The year 2019 will remain as a milestone in the history of Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country in the South Caucasus, for at least two reasons.
First is the remarkable centenary celebrations of Azerbaijan’s diplomacy, which began its journey in 1919.
The second reason is Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which it assumed during the 18th NAM Summit in Baku in October 2019. The NAM, which was founded in 1961 by countries like Indonesia, India, Yugoslavia and Egypt based on the Bandung Principles, is the second-biggest intergovernmental organization after the United Nations, with 120 member states.
The Bandung Principles were adopted at the historic 1955 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung, Indonesia.
Just two decades ago, nobody would have ever guessed that Azerbaijan will one day become the leader of the developing countries. In the early 1990s, at the time of Azerbaijan’s independence from the collapsed Soviet Union, Armenia – a small neighbor of Azerbaijan – attacked and seized 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory and committed a genocide against ethnic Azerbaijani Muslims in Azerbaijan’s territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its adjacent areas.
Of course, Armenia received the tacit support of the then-Soviet troops stationed in Armenia.
The war with Armenia drained most of Azerbaijan’s resources. Its GDP was just US$8.71 billion in 1991, the year in which Azerbaijan became independent from the Soviet Union. Due to the terrible war, Azerbaijan’s GDP fell to $2.25 billion in 1994.
Azerbaijan’s popular president, Heydar Aliyev, strongly believed that peace was an essential prelude to prosperity and agreed to a Russian-brokered cease-fire in 1994.
Agreeing to the 1994 cease-fire was a strategic diplomatic move by Azerbaijan, which proved to be a big success for Azerbaijan’s diplomacy.
On Sept. 20, 1994, Aliyev signed the “Contract of the Century” with major western oil companies, which brought billions of dollars into the war-ravaged economy.
On the diplomatic front, Azerbaijan’s achievements were amazing in just two decades.
Azerbaijan’s diplomatic efforts paid off in 2011 when it became a nonpermanent member of the prestigious UN Security Council for the period 2012-2013. Azerbaijan was elected to become a member of the UN Economic and Social Council (2017-2019) with a total of 176 votes.
Azerbaijan has been working closely with the EU, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States and many other organizations.
Behind all these success stories of Azerbaijan were Azerbaijan’s untiring diplomats. In fact, the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Service has a hundred years of glorious history.
Although Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991, its history goes back to more than a hundred years. On May 28, 1918, the Azerbaijani people proclaimed their country as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), the first people’s democratic republic with voting rights for women in the Muslim East.
July 9, 1919, the newly-born Muslim-majority ADR established the secretariat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Through a Presidential Decree on Aug. 24, 2007, the date July 9, 1919, was taken as the basis for the establishment of the Day of Employees of the Diplomatic Service of Azerbaijan, also known as Diplomacy Day.
“One century separates us from a time when the ADR was taking its first steps in the international arena. It was an incredibly hectic century which encompassed the collapse of former empires which perished in the fire of World War One,” Elmar Mammadyarov said in an article in the IRS Heritage magazine recently.
The ADR was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1920, but the spirit of the ADR and its values were adopted by present Azerbaijan.
“Despite living at a junction where the interests of global superpowers converged and often overtly collided, the Azerbaijani people always showed a strong determination and steadfast will to uphold its freedom,” Mammadyarov said.
The ADR was able to get recognition from many countries.
“At that time, there were diplomatic missions of 16 states operating in Baku, including, for example, those of the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Persia, Poland, Ukraine etc. In its turn, the ADR government had diplomatic and consular missions in Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Ukraine and other countries,” he said.
During the seven decades of Soviet rule, Azerbaijan diplomats, including Mammadyarov, shined in diplomacy.
Mammadyarov joined the Foreign Service in 1982 and learned diplomatic skills which became very useful in his career when Azerbaijan became independent in 1991.
The biggest challenge for Azerbaijani diplomacy is how to regain its territory from Armenia.
“In the current circumstances, it is quite clear that the elimination of the consequences of the military aggression by the Republic of Armenia is the primary and most significant problem which the Republic of Azerbaijan as a responsible member of the international community is trying to peacefully resolve through substantive and result-focused negotiations,” Mammadyarov said.
What kind of foreign policy Azerbaijan must pursue to achieve its national strategic objectives?
“On the other hand, despite the presence of foreign aggression, a balanced and multi-vector foreign policy pursued by the Azerbaijani state ensures consistent strengthening of Azerbaijan’s international authority and significance in the system of international relations,” Mammadyarov said.
Azerbaijan today maintains diplomatic relations with more than 160 countries, including Indonesia, a G20 member and home to the world’s biggest Muslim population.
“We have excellent relations with Indonesia. Azerbaijan thanks Indonesia for supporting its territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Azerbaijan Ambassador to Indonesia Jalal Mirzayev told this author recently.
Azerbaijan is surrounded by big players like Russia, Turkey and Iran. It also wants to have good relations with the US, European Union, China, Japan and India. How does Azerbaijan fit in the international system and how can it contribute to the world?
“Speaking about the place and role of Azerbaijan in the system of international relations, it should be noted that our country acts not only as an acceptor of signals transmitted from the main power centers, but also as an active producer making a tangible contribution to the definition of the global agenda,” Mammadyarov said.
After one hundred years, Azerbaijan’s diplomacy still shines on the international arena. As a small state with just 10 million people and a GDP of $46.94 billion, Azerbaijan must understand the subtleties of global and regional politics—the fine lines, the tight ropes and the balancing acts.
“Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is a balance between proactive strategy aimed at the realization of its national interests, strengthening its independence and sovereignty, restoring its territorial integrity,” Mammadyarov told this author sometime back in Baku.
Given the present global situation, especially the ongoing trade war between China and the US, growing radicalism and declining climate and oil prices, Azerbaijan’s diplomats will face a bumpy road ahead.