As an oil-rich country on the border of Southeast Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Azerbaijan has drawn from a variety of cultures and influences.
Azerbaijan is the only country to border both Iran and Russia. Other neighbors include Georgia, Turkey and Armenia.
Its location makes it a cross roads.
Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan's ambassador to the United States, recalls a conversation between President Ilham Aliyev and Pope Francis. “Azerbaijan has always been the bridge between East and West," the pope said.
In 1991, Azerbaijan gained its independence after a history of war and external control. The Russian-Persian Wars in the early 1800s caused Azerbaijan to be occupied by Iran until Russia took control . After a brief period of independence in the early 20th century, Azerbaijan was absorbed by the Soviet Union. The small country regained its independence when the USSR crumbled in 1991. Nevertheless, a significant number of Azerbaijanis still reside in Iran.
Azerbaijan remains in conflict with neighboring Armenia. The two countries have feuded over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, they do not have diplomatic relations, and their border is closed.
Azerbaijan’s varied influences and cultures have created a political and social environment that stands out among its neighbors. It was the first predominantly Muslim democratic republic in 1918. Lasting only 23 months, the attempt failed. Yet, it set the stage for inclusiveness - women and minorities were given the equal right to vote.
“All of these influences provide for a very secular, very modern and extremely diverse and inclusive society. And we're every proud of it,” Suleymanov told KGOU’s World Views.
Suleymanov believes his country’s history has helped prepare it for its current stability.
“It has been difficult but I think those storms became a vaccination for my people and I'm very very proud of the people of Azerbaijan who now build on the historic chance to build an independent country,” Suleymanov said.
Elin Suleymanov was appointed as the Ambassador of the Azerbaijan Republic to the United States in 2011. His diplomacy started in Los Angeles where he was the first General Consul on the West Coast.
Before his work as ambassador, Suleymanov worked with the United Nations’ High Commissioner on behalf of refugees in Azerbaijan. As a scholar and Azerbaijani diplomat, Suleymanov has authored many articles on platforms like the Washington Post.
Suleymanov describes the United States as an ally.
“We have common goals, common visions,” Suleymanov said.
Azerbaijan has been criticized for irregularities in elections. Political opponents to President Aliyev say they have faced oppression and imprisonment, and journalists have allegedly been harassed. Some international observers have criticized Azerbaijan’s elections as tilted toward the president.
Suleymanov calls Azerbaijan an emerging democracy that takes into account its own pace of development. He says countries practice democracy differently.
“It is unimaginable for many people outside the United States that you could get the popular vote, but not get the presidency. But American democracy is just that way, doesn't make America less democratic. It doesn't make anybody more democratic, just the way Americans live,” Suleymanov said.
Azerbaijan’s economy continues to move forward. Oil production gave Azerbaijan its “big break” into economic success. However, Suleymanov understands that oil is finite, and a boom in oil revenue will be followed by a bust.
Suleymanov says Azerbaijan has not squandered its oil wealth, and is using the revenue to invest in infrastructure improvements, such as the largest port in the Caspian Sea, a railway project and creating the cargo airline, Silk Way.
Elin Suleymanov on Azerbaijan as an emerging democracy
I would say Azerbaijan is an emerging democracy, but it's a democracy which takes into account its own pace of development. It focuses on the building blocks of democracy. I would even say civil society. And that's a civic identity. Inclusiveness, diversity, and respect for women, respect for minorities, inclusiveness, equal that's what everybody regardless of their gender and religion and ethnicity are. Those are important factors. Without that there can be no democracy. Any system which discriminates among people based on religion or ethnicity or in fact gender, and we see a lot of this, if it claims to be a democracy, it's a sham. It can't work in the 21st century. [ So I think what Azerbaijan has is a very important basis on which we keep building a society, which you know nowadays is very much an example of what could be done. For the much of the world and especially in our region.
