Story and photos by Isaac D. Pacheco
Situated at the southern extent of the Caucasus, a mountain range that broadly marks the transition between Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan boasts a vibrant culture that has been influenced over millennia by its proximity to those continents and the Middle East. Today, the country finds itself not only at a geographic crossroads, but also at a crucial pivot point as the Azerbaijani people seek to preserve their traditions and national heritage while also embracing new partnerships and rapid economic development.
Nowhere is the country’s shifting dynamic more apparent than in Baku, Azerbaijan’s burgeoning capital. Baku rises up along the western shore of the Caspian Sea, its nighttime skyline a shimmering ribbon that illuminates one of Eurasia’s most exciting cities. With sleek glass skyscrapers that soar above café-lined alleyways and centuries-old historic sites, Baku showcases an intriguing fusion of modernist design and classical architecture. The city’s modern infrastructure, innovative food scene, unique museums and international sporting events are bolstering a nascent tourism industry. The warmth of the Azerbaijani people, combined with the country’s reputation for safety and stability, make it a family friendly destination as well.
“It’s an exciting time to be here in Azerbaijan. This is a country in transition, a society in transition,” said U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Lee Litzenberger. “The people here are incredibly welcoming. Azerbaijan is famous for its hospitality. But you don’t really understand just what that means until you get here.”
Maiden Tower, a 12th century structure that overlooks Baku’s UNESCO-recognized old city, provides one of the best views of Azerbaijan’s rapidly evolving seaside capital. The massive stone fortification also serves as an iconic reminder of the nation’s turbulent history. Foreign invasion and the reallocation of its territory over the centuries have forged a resilient and fiercely independent Azerbaijani society. As the only country in the world to share borders with both Russia and Iran, national sovereignty remains a pressing issue today.
“The Azerbaijani government is very concerned about outside influences in the country, which reflects its history of the last several hundred years,” said Litzenberger. “Azerbaijan, throughout most of its history, has been on the edges of three great empires: Persian, Russian, and Ottoman. That creates foreign policy complexities as Azerbaijan has struggled to maintain its own identity, its own culture and its own language.”
Given its strategic geography, security cooperation is a pillar of Azerbaijan’s bilateral relationship with the United States. The country plays a vital role in supporting regional and global stability by providing more than 100 soldiers to serve alongside American troops in Afghanistan, and by allowing U.S. forces to use its air and ground transportation corridors to support the international coalition there.
Despite Azerbaijan’s fraught history with Russia and Iran, cultural, religious and linguistic ties between the nations continue to transcend geographic and political boundaries, and Azerbaijan currently enjoys cordial relations with both countries. However, a lingering consequence of the nation’s Soviet-era occupation is an ongoing feud between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. The two countries remain embroiled in a bitter territorial dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
“In the early 1990s, there was a ceasefire that ended the hot phase of the conflict,” said Bill Solley, deputy political section chief at Embassy Baku. “The United States has supported the peace process since then, but a compromise remains elusive.”
Azerbaijan also shares a large northwestern land border with Georgia, and an 18-kilometer long sliver of its far western flank with its close ally Turkey. Georgia and Turkey are key energy corridor partners, safeguarding the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the soon-to-be-completed $40 billion Southern Gas Corridor project, which will bring Azerbaijani natural gas to markets in Europe. Both of these projects spread prosperity throughout the region and play a crucial role in providing European nations with energy independence. Since Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, Azerbaijan has provided more than 90 percent of Georgia’s natural gas. It will become the second largest natural gas exporter to Turkey by the end of 2020, surpassing Iran, which is currently the second largest exporter to Turkey after Russia.
“Every molecule of gas Azerbaijan has promised to contractually deliver to any partner has always been delivered,” said Michael R. Rousek, deputy economic section chief. “We see those pipelines and that energy development as more than just an economic, or even energy security point, we see it as supporting Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and independence in the world.”
