Vol. 2, No. 14 (July 15, 2009)

Azerbaijan’s diplomatic service at 90: Origins, continuity and change

Fikrat Sadykhov
Professor of Political Science
Western University, Baku

July 9th marked the 90th anniversary of the decree of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic that created Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry and laid the foundations for its diplomatic service.  Over the intervening decades, the foreign ministry and the diplomats who serve their country in it have undergone numerous changes reflecting changes in Azerbaijan’s status and political position.  At the same time, however, certain underlying continuities help explain Baku’s diplomacy today and thus deserve special mention on this anniversary.

When the foreign ministry was created in 1919, it consisted of a council, a chancellery and a department with four subordinate sections – internal relations which maintained liaison with other offices of the government and society, external relations, cadres and economics, and an archive.  Not surprisingly, the ministry devoted particular attention to cadres work, and it required those who hoped to serve as diplomats to have knowledge of French, the international language of the day, as well as familiarity with the basic principles of international law.

Despite the internal and external turbulence of those times, Azerbaijan was able to develop contacts with a large number of countries.  Even before the foreign ministry was created, the government assigned – in 1918 – charges d’affaires in Germany, Ukraine, Persia and Armenia and a diplomatic representation in Crimea.

And by the end of 1919, Azerbaijan had diplomatic representatives accredited in Georgia (Farist-bek Vekilov), Armenia (Abdurakhman bek Akkhverdov), Persia (A. Ziyadkhan), Turkey (Yusif bek Vezirov (Chemenzemenli)), and Ukraine (Jamal Sadykhov) as well as additional consular representations in Batumi, Crimea, Enzeli, Tabriz, and Meshkhed.  During the same period, the following countries opened missions of various descriptions in Baku: Armenia, Belgium, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Persia, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United States. 

The establishment of Soviet power in Baku and the overthrow of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1920 marked the end of an independent Azerbaijani diplomatic service for seven decades, but it did not mean the complete extinction of the nation’s diplomatic tradition or experience. 

An important role was played in this connection by the plenipotentiary representation of the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic to the RSFSR, which formally served as a kind of mission for Baku in Moscow.  This representation continued even after December 1922 when the Azerbaijan SSR joined the USSR and Azerbaijani diplomatic representations abroad were closed.

All the responsibilities of the Azerbaijani Commissariat for Foreign Affairs were initially transferred to the Trans-Caucasian Federation as a part of which Azerbaijan joined the USSR.  But in the Soviet of Peoples Commissars of the Azerbaijan SSR was created a foreign department which dealt with visas and foreign passports, albeit in complete subordination to the Moscow Commissariat of Foreign Affairs.  That central control was strengthened in July 1923, when the USSR Peoples Commissariat of Foreign Affairs created the system of plenipotentiary representatives to the republics, controlling agencies that lasted until 1946.

During this period, Azerbaijan’s diplomatic activities were subject to extraordinary ideologization, a development that characterized all of Soviet life but one that had the unfortunate consequence in the diplomatic sphere of undermining the principles and practices that inform most countries and that informed the work of the foreign ministry of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

In 1944, Moscow restored the peoples commissariats in the republics as part of its drive to get all of them membership and votes in the United Nations.  That effort fell through – only Ukraine and Belarus gained membership – but it had the consequence of leading to the restoration of what became in 1946 the ministry of foreign affairs of the Azerbaijan SSR.  One measure of the activity of this organization is the number of employees, one that rose from 12 at the start to 58 by the end of 1945.  Its chief tasks included the preparation of reports on developments in neighboring countries, such as Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan, assisting with visits, and dealing with some consular matters.

One reason for its size and activity was the Azerbaijani population in Iran, a co-ethnic group that became more important to Moscow during World War II as a result of the Soviet occupation of northern Iran and the formation of an independent people’s republic there at the end of that conflict.  Baku provided both expertise about this population and assistance in dealing with the comings and goings of people working with that group.

But as a result of the withdrawal of Soviet forces from northern Iran and the collapse of the Azerbaijani state there, the amount of work the Azerbaijani foreign ministry was asked to do declined significantly, and by 1950, that institution had only 11 employees, more than the five to seven most other union republics had at that time but far less than the 58 of only a few years before. 

One reason why the Azerbaijani foreign ministry was somewhat larger is that its consular service helped with the preparation of documents for Soviet citizens who were returning to the USSR for permanent residence.  That campaign, which Moscow launched after the war in the hopes of replenishing some of the USSR’s population losses, ran out of steam by the early 1950s, and, as of January 1958, the foreign ministry of the Azerbaijan SSR consisted of only three people – a minister, a deputy minister and a secretary.

Nonetheless, that small group played a role in drafting a statute on republic foreign ministries, although that document was never adopted in the Soviet period.  Had it been, the Azerbaijani ministry would have had 12.5 people on staff and would have been responsible for preparing a press bulletin on international information for the Azerbaijani media.  Despite that failure, the limited staff of the ministry was kept busy with organizing visits, helping to provide information on foreign markets to enterprises in Azerbaijan, assisting Moscow on consular issues, and perhaps most important dealing with the general consulates of Iran and Iraq and the Cuban representation in Baku.  The ministry became especially active in its external outreach in the 1970s.  And when events in Iran exploded in 1979, the ministry provided reports to Moscow on Azerbaijanis there.

Despite the extreme centralization of Soviet diplomacy, it is worth noting that within the limits of the existing social-political system, the Azerbaijan foreign ministry actively participated in consular tasks, was involved with processing and distributing information, and worked with journalists from abroad, all tasks that foreign ministries around the world normally carry out.

Moreover, and this too is an important part of the history of this institution, the leaders of the Azerbaijan foreign ministry at various times travelled abroad as members of Soviet delegations to the UN General Assembly, where they took an active part in the sessions and committees and met with the leaders of various countries and members of foreign delegations.

On October 18, 1991, Azerbaijan adopted its constitutional act on state independence, a measure that opened the way to the formation of a diplomatic service of an independent country.  The first government which recognized Azerbaijan’s independence was Turkey (November 9, 1991), and its recognition was soon followed by the establishment of diplomatic ties between Ankara and Baku (January 14, 1992).  Many other countries soon followed. Most of them began their relations with Azerbaijan through their embassies in Moscow, which now were jointly accredited to Baku, but very quickly, they opened embassies in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan has followed suit by opening missions in more than 40 capitals.

Over the last 18 years, the Azerbaijani foreign ministry has expanded rapidly not only in terms of the number of diplomats but also structurally with the full panoply of functional and territorial subdivisions that will be familiar to anyone with an interest in contemporary diplomacy.  But there are some special details that merit mention.  In 1993, to give but one example, an administration for the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict and conflict problems was set up within the ministry. 

As it marks the 90th anniversary of its founding, Azerbaijan’s diplomatic service and the foreign ministry of the country remain works in progress, shaped by the past and by the country’s national leadership but also by a clear recognition that Azerbaijan will play an even larger role in the world and that its diplomats will have a key place in that demanding work.