Wednesday, August 18, 2010
To most people Azerbaijan conjures up images of oil wells and gas fields. For those who know it a little better, they may associate it with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But Azerbaijan is much more than this.
Known as the land of fire due to its rich energy reserves, Azerbaijan is something of a unique country. Once an important trading point on the Great Silk Road, it is a country of contrasts made up of majestic mountains, lush green forests, wonderful lakes, arid deserts and modern metropolises. Even Azerbaijanis themselves are rather unique, sharing a European, Muslim and post-Soviet heritage -- enjoying a stiff glass of vodka equally as much as a good glass of hot tea.
Baku, the windy city, is transforming into an impressive capital. Spanking new buildings rub shoulder to shoulder with the historic remains of old Baku. Always keen to impress, Azerbaijan will soon be home to a new Guggenheim as well as the world’s biggest flag, which will be larger than a football pitch. But while Baku may be a dazzling show of modern life, once outside, “old Azerbaijan” is still alive and kicking. Crazy cows wander down roads side by side with modern 4x4s and rusty old Ladas. Villagers still collect water from the thousands of mountain streams and a mouthful of golden teeth is viewed as a sign of wealth. Up in the highest peaks life remains very much as it has for centuries, with farmers making a living (and a pretty lucrative one at that) from sheep farming -- although many of them now have satellite dishes attached to their small, stone dwellings.
However, as with many other former Soviet countries, transformation has not been easy. Back in 1991 Azerbaijan was an unknown country in an exotic part of the world. Its economy was in tatters and it was (and still is) at war with neighbor Armenia over the Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh. At a time when Azerbaijan should have been focusing on nation-building, the country was brought to its knees during a war that left almost 1 million Azerbaijanis displaced as Armenia took control of the Karabakh province, going on to occupy seven surrounding regions. While thousands of Armenians were also displaced, Armenia received support and sympathy from around the world -- thanks to its massive diaspora community.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, was portrayed as an aggressor and left to struggle. The US (which at the time would have been hard pressed to find Azerbaijan on a map, let alone begin to understand the politics of the region) placed sanctions on Azerbaijan under Section 907a of the Freedom Support Act and prohibited any kind of direct US government assistance to the Azerbaijani government. Although successive US presidents have denounced it, none have been able to get Congress to repeal it, although it was finally waived on a year-by-year basis after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. With the country falling into political turmoil and on the brink of collapse, Azerbaijan was in desperate need of a strong leader: Enter Haydar Aliyev.
The phrase “L’etat c’est moi” could have been created just for Aliyev. Although he died in 2003, he is still known as the country’s national leader -- the man who saved Azerbaijan. A former KGB chief, Aliyev picked up Azerbaijan and under his strong leadership, vision, undeniable charm and savvy approach put Azerbaijan on the road to recovery, including negotiating the “contract of the century,” which gave a Western consortium a stake in Azerbaijan’s rich energy resources with big dividends for Baku. Although far from an angel, he became a respected statesman and today he is still hero-worshipped by almost all Azerbaijanis. With his death, his son Ilham “inherited” the presidency and, while the West may criticize Azerbaijan’s somewhat slow approach towards Western-style democracy -- having something of a “managed” democracy, with elections still being some distance from being free -- there can be no doubt that he and his wife, Mehriban, are extremely popular and his leadership is supported by vast swathes of the population, which is a far cry from the situation in many other former Soviet states. Most Azerbaijanis seem to believe Ilham Aliyev is on the right track both politically and economically and that democracy will develop over time, as in neighboring Turkey. They want stability and prosperity first. Opposition leaders receive very little support and are even unable to mobilize themselves into one bloc.
Oil and gas have given Azerbaijan the luxury of being able to maintain rapid economic growth. While Azerbaijan is frequently criticized for its skyrocketing defense spending, billions have also been spent on improving the lives of the people. All over the country new roads, schools, hospitals, sports complexes, cultural centers, museums, parks, holiday resorts, etc. are springing up. However, no matter how wealthy Azerbaijan becomes, a cloud of bitterness will hang over the country until there is peace in the region and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved.
Peace talks have been going on for years, with no conclusion, and while there are four UN resolutions requesting Armenia to remove its forces, they remain on paper only. Ordinary Azerbaijanis whom I’ve spoken with seem to support the approach of the president, although they have little idea about precisely what is being negotiated with Armenia. The idea of making concessions is something inconceivable to them. The perception of Armenia is that it is a country on the brink of economic collapse, that floods of Armenians are still abandoning their homeland due to the dire economic conditions and, as one man told me, “In Yerevan they have to queue up for bread.” Nobody wants a new war; they simply want what is rightfully theirs returned.
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