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Azerbaijan And The West: Beyond Interest, Toward Commitment

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku in July
A friend in need is a friend indeed. I couldn’t agree more. Yet, it is the times when we are savoring our success or trying ever harder to reach our goals that we appreciate a friend’s supportive smile or pat on the back. Whether we get it or not does not affect our success, but it does ease our way and make it more pleasant.

The greatness of success has always depended not just on how it is achieved, but on being able to share it with those who have accompanied you throughout the sweet and bitter journey.

The cooperation Azerbaijan forged with the West, especially with the United States, has over the years been characterized as strategic by many, short-term by some, and untruthful by others. However, even when relations reached an all-time low, Azerbaijan never wavered in its commitment to its partnership with the West. Time and again, when buffeted by strong winds, Azerbaijan has needed understanding and a firm stance from the United States, while the United States has expected the same from us, however strange it might seem given Azerbaijan’s size on a global scale.

When Azerbaijan was forced into full-scale war with its neighbor in the early 1990s, it expected no less than a balanced approach from the West. Instead, all it got was Section 907, banning any direct U.S. aid to the Azerbaijani government. History might not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Ten years later, the United States’ government was in need of friends, big and small, to support the war on terror. In the blink of an eye, while most of the region’s countries were still hemming and hawing, Azerbaijan contributed peacekeeping troops to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and served shoulder-to shoulder with a U.S. Marine battalion, providing security for the Haditha Dam, a vital infrastructure in Al Anbar Province that produced one-quarter of Iraq’s electricity. With 11 rotations and more than 1,000 troops, Azerbaijan underscored its loyalty to the United States.

The same year, 2002, Azerbaijani troops also joined the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, becoming the first CIS member to contribute troops. Six years later, in 2008, when many allies were pulling out of Afghanistan in despair, President Ilham Aliyev submitted a bill “on the status of Azerbaijani troops carrying out peacemaking operations abroad” to the Azerbaijani parliament, which envisaged doubling the peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan.

In yet another gesture, the Azerbaijani government demonstrated an unfeigned faithfulness to its friendship. More than NATO 100,000 troops flew through Azerbaijani airspace in 2009 alone. Approximately 25 percent of the coalition’s supplies going to Afghanistan pass through Azerbaijan. NATO member states transport 1,500 containers every month to the war-torn country through the territory of Azerbaijan. The growing size of Azerbaijan’s military contingent, the open airspace, and Baku’s full cooperation on the battlefield says a lot more than mere words can express.

Facing pressure from the Armenian diaspora, the United States Congress fell flat with a biased approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. It used the role of lobby groups as an excuse for a lopsided approach. Azerbaijan, on the contrary, in its commitment to its promise on the war on terror, successfully prevented and dealt with terrorist threats, including those from Iran, despite constant pressure from the latter. Numerous plots were intercepted, criminals detained, potentially tragic scenarios avoided.

Because of its continuous good terms with the United States, Azerbaijan was accused of “cooperating with the Great Satan” on Iran’s Sahar-2 television channel -- which is broadcast in the territory of Azerbaijan without authorization -- and threatened by the Iranian authorities. It is not difficult to appreciate that pressure from 71 million Iranians is a much greater problem than pressure from 1.5 million Armenian-Americans.

Favoring Western Companies

Azerbaijan stands for and does many things that, for some reason, go unnoticed around the world. Astonishingly, Azerbaijan is one of the only major Caspian hydrocarbon-producing countries that has exported almost exclusively to the West. The biggest oil-and-gas contracts signed since 1994 -- including Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG) and Shah Deniz -- favored Western companies over Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and other options.

As for the pipelines, construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC), Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romania Interconnector (AGRI), and Azerbaijan’s repeatedly positive attitude toward the Nabucco pipeline are clear evidence of Azerbaijan’s willingness to forge effective energy cooperation with the West. Despite Russia’s evident disapproval of such cooperation, Azerbaijan stays true to Euro-Atlantic projects. Azerbaijan took great steps to secure its oil revenues for future generations by creating the State Oil Fund, the transparency of which is maintained internationally by Western experts.

Azerbaijan has proven itself as the world’s fastest-growing trade route and a telecommunications hub in Eurasia. Azerbaijan, almost solely, is financing the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars-Istanbul railroad, one that will connect Central Asia with Europe along the shortest route. The country took gigantic steps to contribute to the improvement of the East-West corridor. The question is not whether the source of these projects is in Azerbaijani oil revenues, but whether the outcome is worth the input. For everyone should know that Azerbaijan’s vibrant growing economy and regional power are strengths, not weaknesses to be ashamed of.

Taking into account the complexity of U.S. involvement in the region and the juxtaposition of its foes and allies, Azerbaijan automatically becomes a country best suited for cooperation and partnership. Azerbaijan is one of the very few secular Muslim states of the region that has displayed a model of religious tolerance throughout its history. The cultural links that Azerbaijani people share with Americans might have been limited in the early 1990s, but following countless education and cultural-exchange programs, promoted both by the U.S. and Azerbaijani governments (such as FLEX, IREX, Muskie, Fulbright, State Oil Company (SOCAR), Azerbaijan State Scholarship and U.S. Peace Corps programs), understanding between the two states has grown immensely.

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on an official visit to Baku, aside from all other official meetings, she requested a special gathering with a group of young Azerbaijani leaders. She got to meet 10, five of whom were graduates and alumni of U.S. high schools, universities, and other educational-exchange programs. Nothing could embody the spirit of Azerbaijan’s Western stance more than this outcome of cooperation over the years -- Azerbaijan’s outstanding young people.

However, as much as the Azerbaijani government can do to maintain its friendship with the United States, it is ultimately the determination of the United States upon which this partnership will rely. The famous business speaker Art Turock once said: “There's a difference between interest and commitment. When you are interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstances permit. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.”

Circumstances did not permit Azerbaijan to send its troops to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq when there were young soldiers dying from Armenian bullets every day on the front line. The circumstances were not in our favor when we were resolute in our attempts to thwart Russian pressure against engaging in full-fledged energy cooperation with the West. Nor were they positive when we had to face Iran numerous times to support the United States. Interest is what government officials and decision makers rely on; commitment is what the ordinary people expect.

All in all, it is not promises we need from time to time from our great ally across the ocean, but a little genuine understanding and appreciation of who we are and what we stand for.

Elnur Baimov is editor in chief of the news.Az and armenia.Az information agencies and founder of, Azerbaijan’s biggest social network. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.