Thursday, July 25, 2013

Last but not Least

BSES is over, but for me it is just the beginning of something bigger in terms of my future academic and career pursuits and objectives. The last two days must have been the most exciting ones. I had a privilege not only to receive the certificate of completion from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, H.E. Elmar Mammadyarov, but also had an opportunity to question the Ambassadors of the Caspian region countries, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation, Turkey, and Turkmenistan.

The day before the certificate ceremony, we had a unique opportunity of an informal dinner and roundtable discussion with the representatives from a number of oil companies and leading experts in energy field. I chose to sit with Dr. Tatiana Mitrova, Head of Oil and Gas Department in the Energy Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Mr. Ilham Nasirov, Investment Director at SOCAR, largest state oil company of Azerbaijan. It was quite an opportunity to find out their honest opinions on a number of issues in the Caspian region as well as learn more about future development and investment projects of Azerbaijan and Russia. Belarus is dominated by Gazprom and LUkoil. I took a chance and tried to negotiate setting up at least a few SOCAR gas stations in Minsk. I was very happy when the investment director told me he would seriously consider my proposal after our conversation. So, naively enough, if any of you who will ever visit Minsk and see a SOCAR gas station, it is because of my power of persuasion and ability to convince why the project could be a good idea in geopolitical and economic terms. Such an informal dinner organized by the Academy was quite a unique opportunity to exchange contacts and build a firm foundation for potential cooperation in the future. Most BSES participants left this dinner with happy and satisfied expressions on their faces.  

It seems I was the only person who left Baku a little later than the rest. At the very last moment, I decided to exchange my plane ticket back to Belarus for a later date and visit Tbilisi, Georgia. Once I got to Tbilisi, Professor Mamuka Tsereteli took us for a two-day trip to a mountainous region of Kazbegi. To be honest, I have never seen something more magnificent and astonishing than the Caucasus Mountains. It was also a great chance to learn more about local food and experience the highest level of Georgian hospitality. I wish I could spend more time there. 

I came back to Baku on Monday night, and some local BSES participants were kind enough to spend the last hours with me in the city before I departed back to Minsk, Belarus. Overall, I came home feeling as a completely different person, with fresh brain and organized thoughts. The program did not only educate me, but also reinforced my determination to focus on energy and Caspian region in my future educational and career pursuits. The people of Azerbaijan made a great job representing their country and their capital in the best way possible. I made great friends with whom we will definitely keep in touch throughout years. Certainly, I’ll make sure to spread the word and encourage people’s interest to one of the fastest growing regions in the world, which is unfortunately often left out and ignored in academic settings. SIS Study Abroad, thank you kindly for this opportunity of my life time.

view of Baku

famous Military Georgian road

with Pr. Mamuka Tsereteli in Kazbegi, Georgia

with some of the BSES participants

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The end - after the 2013 Baku Summer Energy School

Well, the 2013 Baku Summer Energy School has come to an end. I'm back in Tbilisi, Georgia now and I've had a couple days to reflect on my experiences at the BSES program. 

Before getting into that, a quick recap of the program's second week --- we started off with two days about geopolitics and the political forces underlying the provision of oil and gas resources, mainly focusing on Azerbaijan and with important digressions about Turkmenistan. Renowned energy analyst John Roberts joined us for these two days, during which time he lectured and led a couple of simulations that very clearly illustrated the concepts we were discussing. After a day on strategic management, we continued to discuss the oil and gas industry from the perspective of oil companies, as well as from the relevant states. The week culminated in a round-table with four representatives (which included two ambassadors) of countries relevant to Azerbaijan's and the Caspian Sea region's natural resources - Turkey, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. The final keynote speaker was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov. After he presented us with our certificates of participation in the program, we were done. 

I've now had about four days to think back on the 7th Baku Summer Energy School. First off, I really enjoyed my time in Baku. I had a lot of fun at the program, which is not what I was anticipating --- I was expecting 100% serious, 100% of the time. I learned a lot too, which is by far the most important thing, but I'm really glad I was able to have a great time while doing it. For me, the best aspect of the Baku Summer Energy School was meeting and spending time with the other participants, who were all really interesting people from all over the world that are also working in or studying the energy sector. I'm going to keep in touch with them for a long time, as well as with the program staff, who were also fantastic! The conference was extremely well organized and the staff also did a great job of attracting top-notch speakers. I had several favorites over the course of the two weeks - namely Dr. Tatiana Mitrova, Karl Petter Waern, Rikard Scoufias, John Roberts, and Ilgar Mehti - but the most memorable session for me was the one led by John Roberts in which we simulated an outbreak of violence in Nagorno-Karabagh, the territory disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. We split into four groups, with one representing Azerbaijan, another Armenia, a third Russia, and the final group international oil companies. In a matter of minutes, he demonstrated to us how tenuous the situation in Nagorno-Karabagh really is and how - theoretically - easily it could devolve into violence. 