Elin Suleymanov on the importance of oil in Azerbaijan’s culture
Oil is different in Azerbaijan than in many countries in the Middle East and many other producing countries because Azerbaijan is where the first oilwell in 1848 was drilled. That's where the oil began. . . It is true that Azerbaijan, for instance, has one of the best training facilities for oil engineers Azerbaijan. Oil academy has always played a very important role and it shaped many many generations of international oil ingenuity including the ones who lead different countries from Africa to the Middle East to the Eastern Europe, they all went through that. Azerbaijani specialists helped to develop Siberian oil fields. So it's a combination of energy resources plus the expertise which exists deep entrenched in Azerbaijani society. Many geologists are proud of serving.
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Joshua Landis: Ambassador Suleymanov, welcome to Oklahoma.
Elin Suleymanov: It's good to be here. Thank you sir.
Landis: Tell us about Azerbaijan's geography. What has shaped Azerbaijani history in the last century because of where it's situated?
Suleymanov: I think geography plays a key role in understanding Azerbaijan. As the Republican of Azerbaijan, you know, is the only country in the world which borders both Russia and Iran. It also borders Turkey and borders the Caspian Sea. And Azerbaijan's in the middle of so many influences. I would say right there on the eastern side of Europe and it borders Middle East obviously. So it's very much a transition, very much a bridge connecting cultures.
Suleymanov: I think President Aliyev of Azerbaijan recently meeting with Pope Francis, who was visiting Baku, described it the best. He said Azerbaijan has been always the bridge between East and West. It has always been a geographic bridge, but it has always also been a model bridge. So, I think all those influences bringing together established an influence in Azerbaijan which allowed us to build the first ever democratic republic with a predominantly Muslim population in 1918. It lasted for 23 months, but it did manage to provide equal rights to vote for everybody including women and minorities. That's ahead of many developed states.
Suleymanov: So all of these influences provide for a very secular, very modern and extremely diverse and inclusive society. And we're every proud of it. It's not that it happened to us and we don't know how to run away from it. We're very proud of it. And the Caucasus is a unique place.
Suleymanov: We come from the Caucasus. Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus, most populous country in the Caucasus. Our neighbors, Georgia, we have an excellent relationship with our neighbors.
Suleymanov: We border Russia, but we have a lot of ties to people there. Of course we have a connection to Iran both culturally but also because so many people living along the border of us, Azerbaijan and Iran, in Iran actually of Azerbaijani ethnic extraction. So we have this connection as well. Unfortunately as a result of the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the occupation of Azerbaijani territories, the relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia is non-existent. I am hoping that we will see an improvement in this area. But of course that conflict needs to be resolved.
Landis: Azeris are majority Shiite. They are Turkic peoples, and yet they're a secular country and this makes it very unique in the region. There are more Azerbaijanis or Azeris in Iran than there are actually in Azerbaijan. How did that come to happen?
Suleymanov: The reason there are more ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran than in Azerbaijan is because doing the Russo-Persian Wars of 1800s in the final division came in 1828 with the Turkmenchy peace agreement. Russia and then, later Persia/Iran, divided what is Azerbaijani lands between imperial Russia and imperial Iran. What is the independent Republic of Azerbaijan used to be a part of the Russian influenced zone and then a part of the Soviet Union. That's how it happened.
Landis: Is that a happy border. Are the Aziris in Iran happy to be in Iran?
Suleymanov: It's hard to say. I can't speak for Azerbaijanis there. We want them to be happy. They're citizens of Iran. And we of course want to see them being afforded every right and every possible opportunity within Iran. We want to see our brethren in Iran to be successful to be fully included and enjoy life and be able to enjoy the rights including the language rights. There was some question about that back and forth. But increasingly, I think we see a better situation with Azerbaijanis living in Iran.
Landis: Let's turn to the economy for a minute, and it's particularly oil. Here we are in Oklahoma and oil state. But you've been an oil state for a lot longer than Oklahoma. Yes. And tell us a little bit about the role that oil has played in Azerbaijani history, and the way what it plays today.
Suleymanov: We indeed have spent much of our existence with oil. Oil is different in Azerbaijan than in many countries in the Middle East and many other producing countries because that's where ... Azerbaijan is where first oilwell in 1848 was drilled. That's where the oil began.
Landis: Before Pennsylvania. Right?
