It's Clan-Tastic!

A few weeks back, the New York Times ran a short article that laments how clan dynamics that affect public opinion and voter behavior in Central Asia are overlooked or disregarded by policymakers. I agree.

Clans are a part of the picture in obvious places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, but also in places with more developed political cultures, like Turkey, and obscure places like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. In the absence of sustainable political parties, they provide a structure for communication and dissemination of political power. Understanding clan-based societies is important from both a democracy promotion and public opinion perspective for many of the same reasons.

Read more: It's Clan-Tastic!

Islam in Azerbaijan: On the Rise?

I always appreciate it when thoughtful journalists write stories about Azerbaijan, since there's so little written by anyone who understands that part of the world. RFE/RL's Liz Fuller knows what she's talking about.

But her recent RFE/RL series on Islam in Azerbaijan raised a lot of questions for me. With its corrupt government, human rights and democracy abuses ignored by the west, appalling living conditions outside Baku and tidal wave of misspent oil wealth rolling in, Azerbaijan does, on paper, seem like fertile ground for an Islamic surge. I wish the stories provided more insight into the current situation.

Read more: Islam in Azerbaijan: On the Rise?
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