The Historical Gadfly: Geoff Shaw on Legal Development in Azerbaijan

After a summer vacation, The Historical Gadfly is back up and running. I was delighted to get Geoff Shaw, a graduate of Yale College and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford studying 20th century intellectual history, as our first guest to kick off what I hope is another good season of interviews.

Look at discourse on what developed countries’ roles towards developing countries should be, and a few themes jump out. One is simply what countries get brought up in the discussion. True, Afghanistan and Iraq have been the recipients of billions of dollars of development aid since the overthrow of the Taliban regime and Saddam Hussein in 2001 and 2003, respectively. But often, it seems to me that when people talk about development, they’re most often referring to projects in places like South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, and parts of Latin America. (Check out the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s map of where they have operations below, for example.)

Even though many post-Soviet countries, above all Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, face critical problems with education, public health, and infrastructure, they somehow seem to get less attention in development discourse today. The Soviet Union did some good things for places like Shaartuz, Tajikistan, or Sumgait, Azerbaijan, but twenty years after independence, the old Soviet-trained intelligentsia is old, impoverished, and retiring, and a new generation, often poorly educated, is coming of age into a world where the 1970s-era infrastructure only barely creaks along.

Восток дело тонкое? A map of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's activities

Second, mention “development” to most people and they’ll probably think of projects like building electrical lines, immunizing populations form malaria or polio, building girls’ schools, or encouraging structural economic re-adjustment to make sure that these developing countries can find a place in the global economy. Less often, it seems to me, do we talk about legal development – training judges, providing roaming legal services to legally underserved rural populations, making sure that a defined list of human rights is guaranteed even in remote locations, and trying to improve legal processes to make them orderly, transparent, predictable, and legitimate in the eyes of those involved. Training lawyers or judges, or remodeling courtrooms, in Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, or Kyrgyzstan, might seem like a waste of money when people are without heat and hungry, but what if transforming legal institutions was one of many ways to promote, say, greater women’s rights by allowing people a chance to file spousal abuse lawsuits?


In my interview with Geoff, we explore a number of these issues of legal development in what might seem like an unlikely context: Azerbaijan, the gas-rich, Turkic, Sunni Muslim, ex-Soviet state on the western rim of the Caspian Sea, where Geoff spent a summer working for the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative. Azerbaijan is an especially interesting country for anyone interested in development or legal development to work in. Not only is there the challenge of moving from, as Geoff describes, a more inquisitorial Soviet-style legal system to a more adversarial Western-style legal system; Azerbaijan also has the highest number of internally displaced persons per capita of any country in the world – the equivalent of the entire U.S. state of Texas being populated by displaced refugees. (Many of these refugees come from neighboring Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh following a war between the two countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Like IDPs elsewhere, these refugees are especially subject to exploitation and human trafficking, for which Azerbaijan unfortunately serves as a regional hub.

In short, even though Azerbaijan has managed to overcome some of the challenges facing other post-Soviet states thanks to its energy resources, relatively good post-Soviet governance, a crucial geopolitical position between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, it still has a huge number of challenges on the path towards normalcy. On top of it all, it has to manage these changes across a generation gap of people who made their lives in the USSR, and a younger generation of Azerbaijainis who speak English not Russian and may look more towards Istanbul, London, or New York for models of the state they want to build for themselves.

It’s into this fray that organizations like the ABA, funded by USAID, and their affiliate institutions in developing countries, are trying to build a rule of law culture: a huge challenge, and one that requires clarity about what the goals are, but that can be an inspiring quest and great training for people like Geoff interested in law as a tool of social change.

Geoff Shaw, our guest on this episode of "The Historical Gadfly"

As someone interested in the post-Soviet world and development, I found this to be a particularly stimulating conversation, and hope you do, too. Download it here, and enjoy!


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