An eye-opening trip to a strategically important, if often overlooked, nation.
By Dov Yarden
(May 8, 2023 / JNS) I recently participated in an eye-opening tour of the Republic of Azerbaijan. By invitation of Nurit Greenger of the US-AZ Cultural Foundation, I joined a group of prominent journalists for a one-week trip to this country in the South Caucasus. There, I experienced a country that is eclectic but homogeneous, a unique experience for anyone fortunate enough to visit.
Nestled between Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan occupies a strategic location of vital importance to the region and beyond.
Naturally, this has led to conflict with its neighbors. Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have reached new heights. While some Democrats in the U.S. Congress still believe Iran’s nuclear program can be brought to heel by negotiations, this is very unlikely to occur. As a result, the U.S. government should strongly consider cultivating relations with Azerbaijan as a bulwark against Iranian influence.
Azerbaijan is a counter to Iran not only in terms of geostrategy but also because of Iran’s virulent Islamist extremism. In contrast, Azerbaijan’s tolerant spirit has fostered a society in which synagogues and mosques coexist side-by-side. This sends a strong message to Iran and, indeed, the entire world.
In addition, Azerbaijan is at the center of a major trade route that crosses Central Asia, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. This is sometimes called the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor.
As a result, Azerbaijan links China and the markets of East Asia with Georgia, Turkey and Europe. The corridor is being modernized via the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative, the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route and the Trans-Caucasus Trade and Transit Corridor, which will breathe new life into the ancient Silk Road.
Because of its proximity to Russia, Azerbaijan has a strong interest in the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine War. By and large, it has taken a clear stance in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Nonetheless, in order to safeguard its own national security, it tries not to anger the Kremlin.
As a result, Azerbaijan has not officially condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also opted out of voting on the U.N. General Assembly resolution to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. It has kept a low profile in international organizations that condemned Russia and remained silent when the Azerbaijani honorary consulate in Kharkiv was seriously damaged by Russian airstrikes.
On Feb. 27, 2022, hundreds of Azerbaijanis gathered in front of the Ukrainian embassy in the capital Baku to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. However, the Azerbaijani authorities forbade protests in front of the Russian embassy in Baku.
Azerbaijan’s relations with Turkey are less fraught. It signed the Shusha Declaration “on allied relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Turkey” and, in March 2022, released a statement that reinforced friendly relations between the two countries.
Baku is also seeking to enhance its relations with the European Union, especially in the context of the energy crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine war.
Recently, increasing attention has been paid to Azerbaijan’s 30-year alliance with Israel. This alliance has been strengthened with the recent opening of an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel, while Israel has maintained its ambassadorial presence in Baku for decades. This alliance based on strategic, economic and technological foundations is growing in strength.
Azerbaijan has a fairly strong relationship with the United States. The two countries work together on European energy security, trade and combating terrorism. The U.S. has also engaged in democracy promotion and aiding Azerbaijan’s economy.
I believe, however, that the U.S. would benefit from a stronger and more visible presence in Azerbaijan. This could include an open strategic or military alliance based on intelligence sharing and arms supplies. Members of Congress could also make public visits and offer open diplomatic support.
One area in which Azerbaijan has enormous potential is tourism, which will also enhance the country’s image on a global scale. Its hospitality sector should engage in strategic campaigns to encourage visitors with strong government support. One way to do so would be to use the model of Dubai’s ongoing promotion campaign, perhaps under the slogan “A Country Worth Exploring.”
The energy sector, particularly oil and gas, is the basis of Azerbaijan’s development. The country would benefit from a “Sovereignty Fund” in which a certain percentage of lucrative oil and gas sales would be invested. This could then be reinvested in the country’s overall development, thus attracting outside investment. As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.”
Azerbaijan also enjoys abundant food and water, something that could benefit the region in general as it develops its export market. Food and water security is, after all, essential to regional peace.
Due to years of Soviet rule, several wars and the sense of an uncertain future, Azerbaijan does suffer from some lack of social motivation and economic aspiration. The effects of historical trauma will take time to heal, but with the help of Western cultural influences that are based on incentivizing the individual, this process could be accelerated.
It was a blessing to visit Azerbaijan, a country about which I knew very little. It has much to offer and share with the world, just as it has much to learn from the West. Accelerated cooperation would benefit both sides.
I am thankful to the Republic of Azerbaijan’s State Committee on Work With the Diaspora for its extraordinary hospitality. As the chief operations officer of JNS.org, I certainly plan to recommend the country as a key destination for tourism, investment and simple friendship.
Dov Yarden is the COO of JNS.
Nurit Greenger is a freelance journalist with NewsBlaze News and president of the US-AZ Cultural Foundation.