Suleymanov: As long as people in Pennsylvania don't hear me, yes. I still need to go back to the great state of Pennsylvania at some point.
Suleymanov:But but it is true that Azerbaijan, for instance, has one of the best training facilities for oil engineers Azerbaijan. Oil academy has always played a very important role and it shaped many many generations of international oil ingenuity including the ones who lead different countries from Africa to the Middle East to the Eastern Europe they all went through that. Azerbaijani specialists helped to develop Siberian oil fields and that because of their expertise. It's a combination of energy resources plus the expertise which exists deep entrenched in Azerbaijani society. Many geologists are proud of serving.
Suleymanov: Oil has helped to make Baku cosmopolitan international city.
Suleymanov: What Azerbaijan does is invest in infrastructure development. That's the view of the leadership of Azerbaijan. President Aliyev was very specific speaking, let's turn the black gold, the oil, into the human gold, that a Human Resources and we've done quite a good job in developing the country I think.
Landis: And when you became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union your economy was in a doldrums while you were in this war for the first few years but once you came out of that your economy grew by 20 fold. By the time you got to 2015 I mean you just spurt ahead. The ease of doing business ranking went from 150 up to about 50 in the world and the economy has transformed. How did that happen?
Suleymanov: Well Azerbaijan is indeed considered to be among the best investments in the world by the World Bank. The economy grew indeed enormously. And the GDP growth in 2008-2009 was the fastest in the world at about 40 percent above what it was. And so that of course is energy related. And the question was that we know when you it was a finite effort. I mean at some point you have to understand that energy resources cannot solve everything. So what we have to do once again is invest in infrastructure. So today, for instance, Azerbaijan has the largest port in the Caspian.We are building a railway connection between east and west into the Turkish system to take the goods from China all the way from China to Kazakhstan and then our port to Georgia, Turkey and into European markets. That, by the way cuts, under ideal circumstances of course cuts the average delivery time for goods coming from China to you from 45 days by ship to 14 days over train. That is a creation of a new Silk Road, and that's what we're trying to do. We understand that is not energy related but it builds on the energy resources and investments.
Suleymanov: Same, for instance, being an air hub in Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani airline called Silk Way today is one of the largest and most successful cargo operators in the region.
Suleymanov: So the idea is to put as much effort as possible into developing these outside energy to make sure that the oil boom that helped us to develop would not be missed.
Landis: And how's has the economy since the collapse of oil prices? How have you weathered this these difficult times?
Suleymanov: I think that was a shock definitely. And the oil price falling decreased Azerbaijani revenue significantly, state revenues and the currency that was devalued because of the influx of the hard currency was much less than it used to be. At the same time I think overall we managed to maintain normalcy, the social payments, maintain the salaries. People are understanding that there is a difficulty but it is difficult to relate it to the global shocks.
Suleymanov: One important thing is and then go back to this is that we didn't waste the money when there was a when there was a surplus. So we didn't do something which was exuberance. Instead we were investing into infrastructure. So by now many of the infrastructure projects we should have completed have been completed and some of them are still being developed. But first is major hotels and infrastructure. Now for instance I'll give you an example. Baku became a very popular tourist destination because of the airport because of the hotel facilities and because of the city and the beauty of the old city itself. So what it means is that the infrastructure investment pays off quite well today.
Landis: So tourism is big. Oil is of course going to come back and well from your lips to god's ears now. So let's talk about modern politics. America, Azerbaijan have gotten and increasingly although they're they're good allies you are a secular Islamic state in the center of a very important strategic region. Democracy promotion has bedeviled our relationships in a sense because Washington is constantly saying you have to democratize and how is Azerbaijan ripe for democracy and democracy promotion all-American. Or is is an authoritarian regime good for Azerbaijan these days?
Landis: I would say as any society in Azerbaijan is pretty representative. And in our view is pretty Democratic. I mean there is no. We all understand there's no alternative to democracy. People have to be represented. And in Azerbaijan I mean if you will persist we had a referendum recently elections. By all means people do elect the government. There is no question of who going to be elected. There might be somebody to go out despite the shortcomings but those those are minor issues. There's no overwhelming problem in Azerbaijan.
