Longtime ally Azerbaijan counts on U.S. reassurance

| Saturday, March 7, 2015, 10:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Stranded between Russia and Iran, buffeted by the instability of Central Asia and the Middle East, the Republic of Azerbaijan hopes the United States will more forcefully support its allies.

“We have all lost a significant portion of our territory to separatist movements, and … we don't want to see any more instability,” Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan's ambassador to the United States, told the Tribune-Review in his country's embassy here.

“The United States should have a clear, consistent, forceful condemning of any degree of separatism, extremism, and reject any change of borders by force in the international community,” Suleymanov said.

Diplomacy is like a personal relationship, he said, and Azerbaijan — long friendly to Washington —counts on American support to restore stability across the region.

“You can't just take your friends for granted. You cannot say to us, ‘We do what we need to do, and you do what we ask you to do,' ” he said.

“It does not work like that.”

In addition to watching separatist movements in neighboring Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, Suleymanov said, Azerbaijan — slightly smaller than Maine, with rich oil and natural gas reserves — has battled Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since 1988. Despite a cease-fire agreement in 1994, in recent months fighting intensified and the death toll rose on both sides, he said.

“An entire generation has been in exile,” he said — about 600,000 people displaced, according to Amnesty International and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Azerbaijan is a key American partner that “can play an important role in assisting our allies like Ukraine with energy security by allowing them to depend less on Vladimir Putin and Russia for their energy supply,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.

Shuster told the Trib that he emphasizes with colleagues “the importance of maintaining our strong relationship with a strategic ally that lives in a hostile region.”

Azerbaijan was among the first countries to join the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq because of 9/11, Suleymanov said, and some of its troops remain in Afghanistan.

“We were the only Muslim nation to do that with combat boots. We went to Kosovo as well,” he said. “We have all seen the cost of being America's friend.”

‘Land of Fire'

In the Caucasus Mountains, west of the Caspian Sea, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established in 1918, the first secular Muslim majority with a Western-style democracy that granted rights to all citizens, including Christians, Jews and women.

Less than two years later, the Red Army invaded and made it part of the Soviet Union. With the 1991 collapse of the USSR, the Republic of Azerbaijan emerged.

Azerbaijan means “Land of Fire,” from the phenomena of burning hillsides caused by gas oozing through fissures in the earth, Suleymanov said.

A land bridge from Europe to the Silk Road for thousands of years, it remains important because of its energy supplies, said retired Army Gen. Tony Cucolo, who commanded troops in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and spent time in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's independence from Russia came with a price, Cucolo explained: a bloody war and perilous cease-fire with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region between the Armenian capital of Yerevan and the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.

The escalation of fighting led Secretary of State John Kerry to meet both countries' presidents at the NATO summit in Wales in September. Kerry expressed “strong concern” about the violence, said Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the State Department.

Cucolo described the conflict as “a powder keg” that could involve Russia, Iran and Turkey. It could “destroy the energy bridge to Europe,” he said. ”In a globally interconnected economy, that matters and could impact the United States.

“If we are going to be a world leader, then we have to lead,” he said.

“We should not be a spectator where there is an intractable conflict, where people are displaced and lives are lost and regional instability could reign.

“This is not something you put on auto-pilot or ignore into a crisis.”

To live in peace

Suleymanov considers his nation's troubled relationship with Armenia — and its need for relations with Russia and Iran — as its biggest challenge. Yet the ambassador is optimistic because his country's fiercely independent people are survivors.

“Azerbaijan spends its money wisely. It is a prosperous country,” he said. “We invest in our neighbors, and we could have invested in Armenia and become a partner with them in the region. Instead, Armenia is an isolated country, which does not have independence as much as our people.”

Cease-fires and low-level talks don't work, he said.

“We need to sit down and begin working on a comprehensive decision, which says, ‘This is how we see the future. This is how these two nations could develop and build a common region.'

“If that works, that would be fine,” Suleymanov said. “Trust me, God willing, we would have enough money to invest in Armenia's economy.

“Muslims, Christians and Jews live in peace, security and dignity in Azerbaijan,” the ambassador said. “We have been doing that for centuries. I wish nothing was unusual about how we do things in our country — that it would be a normal thing that Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together harmoniously in our region.

“To us, it is a very normal thing. ... I think the rest of the things are abnormal — people killing each other based on religion and sectarian views. ... No God commands that.”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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