All in all, I'm very happy that I participated in the 2013 Baku Summer Energy School. I absolutely would recommend the program to any and all of my friends and classmates who are interested in the energy sphere! 

The AU crew at Azerbaijan Diplomatic AcademyThe AU crew at Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Discussing the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict (photo cred to Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy)

The Flame Towers + mosque

Some Baku Summer Energy School participants by the Eternal Flame memorial in Baku's Martyrs' Lane

BSES participants posing with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov (photo cred to Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy)
Greetings from Tbilisi, Georgia!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Living Life to the Fullest in Baku, Azerbaijan

Last weekend in Azerbaijan was incredible. We took a field trip to Gobustan and had a chance to observe a rock art cultural landscape with an outstanding collection of more than 6,000 rock engravings. The site belongs to UNESCO World Heritage List. The visitors have an opportunity to learn more about the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials with a history of more than 40,000 years. Despite an incredibly high temperature and dry air, people were very pleased with what they saw. Taking pictures with a rocky landscape on the background was particularly fun to everybody. After Gobustan, we visited Mud Volcanoes. I am not going to extend too much on particular aspects of this attraction, since my university’s colleague Inta Plostins has already provided a detailed and expressive description of what it was like to see these sights. Certainly, as it might happen during any other trip, we came across a number of complications while getting to the final destination, Mud Volcanoes. Territorial guards did not want to let us through the shortest road because of some sort of an industrial activity taking place in the neighborhood. However, this is the point where a power of negotiation comes into play and students of International Affairs have a good opportunity to practice their diplomatic skills. Thanks to one of the trip’s organizers, Akhmed Gumbatov, we were able to find a compromise within a relatively short time and drove through the gate.

As Inta pointed out in the previous blog, we also took a trip to Quba, the largest Jewish community settlement in the former Soviet Union. Not a lot of people decided to go there because of a two-hour drive. However, seeing the beauty of a mountainous landscape, visiting a local synagogue, and interacting with local Jewish people had definitely enriched my perception of what genuine Azerbaijan was about. On the way back to Baku, we made a stop to buy some fruits from a local seller at a discount price and took a bunch of pictures.

On Monday and Tuesday, we had one of the most interesting topics of the whole program, International Politics of Energy. I had an honor to listen not only one to one of the leading Energy Security Specialists from Platts, John M. Roberts, but also had a chance to interact with him face-to-face on a number of issues over a cup of tea for almost three hours. During the seminar, we played out an interesting simulation concerning negotiation of a natural gas deal and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the Caspian region, which made us look for a solution to a real life problem in its practical application. In addition, I had a great honor to listen to Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ambassador of Azerbaijan to NATO as well as a number of representatives from SOCAR. 

Between lectures, we visited museums of Carpets and Modern Art. For the sake of deeper knowledge and understanding, we toured the museums with guides only for 5 AZN. In the evening on Tuesday, we checked local restaurants and drank some tea in the open air, while enjoying Baku at night. What I found incredibly surprising is that even during the week days, crowds of people stay out quite late enjoying awesome weather, good food, and company of their friends. On Thursday we are having a number of interesting speakers from BP, Energy Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Georgian Oil and Gas Corporation. 

By all means, BSES allows me not only to acquire valuable knowledge, create a firm foundation for a future career in energy field, but also make quite a number of professional contacts. 


Rocks in Gobustan

local mud baths

power of negotiation

Synagogue, Quba

with some of the BSES participants, Quba

Monday, July 15, 2013

Weekend diversions

Unfortunately, the 2013 BSES program is more than halfway over now. During this past weekend, we took two amazing field trips to other parts of Azerbaijan - one to desert-like Qobustan and to the nearby mud volcanoes, and one to the beautiful mountainous region in the northern part of Azerbaijan around Quba. Qobustan was like out of another world, with dry and dusty alien landscapes all around us. It is famous for the ancient rock carvings in the sides of the large rocks and mountains, the oldest of which apparently date back to the 12th century BC. After a long tour of these petroglyphs in the hot sun, we continued on to the mud volcanoes. They are difficult to reach because the tourist infrastructure isn't particularly developed, though this is one of Azerbaijan's main attractions. Once we finished the treacherous ride there, what a sight! The volcanoes bubbled more than they oozed and exploded, but some of them still look like those science projects we did as kids, with the clay volcanoes filled with baking soda and vinegar!


The petroglyphs in Qobustan

Mud volcanoes!!

