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

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