Suleymanov: And in fact the fact that the despite all the oil prices falling and difficult economic state we still managed to have a very stable society that shows for itself. I think where the mistake lies is that people tried to impose their own vision of what democracy should look like. Democracy is different everywhere. I mean, American today discusses very actively whether the Electoral College is an appropriate way of appropriate way of building selecting your leadership. I mean people go back and forth both sides.
Suleymanov: It is unimaginable for many people outside the United States that you could get the popular vote but not get the presidency. But American democracy is said that way doesn't make America less democratic. It doesn't make anybody more democratic just the way Americans live. This may not be acceptable or understood by others but others do not vote in American elections and they don't make decisions. This is not their country.
Suleymanov: At the end of the day in any democratic system the government and the leadership is responsible before its own people and the people of Azerbaijan are not unhappy. And I would I would not call what Azerbaijan has as an authoritarian. I would say Azerbaijan is an emerging democracy, but it's a democracy which takes into account its own pace of development. It focuses on the building blocks of democracy. I would even say civil society. And that's a civic identity. Inclusiveness, diversity, and respect for women, respect for minorities, inclusiveness, equal that's what everybody regardless of their gender and religion and ethnicity. Those are important factors. Without that there can be no democracy. Any system which in which discriminates among people based on religion or ethnicity or in fact gender, and we see a lot of this, if it claims to be a democracy, it's a sham it's it's it's it's it's it can't work in the 21st century. So I think what Azerbaijan has is a very important basis on which we keep building a society which you know nowadays is very much an example of what could be done for. For the much of the world and especially in our region. So our relation with the United States is a strategic partnership. We're allies in many ways. We have common goals, common visions. And I think that focusing on small irregularities is not seeing the forest for the trees I think is a mistake.
Suleymanov: I mean we see today, some riots in the United States, we see some disagreements, we have seen a very contentious campaign. Doesn't mean that America is not a democracy. It doesn't mean that my foreign minister has to spend all its time attacking Americans and spoil the relationship. It just means that Americans are going to have very interesting maybe very tense domestic process which we have nothing to do with. When I tell my colleagues that let us go to our growing pains and build a society which we want to build. People don't often understand. So that's where perhaps may have different views.
Landis: Your country has grown up in a very tumultuous neighborhood. Russian revolution in 1917. Iranian Revolution 1979. You've had to sort out your cultural direction. You've changed your alphabet three times from Arabic alphabet to a Cyrillic alphabet. And then when the Soviet Union collapsed you've gone to a European alphabet. How how have Azerbaijanis managed to come through all of this incredible cultural storm with the kind of stability that they have today?
Suleymanov: Well let me say one thing. First we moved from Arabic to the Latin Alphabet and in fact it was an Azerbaijani who invented the Latin alphabet which was then used in Turkey after the Turkish revolution. So we're very proud. That's another first we have. OK. The reality is that you're right. It has been difficult but I think those storms became a vaccination for my people and I'm very very proud of the people of Azerbaijan who now build on the historic chance to build an independent country. When in 1991 as Azerbaijan became independent, we knew that's our chance. That's our only chance to build independence and that's what we're trying to do. Everybody understands that's what unites us. There's another thing. Is a traditions of a country and the rule of the people is a very important component but you need leadership. And I think we've been lucky with both. We've been lucky with our people. With the resolve the people of Azerbaijan have. And of course the leadership of President Aliyev that we have who understands. I mean there's a personal commitment to diversity. There's personal commitment to development. There's personal commitment to the country which changes things. It's not it's not a chance. It's not a coincidence. It's actually a deliberate policy of achieving all those things, and setting out a vision. So we have a vision from all leaders. We have the will of the people and what we also have is an understanding among our population and among our citizens that we need to live in a region which is successful.
Suleymanov: So if Azerbaijan success cannot be limited to my country alone it has to be it has to go beyond that and that's what we enjoy.
Landis: Ambassador Suleymanov, it's been wonderful having you here. Thank you so much.
Suleymanov: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
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