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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 06:55 am

Go east, young man!

Mike Madigan goes exploring in Azerbaijan


I don’t know about you, but I love to hear people talk about their interesting trips to foreign places. You learn the most interesting things. What fun it would be therefore to sit down with Mike Madigan – a man who, however far he roams, never really leaves the Southwest side of Chicago – and ask him the questions I’ve always wanted to ask about Baku. Is it true that Baku is Azerbaijan’s Windy City? (Wikipedia says it is.) Does the phrase, “I got your goat,” mean you bested an opponent in a deal, or does it simply mean that you’ve arranged lunch with the caterer?

I could do that because in November, a delegation led by the divine Mr. M showed up in Azerbaijan’s capital, where he was greeted officially by his counterparts in the Azerbaijani Parliament. I learned about this, as I learn about so many things, from Rich Miller, our very own Balzac, whose Statehouse dispatches constitute our commonwealth’s La Comédie politique.

The official press agency reported that the Azerbaijan parliament wants to establish “working groups” with the various U.S. states modeled on the existing working group on U.S.-Azerbaijan interparliamentary relations. However, the flacks went on to add that the Speaker “highly estimated the rapid development of Azerbaijan, direction of oil incomes to new spheres.”

As well he might. Azerbaijan, like the U.S., is filthy with oil and gas. Unlike the U.S., it responded to its energy boom in ways that will add to that nation’s resources rather than merely deplete them. The Azerbaijanis set up a State Oil Fund in which the money from energy exploitation flows. One of its purposes is to “ensure intergenerational equality with regard to the country’s oil wealth” by investing in the county’s future. It does this by building new pipelines and railways, irrigation and water supply systems and financing study abroad for Azerbaijan young people. When a private energy company wants to extract Azerbaijani minerals and ship them off to Germany or wherever, the Azerbaijanis demand a cut of the action. As a condition of permitting Big Oil to drill in the Caspian Sea off the Azerbaijan coast, the government recently demanded ownership of half the company set up to do it.

Think of what the State of Illinois might have done had it captured for public investment a like share of the irreplaceable wealth generated over the decades by its rivers, its coal seams, its farm fields. Funding for the 10th Street rail corridor, or an even better system in which all freights would skirt the capital altogether, could be provided without standing in line in Washington.

Alas, Illinois had no sovereign natural resources. Its minerals were a gift of geology to its people, that is its original human inhabitants, who were swindled out of them by the late-arriving Europeans. Those Europeans introduced not only the technologies to extract wealth but an ideology of exploitation in the form of a free enterprise economy, one in which enterprising people make off with irreplaceable natural resources for free. So it was not Azerbaijan oil policy that interested Mr. Madigan.

The bottom line about the conversations turns out to have been the bottom line. The Azerbaijanis want to use part of their oil money to build their nation’s communication infrastructure and are eager to explore ways in which Illinois firms might be part of that project. Apparently Mr. Madigan was just hoping to do a little business for Illinois firms.

Illinois’ more fastidious citizens might have qualms about doing business with Mr. Madigan’s new friends. While it is a strategic ally of the U.S., the Azerbaijani government is a bit dodgy when it comes to human rights. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have the same regard for the national government that Standard & Poor’s has for Illinois bonds.

Which, in my view, means that Azerbaijan might be an eager market for more than Illinois telecomm expertise. Mr. Madigan is just as committed as President Aliyev to the suppression of dissent in fractious legislative bodies, but the Illinoisan gets the job done without jails and police truncheons. The Speaker also is a top official in a General Assembly that made the act of recording law officers performing their duties a crime, and his putative party chief is as reluctant to admit inspectors into his prisons as any Middle Eastern theocrat. And don’t forget that the General Assembly’s most famous living alumnus holds views on extra-judicial killings, murder by drones and indefinite detention without cause that would be considered vigorous even in the Caucasus.

What Illinois officials already know, leaders still learning how to run governments might want to buy. Perhaps Mr. Madigan should urge Mr. Quinn to open a desk at the State of Illinois’ trade office that would offer one-stop shopping to developing world autocrats eager for expertise in democracy’s darker arts. It’s golden.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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