By Martin Kruming
On a warm, sunny day in March, San Diegans went to the polls. After showing identification, they received their ballots, stepped into voting booths, made their choices, handed the ballots to poll workers, and hurried off to work, home, or elsewhere. Thousands of miles away, citizens of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet Republic surrounded by Russia, Iran and Turkey, showed up at polling stations on a cold, blustery day in February to choose members of the Azerbaijan Parliament. They showed IDs, took a ballot which they marked, returned it to the election officials, and stuck around to socialize with fellow voters. Two places-16 hours apart by plane-each trying to make democracy work during a very unsettling and confusing period in history.
Azerbaijan is a country of 10 million people, about 98 percent of them Muslim-although they have 30,000 Jews, a revered community of Mountain Jews near the capital of Baku, and strong ties to Israel. There are also hundreds of thousands of Christians of various denominations. It's a country of religious tolerance and diversity where Imams, Rabbis, and Ministers talk to one another. Azerbaijan talks to not only Israel, but also Russia, Iran, China, the European Union, and the United States-its strong and long standing ally.
Oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea provide much of the wealth for this country but there are also wind farms, solar stations, and other non-fossil forms of energy. The best and brightest of Azerbaijan's younger generation are being educated at universities in England and America, and then returning to leadership roles in society often succeeding older leaders who grew up in a Soviet-dominated era.
Azerbaijan, which is known as much for its music and art as its pomegranates and chess, connects people and places just as Central Asia connects East and West. For almost 10 years, San Diego's neighborhood of Switzer Highland (900 population)-which connects North Park and South Park-has enjoyed a cultural and educational partnership with the Nasimi District (215,000 population) of Baku, one of the most prestigious Districts in the Azerbaijan capital that also includes theU.S. Embassy.
Working with the Azerbaijan Consulate General in Los Angeles, this partnership has engaged in more than 35 projects, including the 3rd Annual Baku Open Chess Tournament co-sponsored by Azerbaijan, the City of San Diego Downtown Library, the San Diego Chess Club, and the San Diego Press Club. Two of the top five chess Grandmasters in the world come from Azerbaijan.
On that cold, windy day in February, 2.5 million people voted, a 47.81 percent voter turnout, for 1,314 candidates, including more than 350 women, 22 of whom will represent women in the new 125-member Parliament. In 1919 Azerbaijan became the first majority-Muslim nation to give voting rights to women, even before the U.S. Democracy is precious and fragile, in San Diego as well as Azerbaijan.
Martin Kruming chairs the Baku-SanDiego Friendship Group and was an observer for the 2020 Parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. He is a long-time member of First UU in San Diego.
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