Just like someone serving in the armed forces, when I was in Azerbaijan in the Peace Corps, I lost some of my free speech rights. This is because we are not supposed to get involved in political issues in our country and we are not there to criticize or even praise the government.
So when I spoke about Azerbaijan, I didn't say that a huge and frequently discussed problem for Azerbaijanis is the corruption in the government, the lack of a free press and freedom of assembly. The problem takes a few forms--many students in primary and secondary school as well as in universities are expected to pay or can pay teachers bribes. Some are for nothing in particular, others are for better grades or for not attending school (to work) and be counted anyway.
Others are to get jobs (a teacher is commonly expected to pay up to 5 years salary to get a teaching job), keep jobs, get a drivers license, stop police harassment, get a break from the armed forces, a better assignment or to get out early. Some doctors pay enough bribes that they don't need to really study.
Some people appreciate the convenience that the bribes afford them--are you a university psychology major and not good at statistics? Pay and get a passing grade. Need an A instead of a B? Pay and get it. But others hate it. When I held English conversation groups, the participants chose bribes as their most popular topic of conversation. This situation is a major reason that many Azerbaijanis are highly skeptical of democracy--bribes were reportedly minimal in the days of the Soviet Union.
I never realized how important freedom of the press is in America. Government and business try to get away with a lot of stuff, but in the end they can't, because someone will squeal. In Azerbaijan, the press is tightly controlled. The newspapers and TV report on nothing controversial. Americans and those who can read English or Russian on the internet know that the 12 year old son of the president of Azerbaijan owns over $40 million of real estate in Dubai, but regular Azerbaijanis have no idea. Conservative Muslims find their mosques shut down and themselves in jail. Those who try to have community meetings without the approval of the local government find their meetings broken up.
Azerbaijanis are not upset enough about these problems to do much about them. They even approved a constitutional amendment to let their president stay in office indefinitely. Part of it, I am convinced, is that even a bad situation like this could be a lot worse. When the Soviet Union fell, the country completely fell apart. No electricity, gas, everyone out of a job, no currency, no government. The first two presidents couldn't provide much of anything and when a former Soviet official who was the former head of the KGB appeared on the scene, they threw over their president and accepted him.
After his death, his son became president. Azerbaijanis have most of the basics and don't want to go backward. We volunteers felt smug about this difference between Azerbaijan and America at first, but then we realized that we have corruption too, some in the same form and some different. People in Chicago know that both Mayor Daleys had corrupt administrations, but they keep electing them. New York had a law that the mayor could only have 2 terms, but Michael Bloomberg ran again and won.
We gain advantage for our own children in schools, not by bribes, but by excluding the poor from our neighborhoods through zoning and economic segregation so we don't have to compete with them. We don't want to watch news or read articles that conflict with our opinions. We say we don't like the moral values of different groups of people, but we don't really know any of them.
So while I was bursting with the news early on, now it seems like a weak postscript to my Azerbaijan experience.