Consul general Elin Suleymanov
Christine Larson /

Although Azerbaijan – the former Soviet republic that’s evolved to become a major player in the international oil business – seems like a long way away, the world’s first Muslim democracy may have more Santa Barbara connections than you’d think. The country’s Consul General Elin Suleymanov spoke to students at Santa Barbara City College in early March, for instance, and visited the Capps Center at UCSB, which is also where Suleymanov has been working with nanotechnology experts to develop an extensive nano-network in his homeland. And during the midweek tour, Suleymanov made a brief stop by the offices of The Santa Barbara Independent, where we chatted for awhile about the South Caucasus region as a whole and Azerbaijan’s specific challenges in getting its oil and natural gas to the rest of the world.

The Azerbaijani flag

Having spent more than a month in that curious corner of the world back in 2004 – reporting specifically on the war-torn, officially unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (see my articles here and here) – I’ve loosely followed the region’s developments over the past five years, and was curious to hear what Suleymanov had to say. When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, his country engaged in a bloody war against Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which existed during Soviet times as an independent, mostly ethnic Armenian “oblast” located within the borders of Azerbaijan. When the world intervened in 1994 and the smoke cleared, roughly 30,000 people were dead, but the Armenians had won the historic Nagorno-Karabakh lands, plus a considerable swath of what was considered traditional Azeri property.

Conflict with Armenia

Since 1994, a ceasefire has existed along the disputed border, and peace is only occasionally broken by the exchange of sniper fire. But even today, the situation remains tense and unresolved, as the international community – working together via the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group – has been debating the solution to the geopolitical dilemma for nearly 15 years. As diplomats from Russia, the United States, and Europe consider solutions, Nagorno-Karabakh has developed a seemingly functional republic, but is only recognized by Armenia, a country that seems to be struggling both politically (having killed protesters after the last election) and financially (having recently asked Russia for a $500 million loan).

A map of Azerbaijan. The disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh is located in the mountainous red area to the east of Armenia.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has been able to move forward thanks to its considerable oil and natural gas resources in the Caspian Sea, and is actively engaged in conversation with Georgia, the third country in the South Caucasus region. But the Karabakh situation still hangs over the lives of most Azeris, and remains a shadow on the country’s attempts to progress into the 21st century, in large part because the unresolved situation blocks any meaningful interaction with Armenia.

That was one of the main messages relayed last Wednesday by Suleymanov, who expressed hope that upcoming talks between the Armenian and Azeri presidents would be fruitful. But he’s not holding his breath.

“We have a generation who has grown up in exile in Azerbaijan,” he explained, referring to the thousands who were displaced due to the war. He called the establishment of Nagorno-Karabakh “the most thorough ethnic cleansing” in history, and explained, “If you kicked everyone out, it’s easy to pretend you have a government.” He is hopeful that a two-stage process -first with international peacekeepers, second with open borders to allow refugees to go home – could work in Nagorno-Karabakh. Down the road, that openness could lead to a South Caucasus passport of sorts, allowing Armenians, Azeris, and Georgians to travel freely in the region, much like the current state of the European Union.

Remnants of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, near the frontlines
Jonathan Alpeyrie

But even before a full resolution to the conflict, Suleymanov believes Armenia can change the tide, and become an integral part of the South Caucasus’s economic and political worlds. “To have Armenia as part of the region would be a good thing,” he explained, “but they have to decide what they want: Do they want to be part of the region or do they want something separate? Are you a historic tribe or are you a nation?” He said that Armenia’s lack of regional participation has “handicapped” the region as a whole because the country does not have “experience in real practical life.” By comparison, Azerbaijan and Georgia are able to “work very well together and put aside their differences.” That cooperation strengthens both countries, said Suleymanov, explaining, “If we make Georgia better, we’re better off ourselves.”

Peddling Black Gold

For Azerbaijan, that regional participation revolves largely around oil and natural gas, and the need for open pathways to Europe and beyond to sell such resources. There is already a pipeline through Georgia, but Suleymanov implied that the recent war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia was waged by the Russians, in part, for intimidation purposes. Russia, taking its lead from the Soviet Union’s decades of tight control, has long reigned over any oil coming out of the region and is reluctant to lose market share to Azerbaijan. The Russians have even offered to buy it at a higher price than would be paid in Europe, said Suleymanov, just so they can then deliver it to Europe and retain their distribution foothold. As such, Suleymanov’s country has been forced to get creative.

