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How should Europe perceive Azerbaijan?

Monday 30 May 2011, by Zaur Shiriyev

In his influential book “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century,” George Friedman uses a historical-comparative method of examining the world system to challenge people living in this period by appropriating the term “imagine.”

For example, the Caucasus is in a capricious setting where clashes between global players have altered somewhat the conditions and players that have not changed much in the course of a century. However, if we were to imagine ourselves at the beginning of the 20th century, it would be impossible to forecast the rising influence of Azerbaijan in Europe, while the founding fathers of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic kept this dream eternal. Nevertheless, there are some things that could have been — and, in fact, were — forecasted.

In the early 20th century, Kurban Said brilliantly described the quest for being a part of Europe, which had always been and still is deeply ingrained in the region, in his quintessential novel about the Caucasus, “Ali and Nino,” as follows: “Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia’s cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town [ Baku ] should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia.”

Now, imagine that you were alive in 1918-1920, at the end of World War I; the Caucasus ‘ new independent states are trying to preserve their independence, which they gained in 28 May1918. The first Azerbaijan Democratic Republic at the same time was the first legal and secular state in the Turkic-Muslim world. The new republic gave equal rights to all citizens, minorities, men and women and allowed Azerbaijani women to vote, when women in the United States were still banned from participating in elections

At this time, the founding fathers had done much to introduce the young republic to the international arena in order to prevent the intervention of foreign countries. Specifically, Parliament Chairman A.M. Topchubashov was sent to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and attained the de-facto recognition of the republic by a number of big countries. After meeting Topchubashov at the Paris Peace Conference, President Woodrow Wilson noted: “I met with a very dignified and interesting group of gentlemen from Azerbaijan, men who spoke the same language I did about ideas and concepts of liberty, rights and justice.” Unfortunately, independence was short-lived, and ended in 1920.

Now, imagine the end of 1991, when the Soviet Union had completely collapsed and Azerbaijan restored its independence. The Caucasus saw an explosion of extreme forms of war similar to patterns elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. The most bloody conflict was between Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose military phase of the confrontation ended in May of 1994 with the signing of a cease-fire agreement, following the occupation of just under 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory and the displacement of civilians on an unprecedented scale by Armenian occupation forces, which resulted in large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). After these developments under the leadership of Heydar Aliyev, pragmatism became a trademark policy for Baku, which was extraordinarily important in realizing energy projects and providing benefits to an economically stable country. Finally, Western countries engaged the Caspian Basin, which was unimaginable in the early 20th century.

Imagine now the year 2001, during the 10th year of independence when Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe; our flag flew with the continent’s preeminent organization, and at the time of its admission, the move was hailed as a sign that Azerbaijan had graduated from the post-Soviet doldrums and taken a critical step closer to the league of Western states. Even afterwards, Azerbaijan described its dream to be part of Europe in a National Security Doctrine and with bilateral agreements.

Then look at today in the year 2011, the 20th year of restoring the independence of the South Caucasus countries. In the South Caucasus, the status quo over the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is working against peace in the region, making the conflict intractable and increasing the chances of war. For this reason, the name Caucasus is sometimes used as a synonym for war in the international arena: “This is the Caucasus — there is eternal war.” Therefore, the region has become synonymous with conflict, volatility and threat.

In this context, the Azerbaijani entrants were successful and won the Eurovision Song Contest, which parallels the country’s economic success stories under the Ilham Aliyev presidency. The founding fathers of the first Azerbaijani republic might have been upset to see the rising influence of Azerbaijan in Europe and one year later the Europeans coming to Azerbaijan to “recognize” this country, which they forced into such a troubled period with little financial recourse to de-jure recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in Europe.

Right now, after a confident victory in Eurovision, Azerbaijan’s success in the Western capitals can, and should be, used to further raise the Caucasus’ international profile and to add new positive dimensions to the region’s equilibrium. But, ordinary Europeans still ask the same question: Where is Azerbaijan? There are several ways to answer this question: Azerbaijan is a country in which 20 percent of its territories are still under occupation by Armenia, or, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the independence of the South Caucasian states, they can solve all territorial problems and the region will be known as a peaceful one in Europe. Much is still dependent on the conditionality of a more pragmatic and regional approach to be adopted in Yerevan and how the European Union will engage with the region’s problems. It would be interesting to “imagine” peace and prosperity in the South Caucasus.

*Zaur Shiriyev is a foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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Source : TdZ, 27 May 2011, Friday

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