Baku, Azerbaijan: Outside the oil wealth and boom-town atmosphere of this Caspian Sea capital, young Azeris are struggling to keep up with an increasingly connected world. While youth in Baku are learning the online ropes, their counterparts in rural areas are facing a burgeoning technology gap -- and both a government and an educational system that have been slow to close it.
In Asrik, a western town near the Armenian border, Mobil Mammadov, 17, says he has never used the Internet. There is no computer in his village, and the closest Internet club is 25 kilometers away in the regional center of Tovuz.
"I heard about the Internet from friends who use it in Baku. It seems exciting," Mammadov said. "Computer education training courses are available in Tovuz, but the courses are expensive for me...It is very boring for people of my age to live in the village."
Mammadov dreams of an Internet club opening in Asrik so that he can learn basic online knowledge. He has also heard about games on the Internet and wants to play them.
DIFFERENT STORY IN BAKU
Unlike Mammadov, youth in Baku have the Internet at their fingertips, largely thanks to a flourishing culture of Internet cafes and clubs. Consequently, whereas young people in rural areas rely on so-called traditional media (television, radio, and print sources), many of Baku's young people use the Internet to get information and connect with each other.
For Zakir Alibekov, 17, who lives in Baku, the Internet serves as a main source of information and entertainment. "I have no computer at home so I have to visit Internet cafes. And I do it almost every day," Alibekov said. "I often visit sites where I can download music and pictures to my cell phone, [or] read websites and forums about cars."
He also uses Internet communication -- e-mail and chatting -- to find friends in Azerbaijan as well as abroad.
Baku's flux of adept Internet users like Alibekov comes as no surprise. The city, where the vast majority of the country's universities and colleges are located, is home to about 50 percent of Azeri youth (age 15-24). And according to data gathered in 2006 by Multimedia, a Baku-based organization dedicated to information technology (IT) development, university-age students (age 19-24) comprise up to 30 percent of Azeri Internet users.
Despite the surge of Internet use among Baku youth, for those living in the country's rural regions, Azerbaijan remains a relatively unconnected nation. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), more than 40 percent of the Azeri population live in poverty.
Not surprisingly, then, Internet access is a luxury for most Azeris. The 2006 Human Development Index, published by the UNDP, ranked Azerbaijan 99 out of 177 countries for Internet users per every 1,000 people. (Neighboring Armenia ranked 80, Iran 96, and Georgia 97.) Only about 8 percent of the country's population -- just under 700,000 people -- are Internet users.
In March 2007, Ali Abbasov, the country's communication and IT minister, said there are only 5-6 computers per every 100 people -- a sign of the need for further technological development.
"In developed countries this indicator is about 20-25 computers per 100 people. Of course it is not possible to reach the same level immediately, but we are working in this direction," Abbasov told the RIA-Novosti news agency.
BREAKTHROUGHS AND OBSTACLES
Hoping to address its sluggish Internet growth, Azerbaijan's government is cooperating with the American technology giants Microsoft and Intel on a project called People's Computer. The initiative is aimed at increasing the number of computers throughout the country, Abbasov said, with a focus on youth.
"The core of the project is to provide population with computers for preferential prices. In the first place computerization should affect the science and education spheres," the minister explained.
A source at the Ministry of Communications and IT said the project will let young people buy computers for about $100. Organizers hope the program will boost drastically the number of young Azeri Internet users. According to the source, the People's Computer project is scheduled to launch by the end of 2007.
Increasing the number of computers in the country, however, may not be an all-encompassing solution to the problem of Azeri youth not using the Internet. Providing access to the Web does not ensure the know-how to use it, and learning the necessary skills has proven a challenge for many young people.
While clubs in the cities have allowed some youth to teach themselves how to navigate the Internet, students say Azerbaijan's education system (including secondary schools, colleges, and universities) does not encourage them to learn how to use online information sources. Even in Baku, secondary-school and university students note that while some curricula contain lessons on computer use, the overall quality of instruction on the subject is weak.
The government has taken some steps to improve the educational situation. According to Osman Gunduz, the head of Multimedia, the number of Azeri students who use the Internet has grown within the last two years. He attributes the increase to a state-implemented IT development program among younger students. "Within the program 15,000 computers were distributed among the secondary schools throughout the country last year," Gunduz explained.
Nonetheless, students between the ages of 15 and 18 -- who fall behind the 19 to 24 year-old group in rates of Internet use -- say they have yet to see tangible improvements. Murad Huseynov, 16, an 11th-form pupil of Secondary School 15 in Baku, said that his school has neither the facilities nor the personnel to encourage students to use online resources.
"There is no Internet connection in our school, and nobody teaches us how to use Internet. I learned it by myself in Internet clubs," he said.
Similarly, many university students say their instructors do not recommend that they use online information as sources for their papers and research. "They demand us to use hard copies as sources and do not like the Internet," said Huraman Hajiyeva, 19, a student in the Department of International Relations at Baku State University (BSU).
She also said that even at BSU, students do not enjoy free access to the Internet -- a problem for those short on money. "Students from the regions and from poor families have no ability to visit Internet clubs," Hujiyeva explained.
One of the only notable exceptions to the educational system's relative silence on Internet use is Azerbaijan's State Students Admission Commission (SSAC). The commission's website encourages students to use the Internet by publishing important information about its exams. As a result, the site is popular among secondary-school students. But the SSAC's promotion of the Internet is largely indirect; in most cases, students must first access the Web to know that the online exam resources exist.
Despite the general dearth of instruction and support when it comes to online access, many students are using the Internet independently to enhance their education.
"You can find everything in the Internet -- essays, books, and other literature which is not available at the schools' libraries," Alibekov said.
Some students also rely on the Internet for entertainment; they use it to download music, chat online, play computer games, and peruse sports sites. Many older students, however, say the Internet goes even beyond being an educational and entertainment resource; it is key to helping them learn about current political and economic news -- particularly in a country with powers that keep a tight fist around most traditional media.
"Print media in Azerbaijan is biased for the most part, and it is under control of the government, political forces, and the oligarchs. These groups are using newspapers for their own purposes as the means of political struggle and leaking of discrediting materials against the rivals," said Shahin Hajiyev, the executive director of the Najaf Najafov Foundation, a Baku-based organization that researches media problems in the country.
Not surprisingly, the combination of traditional media's biases and the growing popularity of Internet use, particularly in cities, has led to more online work among politically active Azeri youth. E-mail lists, Yahoo groups, and Web-connected cell phones have been used in various political campaigns and networking endeavors.
"The Internet provides more opportunities for...debates by means of closed networks and Yahoo groups. You can write there things which you will never do in newspaper or on TV," said, Tural Aliyev, a 23-year-old student.
During Azerbaijan's 2005 parliamentary elections, for example, Emin Huseynov, the leader of the pro-opposition youth movement Magam (It's Time), sent statements by e-mail calling on youth to take part in the protest actions. The messages and protests demanded free and fair elections.
"There were about 4,000 e-mails of people, mostly students, in my list, and it helped in our actions a lot," Huseynov said. He added, however, that he sometimes received threatening replies.
Indeed, using the Internet in Azerbaijan as an outlet for political action is not without risks and consequences.
On 8 January 2007, the site www.susmayag.biz ("Let's not remain silent") was launched with the aim of collecting signatures to protest the government's decision to increase the prices of energy resources and utilities. The following day, the government blocked the site, and one of its creators, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a 22-year-old student, was arrested and sentenced to 12 days in prison. He was released after two days due to pressure from Baku‘s foreign diplomatic corps and international protests.
The incident resonated among politically active youth; when Hajiyev's website was blocked, other sites independently published its materials.
In another case of the government cracking down on the Internet, the site www.tinsohbeti.com, which provides oppositional and satirical information about Azerbaijan's authority figures, was blocked several times in 2006.
Reflecting on such incidents, many Azeri youth are looking to technological developments on the horizon as more than opportunities for greater access to the Internet; they also hope that as the Web gradually spreads through their country, both the government and its education system will liberalize their policies toward online information and communities.