Azerbaijan's capital city of Baku, at night

“We just want to sell our oil,” said the consul general. “That’s all we want to do.” As well, Suleymanov proved a big proponent of natural gas, calling it the “bridge to the future” and arguing that it was the best stepping stone between oil and renewable resources. Currently, their oil goes through Georgia and Turkey and into Greece and other parts of Europe, and they are making attempts to get more flowing toward Western Europe. But geopolitics – largely dominated ruled by Russia’s desires – keep getting in the way. “We’re about to begin expanding has production,” said Suleymanov, “but we have to line up our partners first.”

The country is also focused on, as their official mantra goes, “Turning black gold into human gold.” Suleymanov called the slogan “somewhat cheesy” but defended its intention to plan for the future, since oil and natural gas are finite resources. The nanotechnology talks with UCSB are part of that diversification goal. “It’s not about oil and gas,” he explained. “It’s about how you use oil and gas.”

State of Azerbaijani Democracy

Eventually, our conversation turned to the state of democracy and freedom in Azerbaijan, which, when I investigated the region in 2004, did not seem promising. Though my research then was based on all available articles and books, my first-hand reporting relied mostly on the opinions of Armenians, as the only access to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) was through the embassy in Yerevan and via the winding roads of southern Armenia. Once in NKR, our guides and translators were Karabakh natives who had lived through the war’s bombing raids and, in certain cases, fought as soldiers themselves. Their opinions on the matter, of course, were strong and therefore dominated my reports, which described what appeared to be a fully functioning though internationally ignored NKR, complete with a parliament (whose leader I interviewed extensively), a military (with whom we ate, drank, and shot guns), ministers (some of whom gave us thoughtful gifts upon our departure), and a president (who lived in a mansion next door to our rented flat). As well, the available literature overwhelmingly suggested that NKR and Armenia had fought the more noble cause – though as I have come to learn from reporting on other geopolitical conflicts, the fog of war is always thick, and verifiable truth is one of the first things to die on the battlefield.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev

As a result of that, I did reach out to the Azerbaijan government for comments in 2004. They proved unresponsive at the time, though I was able to get an angry and inflamed counterpoint from at least one Azeri citizen. On top of that, the available reporting on the Azeri government in 2004 was disheartening – there was a drastic lack of independent, non-state-sponsored journalism, their recent and upcoming elections were awash in controversy and corruption, and the vitriolic attacks lobbed by everyday citizens against the Armenians was evidence to me that their emotions had blinded Azerbaijan from any peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Listening to Suleymanov’s descriptions of his home country, it appears that things have drastically changed. “Every nation in that part of the world is making progress,” said the consul general, who was quick to point out the troubles recently affecting both Georgia and Ukraine, countries once considered “beacons of democracy.” Suleymanov said that the 2008 election in Azerbaijan went well, and that the government is largely supported by the population. He compared that to the 10 people killed by the Armenian government following their recent election. “They say that Azerbaijanis like to shoot,” said Suleymanov, referring to the NKR conflict. “But in one day, the Armenian government in downtown Yerevan kills more people than we do [during the entire 15-year NKR ceasefire].”

Suleymanov is quick to re-assess what we mean when we say democracy. “Do we mean elections?” he asked, later adding, “Hitler was elected.” Or, Suleymanov asked, “Do we mean tolerance? Do we mean women’s rights? Do we mean children’s rights? On the composite scale, I think Azerbaijan is doing very well.” Suleymanov noted that Azerbaijan was the first Muslim democracy in the world, and the first country to give women the right to vote, both of which were wiped away when the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union took over. But today, Azerbaijan is a “diverse, pluralistic” society, and a very moderate country by Muslim standards. There are even more than 10,000 Armenians living in Baku, he explained, and although passion run high because of the NKR conflict, they are still welcome.

Whatever the truth may be, one thing’s clear: Elin Suleymanov, as consul general of the Republic of Azerbaijan’s Los Angeles-based outreach office, is doing his best to introduce his country to the rest of the West Coast. Now it’s up to the rest of us, from nanotechnology researchers at UCSB to SBCC students studying geopolitics, to decide if and how his country fits into our future.


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