Where all is not as it seems

By August 15, 2010Article, Atlantic Eye

The Front Lines, Baku and Budapest, August 15, 2010 – A quiet area of Nagorno-Karabakh belies the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Baku, an impressive eight-lane highway from Heyder Aliyev Airport brings you up a western style grand boulevard – brilliantly lit facades mask the gap between the wealthy and the poor and – even more so, and regretfully – rampant corruption. In Budapest, the hazy moon-lit shadows of once beautiful palaces and grand villas hide the bricks crumbling, the paint falling and the dismal state of Hungary’s economy, society and mood.

Baroness Cox of Queensbury, a Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords, and Dr. John Marks – both founding members of the Prague Society and patrons of the Czech and Polish anti-Communist underground – have spent their lives fighting for those suffering from oppression and persecution. From Africa to the Stans, Caroline and John – both deeply religious – have been at the forefront of fighting corrupt regimes, human slavery and trafficking, and balancing development and humanity. They are not liberals, but classic conservatives – closer to the US Republican Party than to my conflicted-home in the Democratic Party. Their books, including “The West, Islam and Islamism”, are superb works of contemporary political history exuding their passion and deep conviction.

We discussed Nagorno-Karabakh over a decade ago. I knew war zones – Lebanon, Rwanda, Somalia and Yugoslavia – but I had not been to Nagorno-Karabakh. That has changed. The area is caught in the ever-increasing tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a footnote to a brewing disaster. A frozen conflict, a forgotten people, almost completely ignored on the world stage. A disgrace.

I am flown in by helicopter – without the exact location for security reasons. I only know the quiet here is no quiet at all. Not so many miles away, Armenian and Azari troops face each other. Each day the threats grow louder and the tension more palpable. I had been hoping to come here with Ambassador Jan Lucas van Hoorn, a good friend who had, over the past year, set up the new Dutch Embassy in Baku. He left some weeks ago to take up a high post in the new European Foreign Service in Brussels.

I had visited Jan Lucas in July in Baku. We had driven to several areas in Azerbaijan. We spoke openly about the corruption with foreign business people, some members of parliament and other ambassadors. The petty corruption is visible because the local police are constantly on the take. I experienced first hand what almost every foreigner experiences at the airport. I said no, and had to become quite aggressive to stand the policemen down.

The economic development, as a result of oil revenues is amazing. New buildings and hotels – Marriott, Hilton, Four Seasons and Fairmont – are all opening new establishments in Baku. In the three years since I was hosted with a Global Panel delegation by Colonel General Kemaleddin Heydarov and met President Aliyev, the changes are dramatic. English cinema, western-style night clubs, chic restaurants and SUVs dot the capital of some 4 million inhabitants, half of Azerbaijan’s population. A Muslim country, there is a remarkable amount of religious tolerance.

Even outside Baku – I was 150km outside the city – the development is visible. But there are huge gaps between rich and poor. There is virtually no middle class in Azerbaijan, and at some point the “family” becomes your business partner. Rural inhabitants have virtually no chance of getting into Baku’s universities. The poor, who are somewhere on the food chain between cockroach and untouchable, have no chance at all. The health-care system is a mess. The elite fly to Turkey for their medical services. The Azerbaijanis, like the Georgians, see themselves in Europe. Even the currency emulates the Euro.

The development of a middle-class and small to medium-sized enterprises would dramatically change the lot of the vast majority of Azerbaijanis. This requires seriously tackling corruption. I have always been treated well in Baku, but I cannot forget the conversations I had there three years ago. I continue to support Azerbaijan as a strong partner for America. But, things must change soon.

In Hungary, large-scale corruption is also rampant. After the fall of Communism, Hungary was well on her way to be the leading country in the region. How things have changed.

The recently ousted Social Democrat government – many of its members the sons and daughters of apparatchiks – plundered the state coffers and gave themselves enormous pay-outs. The ousted Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, himself a former ranking Communist, let bureaucrats work out golden parachutes for themselves. Prime Minister Urban cannot change this, so he has proposed taxing those payouts at 98%. A light of the last government was Foreign Minister Kinga Göncz, who at our last meeting expressed her concern over corruption.

The last government alone cannot be blamed for Hungary’s plight. A series of corrupt government officials across party lines – at the local level as well – over the past fifteen years has helped Hungary to stumble to last place amongst Central European countries. Several ranking officials in Budapest are now being investigated or are already under indictment.

When I compare Budapest to Prague, and even Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia – and I know this will truly gall the Hungarians who still see Bratislava as theirs – Budapest is the caboose, a rundown has-been. The rise of the right-wing, xenophobic, anti-Jewish, anti-Roma Jobbik with 12% of the vote in elections a few months ago, is the result of a country gone awry. All is not lost, but serious hurdles lie ahead.

As I travel by Pendolino from Bratislava to Prague I see landscapes that have changed dramatically.

Still, we live in a world where much is not as it seems.

(Syndicated Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chair of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He advises governments and companies on global political issues.)