The following day, a group of us also continued sightseeing in Quba. After the 2.5 hour bus ride, we first stopped off at a synagogue belonging to Quba's historic Jewish community. Azerbaijan is home to one of the largest settlements of Jewish people outside Israel and also within the former USSR. The so-called 'mountain Jews' have lived in this part of the country for centuries, if not even more than a millennium. We were able to tour the synagogue and then ask questions of our tour guides, who appeared to be pillars of the community and were immensely knowledgeable. We followed this up with a long leisurely lunch of traditional Azerbaijani food, lamb kebabs. Our group then headed into the mountains, which were such a complete contrast from Qobustan's desert. They were so tall and green and beautiful, it really felt like we were in Austria or Switzerland! The landscapes were stunning.
Quba's mountains

Enjoying the view!

Part of AU's delegation to the 2013 Baku Summer Energy School, outside Quba

Back to reality now though - since it's Monday, the lectures have resumed. This week has more of a geopolitical focus than last week, which I'm really excited about. Here's hoping this week is just as good as last week, or even better!

The AU group!

Our Group!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Update from Baku

So, the first week of summer seminar at BSES is almost over. It has been just 5 days, but I feel as I have been living in Baku for almost a month because of how much we have accomplished in just a few days.

I have been privileged to meet not only famous professionals and academics in the field of energy, but was also astonished when Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy bus took me to the Sangachal Oil Terminal, one of the largest oil terminals in the world where Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline starts. We got a chance not only to learn about how oil and gas are produced, but also physically observed the difference between high-quality light Azeri oil and a heavy Venezuelan type. In just a few days, we have gone through such aspects of energy as economics, law, revenue and resource management. Obviously, the material is not the easiest to absorb, but those of you who want to tie their futures to energy sector should be prepared for a very challenging life.

We also visited the campus of a recently established Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (2006), one of the program sponsors. I am sure that this school has a great future and will definitely have a chance to get in line with the best schools for International Affairs in the world. I am also seriously considering a second Master's degree at ADA myself. Fortunately, I do not feel like leaving Baku at all, which implies that the program, the crowd, and the environment completely live up to my expectations.

Tomorrow we will continue discussing contemporary trends of waste management and the effects of the global climate change on the Caspian Basin. Especially, everyone is very excited about the upcoming cocktail reception in a historic oil-workers' pub. Well, it's Friday after all. Saturday and Sunday will be also full of various cultural and leisure activities. By the way, I forgot to mention that for those of you who are not fans of swimming pools, the Caspian Sea is not bad at all. The water is not exactly the same as in the Atlantic Ocean or Lake Michigan, but clean enough not to catch a disease. There is more information and pictures to come.
famous Flame Towers

televised debate on energy trends with ADA scholars

everyday seminars

A Week in Baku

Hello Readers!
We have nearly completed our first week of the Baku Summer Energy School and I am having a fabulous time. Our workshop classes are taught by experts in the field and I felt a bit starstruck yesterday after getting a chance to speak with Giacomo Luciani. It's not every day I can speak with famous economists.

Our hosts from the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy have been very gracious. One thing I really like about the program is the effort to mix professional and academic learning with cultural activities. Before this trip, I had a general knowledge of the region's history, and the program has done an excellent job tying that history to the development made in the area to date.

That's all for now. I will have more updates as the program progresses.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Post-Soviet paradise? (reflections on the first three days)

Greetings from Baku, Azerbaijan! We’re now three days into the program, five if you count the first weekend’s introductory events. What a whirlwind! In these few days, we’ve explored Baku’s Old City, taken two separate field trips to oil fields and refineries, toured Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy’s facilities, had three full days of lectures, and even participated in a taped segment for Azerbaijan’s public television station. How are we fitting this much into each day?!

I’ve had the chance to meet some amazing people, both participants and presenters. The 2013 Baku Summer Energy School students hail from 15 different countries and have a range of experience that reflects all angles of the energy business, from people that work for oil and gas companies to diplomats and employees of foreign ministries. Their depth of knowledge about all aspects of this field is both intimidating and inspiring at the same time! Very quickly they made me realize just how big and varied the business of energy actually is – there are so many possible niches to occupy. The professors themselves have also been fantastic, ranging from a former diplomat who is now an ExxonMobil executive to one of the foremost academics of international energy relations. I am incredibly impressed by the caliber of the lecturers at this summer’s Baku Summer Energy School, as well as their willingness to interact with the students and their candidness in answering our many questions. I – a second-year master’s student – was even able to challenge a lecturer on his views on the strategic versus commercial viability of a proposed pipeline between Turkmenistan and India. Not in many places would I be able to even interact with a person of this stature, much less openly challenge him on his opinions!