By embracing best practices for international business and continuing to invest in its infrastructure, Azerbaijan has positioned itself as a leading energy supplier in the region, and has become a reliable partner for European nations seeking an alternative to Russian energy exports. As a result, more than $146 billion worth of oil and gas revenue has flowed through Azerbaijan’s economy in the past two decades. While this economic windfall has created new opportunities for Azerbaijan’s once largely agrarian populace and enhanced the country’s immediate fiscal outlook, the nation’s leaders acknowledge that reliance on the hydrocarbon industry is unsustainable in the long term. The United States continues to encourage Azerbaijan to integrate into global trading systems and Western economic institutions as they seek to diversify their economy.
“We’re working with the government, and we’re making progress. Ideally, we would like to see Azerbaijan join the World Trade Organization,” said Litzenberger. “They are in the process, but it’s going at a very measured pace. [Joining the WTO] would send the biggest signal to international investors that Azerbaijan is open for business.”
The Embassy Baku team has identified agriculture, transportation and logistics, and tourism as key sectors for development, and is encouraging the government to bolster intellectual property rights (IPR) to make investment in information and telecommunications more attractive to American companies. One recent success followed intensive embassy dialogue with the government concerning IPR protections; the American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan issued a public pledge that all of its members would only use licensed products moving forward, and made compliance a membership requirement.
USAID is also playing a role in Azerbaijan’s economic development and efforts to diversify the economy through a number of projects that include helping the nation’s farmers realize better returns on investments and expand distribution networks. According to USAID Mission Director in Azerbaijan Jay Singh, Azerbaijan’s agricultural sector has already experienced significant gains, particularly in the hazelnut export market, since receiving training and technological assistance. According to Singh, “for every dollar USAID spent, hazelnut farmers earned $6 in income—that is clear evidence of the high rate of return on our investment in the local economy.”
A new $15 million, five-year project will further enhance food safety standards, bolstering confidence for both producers and consumers, while increasing exports and revenues. Concrete results like those provided by USAID’s engagement not only enhance the bilateral partnership and build trust, but also help Azerbaijan insulate its economy from regional instability and fluctuations in the oil market.
“What we do is show a very visible and tangible value added to our diplomatic engagement. The farmers here are very hard working, and they know how to capitalize on that. Now they are sending their products to the European Union and the nearby countries of the Gulf,” said Singh. “Our work is critical in making sure that Azerbaijan is economically resilient.”
Although Embassy Baku has recently enjoyed a string of successes in its diplomatic engagement with Azerbaijan, U.S. officials remain concerned about the state of democracy and human rights in the country. While the Azerbaijani government has made some progress on civil society issues in recent years, including the release of more than 50 political prisoners in a sweeping pardon last March, there are still serious concerns about the lack of a free press and the ongoing suppression of any speech that criticizes the government. The embassy has sought to frame respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as more than an ideological issue. It is the basis of a stable society that also happens to create a hospitable environment for foreign investment.
“We obviously believe that a society that allows freedom of expression and supports individual liberties, right of association, free speech, is ultimately a more stable and secure country,” said Litzenberger. “We’re engaged in a dialogue on that, but from our view, we still would like to see a lot of progress.”
In order to effectively tackle such a nuanced and comprehensive portfolio, Embassy Baku relies on its dedicated team of Foreign Service officers and Locally Employed staff. As a relatively small mission, even FAST officers have regular opportunities to engage with high-level government officials, and to serve in career enhancing crossover roles. A collaborative, collegial work environment and Mission-wide emphasis on maintaining work-life balance further reinforce the tight-knit embassy community.
“I have been repeatedly amazed by the caliber of the folks that we have. Frankly, this is the best post that I have worked at in my career, and as is true with so many places, it comes down to the people,” said former Deputy Chief of Mission William R. Gill. “This is one of the few remaining places in the world where we actually get to practice the kind of development and diplomacy that we sign up to do, which is really great and very exciting, and I think very rewarding for people here, both personally and professionally.”
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine.