by Milena Sterio, C|M|LAW Fulbright Scholar & Fulbright Scholar
I arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan, in early February 2013, to teach law at Baku State University during the spring semester, pursuant to a Fulbright Scholarship. My five-month stay in this country has been one of the most exciting professional experiences since the start of my career.
Baku State University is the most prestigious Azeri public university; it hosts approximately 15,000 students and many different “faculties” or departments. I have been teaching a Civil Law course for undergraduates, and an International Business Transactions course for graduate-level students (both in English). The majority of my students hail from Baku or its surroundings and have chosen to study law in English in order to facilitate future job-hunting with prestigious employers such as British Petroleum or the law firm of Baker McKenzie. Most of my students speak fluent English, but I have to think hard before using any colloquial expressions or any excessive “legalese,” as these usually produce blank stares. My students address me as “teacher Milena” – the term “teacher” in the Azeri language is seen as a sign of profound respect and can be used for a professor or any other person deemed to merit an equal amount of respect.
Research-wise, my project consists of a study of secession under international law as it relates to a province of Azerbaijan, called Nagorno-Karabakh. During the Soviet era, Nagorno-Karabakh was a part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In the early 1990’s, once the Soviet Union disintegrated, multiple wars broke out in the Caucuses, including a violent struggle between Azerbaijan and the neighboring Armenia. As a result of this conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh has been occupied by Armenia. De jure, Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of the independent state of Azerbaijan, but de facto, it is controlled by Armenia and inhabited by Armenians. I have been researching secession and self-determination criteria, as they relate to this region. Research here has been more difficult than I originally contemplated because of political censorship by the Azeri government and because of inadequate research resources. However, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak to various Azeris firsthand about Nagorno-Karabakh and to have the opportunity in the future to write about this.
Last but not least, a word on my geographic surroundings. Baku is a large city with approximately three million inhabitants. It is located on the coast of the Caspian Sea, on the so-called Absheron Peninsula. Over the past decade, Baku has developed tremendously: it has beautiful pedestrian zones with high-end stores, cafes and restaurants, a four-mile long promenade along the Sea, and many squares ornate with marble floors and fancy fountains. The remainder of the country is drastically different. Azeri villages seem almost a century behind American villages and small towns in terms of development. Cattle, horses, sheep, cows, as well as dogs walk around village streets freely. Houses are built on muddy grounds, and usually only one paved road links a village to any neighboring community. Proper highways are nonexistent in Azerbaijan, and a 200-mile car journey occupies most of the day.
Having the opportunity to live in Azerbaijan as a Fulbright Scholar has been enriching and rewarding on both personal as well as professional levels. I look forward to further sharing my experiences, and to developing my ongoing research into professional publications.