In addition to the program, I’m finding Azerbaijan itself to be a fascinating mix of Turkic culture and a post-Soviet setting. Baku’s Old Town has a very similar architectural style to Istanbul (at least based on pictures I’ve seen of Istanbul), doner kebabs and lavash bread are sold everywhere, we hear the call to prayer every day, and so on, but at the same time, everyone speaks Russian fluently, there are Soviet-style buildings scattered across Baku, and old-school Ladas are still visible driving between the new Lexus and Mercedes. It’s not often I think of Turkey and Russia in the same context, but Azerbaijan is making me reevaluate my preconceptions of what a post-Soviet state is and can be. 

2013 Baku Summer Energy School cake, complete with oil rig decoration

Traditional Azeri dancing at the 2013 BSES welcome dinner

A traditional Azeri lunch at the "Old Baku" restaurant

Contrasts between old and new in Baku

Sunday, July 7, 2013

My First Weekend in Baku, Azerbaijan

Dear readers and potential participants,

The first two days spent in Baku were amazing. I was quite surprised to see such a diverse group of participants from different parts of the world. For the next two weeks I have an opportunity not only to interact with the locals and learn more about energy and oil from professionals in the field, but also to explore more about other countries from the natives of Israel, Mexico, Hungary, Poland, France, Italy, South Africa, and etc. There are five of us from the AU.

Reception hosted for us at Retro Club on July 6 was a chance not only to introduce ourselves in front of each other, but also to taste local Azerbaijani cuisine, listen to traditional live music, and try some moves of national Azerbaijani dance. I really enjoyed the food.

Today was a tour day around the Old City of Baku and a field trip to Bibi-Heybat oil field. The thing about Baku is that it's one of those cities which combine elements of the three cultures: Russian, Persian, and Turkish. If you do not speak local Azerbaijani language that is similar to Turkish, almost one out of three people in Azerbaijan can easily interact in Russian.

It might sound weird and abnormal to some extent, but I found oil field a really picturesque place despite its industrial,  almost frightening looks. After a tour around the Old City, we had lunch at the "Old Baku" restaurant where hospitable staff were giving us one national dish after another. My dad probably knew what he was talking about when he mentioned that I would return home, back to Belarus, pretty fed up after the program was over.

Also, I would highly recommend people to be careful with the local souvenier 'dealers' who have a lot to offer and  extremely polite to you. They love to take advantage of foreigners in every possible way. By saying this, I mean that there is no set price for a thing, but it's important for a buyer to negotiate. Then, who knows, but a miracle might happen and a trader would agree to sell you a scarf for just 10 AZM instead of "initially established" 20 AZM.

I am looking forward to the first seminar class tomorrow. Generally, I am very pleased to be here and feel almost privileged. As one of the program coordinators mentioned, I am the first participant from Belarus despite relatively close ties between the counties and common Soviet past, which gives me even a stronger incentive to absorb whatever the program has to offer. So far, it has been nothing, but great.
SIS Representatives

Participants of the 7th Annual Baku Summer Energy School at the Bibi-Heybat oil fields

Friday, July 5, 2013

Getting ready for Baku

Hi blog world! I’ve never written one of these before so I’m not quite sure what to say or write. What I do know, though, is that I’m going to Baku, Azerbaijan soon to participate in the 2013 Baku Summer Energy School, hosted by the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy in conjunction with Azerbaijan’s state oil company (SOCAR). I’m very excited to participate in this program and to expand my knowledge about the world of energy. Looking at the program guide now, the list of topics to be covered is immense and comprehensive – energy fundamentals, energy law, strategic management of energy resources, energy politics, and so on. I have high hopes that I’ll learn a lot in a practical setting and be able to meet people that are already well-established in the fields of energy security and political risk analysis as it relates to energy. Additionally, because I’ve been away from AU for a few months doing an exchange in St. Petersburg, Russia and now an internship in Tbilisi, Georgia, I’m really excited to reconnect with and meet some more of my AU classmates. I also hope that we have ample time to explore the city of Baku! I have a family friend that lived for several years in Baku and based on her stories alone, it sounds like a fascinating place with a rich history.

But what’s really on my mind --- I’m a woman and I don’t know how I’ll be treated in Azerbaijan for that reason. To make matters even more interesting, I have fair skin and long, light-colored hair --- I definitely won’t blend in with the crowd. Unfortunately, I’ve been stared at and approached and even proposed to (!) enough times in southern European and Caucasus countries to be used to it, but I’m still extremely uncomfortable whenever it happens. I wonder, too, if I’ll be treated differently at the conference by some of the attendees because I’m female. Am I going to have to work extra hard to prove myself, or will everything be okay from the outset? I don’t know and I’m nervous to find out, but I’ll take each day as it comes here in Baku.