| Azerbaijan | Jun 05, 2015
Through its many recent notable involvements with international organizations such as the UN, the OIC, and The Council of Europe, Azerbaijan is well on its way to becoming a regional and global force for diplomacy.
The economy of Azerbaijan is generally viewed as stable, and growth is healthy. While some of this improvement was driven by high growth rates, a strong increase in wages, and the introduction of a comprehensive and well-distributed social benefit system, much of the country’s wealth is attributed to a strong and steady increase in oil and gas revenues. However, the country has begun moves to diversify and strengthen its economic position, and gradually move away from an over-reliance on hydrocarbon profits. Even with new natural gas fields coming into production, the state has realized that to foster continued improvement in the economy and to increase employment rates, Azerbaijan must find new, sustainable sources of growth in the non-oil sector. There are other mediating factors that are affecting economic growth as well. The country has made it priority to deal with administrative corruption, and has been forced to deal with a long-term conflict with neighboring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Better infrastructure has also been highlighted as a priority in Azerbaijan. Its fortuitous geographical position makes it an important link between both the Black and Caspian Seas and between its larger neighbors Russia and Iran. Achieving Azerbaijan’s potential as a growing economy is essential for the stimulation of economic development, stability, and the reduction of poverty. Improvement of the roads network has been identified as one of the key priorities for the productive economic diversification of the country, and both tourism and ICT also feature large in this program.
Beyond the soft power credentials made manifest by global events such as the Eurovision Song Contest and its growing tourism sector, Azerbaijan is becoming a political force in its own right. Besides deepening its active regional connections with Russia, and its membership in the OECD and OIC, Azerbaijan took over from Austria the Chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers for a period of six months beginning on May 14th 2014, on the occasion of the 124th session of the Committee of Ministers.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov, presented the priorities of his country’s chairmanship to both the Council and the wider world. Among the events co-organized by the Azerbaijani Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers were a 2014 seminar on local self-government in Azerbaijan and youth policy in Baku. Foreign Minister Mammadyarov pledged that Azerbaijan would show strong support for the Council of Europe’s key platforms of human rights, respect for the rule of law, and democracy. The Foreign Minister said one of Azerbaijan’s main priorities for their Chairmanship period is to encourage “a generation of educated and responsible youth.” Other priorities include promoting anti-corruption measures and an intercultural dialogue to encourage tolerance, supporting socially vulnerable groups, refugees and internally displaced persons, and exploring ways to ensure the Council maintains a role in regional affairs.
Relations with neighboring Turkey were also on the agenda in 2014. Ankara was the first capital to recognize Azerbaijani independence in 1991 and the two nations share a linguistic heritage, culture, and history, as well as a border. Turkey also has an interest in the peaceful settlement of the conflict with Armenia, and a strategic partnership for gas production agreements between the two states is being explored. Turkey actively participates in the efforts of OSCE Minsk Group, which seeks a peaceful and lasting settlement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey continues to consider the OSCE Minsk Group process as the best platform for a solution to the conflict. The EU has also been discussing with Baku the feasibility of the Southern Gas Corridor since talks at their 2009 Prague Summit. Meanwhile a growing number of companies from EU countries, most significantly from the UK, Holland, and Belgium, are setting up in Baku to take advantage of a booming economy and widespread development tenders.
EMERGING GLOBAL PLAYER
Azerbaijan’s emergence as an influential global player was recognized in October 2011 when it was offered a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Under Baku’s guidance, the Council called for a speedy and peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and, like the EU, the UN has formally recognized the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has demonstrated constructive, definite, and unfailing positions in discussing the problems of the wider Islamic world and adopting decision and resolutions, especially regarding the Arab-Israel conflict and Palestine problem, which are key issues for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Azerbaijan is also gaining global prestige through the work of its International Development Agency (AIDA), which is organized around the principle of international cooperation for humanitarian aid and development assistance. A few of the notable programs carried out by AIDA in recent years include: providing financial aid to Syrian refugees settled in Jordan as a result of the conflict in Syria; providing financial aid to the Gaza Strip as a response to the UN Security Council’s concerns on the worsening of the humanitarian situation while calling on the provision of humanitarian aid to the people of Palestine; and launching the Campaign to Fight Avoidable Blindness in a number of African countries. AIDA, by forming a strategic partnership with the Islamic Development Bank, is successfully carrying out Campaign to Fight Avoidable Blindness in nine African member states of the OIM; Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Benin, Guinea, Cameroon, Niger, Mali, and Libya. Azerbaijani ophthalmologists and surgeons have also participated in this humanitarian campaign. The program has helped thousands of people to regain their vision and return to normal life.
An increase of military tensions in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in July and August of 2014 brought Azerbaijan back into international headlines. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is the focus of an ongoing dispute between Azerbaijan and a Russian-backed Armenia that began in 1987 and erupted into war in 1991, displacing hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis. The region, together with seven neighboring districts, while internationally recognized as Azerbaijani sovereign territory, are to this day occupied by Armenian armed forces. Four UN Security Council Resolutions, and similar statements from the EU, NATO, and the OIC, have called for the withdrawal of Armenian forces but have so far gone unheeded.
“Overall, as a result of Armenian military aggression, 20% of Azerbaijan’s land has been occupied,” says Deputy Prime Minister Ali Hasanov, and the loss to the economy of Azerbaijan is estimated at over $300 billion, with over 1.2 million refugees created over the past 20 years. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has been working to return the land and bring lasting peace to the area, while the OSCE Minsk process, led by the US, Russia, and France, is heading international efforts to broker a peaceful solution and bring assistance to thousands of displaced Azerbaijanis. The precarious ceasefire continues to be punctuated by fighting, and a swift solution is essential for the long-term development of the region. President Aliyev has met his Armenian counterpart twice in late 2014, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympics, and a second time in Paris under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, although nothing concrete was accomplished in resolving the outstanding disputes between the two nations.
However, as any strategist of realpolitik will advise; it is fine to speak softly, but sometimes necessary to carry a big stick. In holding its first international defense-industry show, ADEX-2014, in Baku, Azerbaijan is also making a name as an emerging defense industry player, and is becoming a country of note for foreign military companies looking to introduce their products to the wider world. In his opening remarks at ADEX-2014 President Aliyev remarked “in the current world, countries have to keep facing new security challenges, which make cooperation and the exchange of modern military technologies more important.” Over 200 companies from 34 countries, including the United States and Russia, participated in ADEX-2014. Azerbaijan’s own 2014 military budget was $3.8 billion, up from $3.6 billion in 2013 and $3 billion in 2012. Due partly to tensions brought about by the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan’s defense budget is set to increase by 27% to $4.8 billion in 2015, encompassing 17.9% of the government’s budget expenditures. A large stick indeed, but one wielded by an emerging global player keen to solidify its credentials as an honest broker and regional diplomat. And as any schoolchild knows, the sun rises in the East… and the world is waiting to see if Azerbaijan is that force.