Vol. 2, No. 19 (October 01, 2009)

Azerbaijani diplomacy moves beyond the chanceries into the public sphere

Farid Shafiyev, Amb.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Canada

Since recovering its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has faced two enormous tasks: strengthening its independent statehood and responding to Armenian aggression.  It has succeeded beyond the expectations of many with regard to the first, and although it was not able to prevent Armenia from occupying 20 percent of its territory as a result of the support Yerevan received from third parties, Baku has achieved signal successes on the diplomatic front beginning with the UN Security Council resolutions of 1993 affirming its territorial integrity and at the OSCE Lisbon Summit which, thanks to the efforts of President Heydar Aliyev, did the same.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Service, despite initial financial difficulties, succeeded in opening diplomatic representations in key capitals during the 1990s.  And President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, both of whom were professionally trained as diplomats, have continued the ministry’s expansion both in Baku and abroad.  At present, the foreign ministry has some 800 employees and maintains 60 missions abroad, more than twice the 25 missions Azerbaijan had some five years ago.  As it had built a modern diplomatic service, both domestic and foreign experts have praised Baku for its balanced foreign policy in what is an extremely complex geopolitical environment. 
Despite these successes, the challenge of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains.  For 15 years, Azerbaijani diplomats have worked on every front – political, economic, humanitarian, and cultural – to try to reach a solution within the framework of international law.  Initially, they focused on a few capitals, but now they are seeking support from a broader range of states, especially because the Armenian diaspora continues to exercise enormous influence in some of the former, although it must be said that the major powers have never accepted the Armenian claims to Azerbaijani territory as legitimate.
This year, many people in Azerbaijan were caught by surprise when Armenia and Turkey began talking about restoring relations and opening their common border, a frontier that Ankara had closed in 1993 in response to Armenian aggression.  Some in Turkey were even willing to talk about issuing an apology to Armenia for the events of 1915.  All this highlighted a problem for Baku: Too many Azerbaijanis had taken Turkey for granted as an ally and failed to recognize that Baku should have been working harder there with both officials and the public.  And that recognition in turn highlighted an even larger challenge.
Over the last generation, diplomacy has shifted from being about government-to-government relations alone to a focus on public relations and public diplomacy.  As Matt Armstrong, an American expert on this subject, has pointed out, “public diplomacy must be redefined not as a tool of simply promoting ideas and values but as a critical element of America's national security based on direct and indirect engagement of foreign publics, states and non-state actors.”  
Already in 2006, when speaking at the Second Azerbaijani Diplomatic Forum, President Ilham Aliyev called attention to the need to expand Azerbaijan’s outreach to non-governmental organizations in foreign capitals.  Responding to his call, the foreign ministry shifted more funding to work with the media, academia and elected officials.  But what has happened with Turkey suggests that more needs to be done. 

On the one hand, Azerbaijan clearly needs to redouble its efforts to enhance public support in close allies like Turkey.  And on the other, Azerbaijani diplomatic missions in all countries need to expand their efforts with the institutions of civil society.  Baku must invite elected officials to visit Azerbaijan more often.  It must pay greater attention to the Azerbaijani diaspora and its activities.  Other government agencies, such as the National Academy and Ministry of Culture and Tourism, should also work more closely with the foreign ministry to achieve these goals.  Public diplomacy requires the concerted actions of Azerbaijani civil servants, scholars, journalists, filmmakers, and the like - altogether.  Azerbaijan needs high quality studies, books, movies and other mediums.  Besides, public officials should avoid actions which might tarnish the country’s image on international arena.
In this strategic effort, the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy plays a key role.  Not only has its rector Hafiz Pashayev insisted that it train not just diplomats but all officials working in foreign affairs, but it has developed programs in the fields of media relations and public diplomacy to ensure that all working in this area have public relations skills.  In this, the Academy is following the direction laid out by other countries, including taking advantage of new technologies like the Internet.
As an example of this, two Azerbaijani diplomats already two years ago, launched a blog on Baku’s foreign policy – http://www.azerpolicy.blogspot.com/ – and others are taking similar steps.  Moreover, Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s consul general in Los Angeles is organizing various lectures and programs at American universities, and Nasimi Aghayev, a desk officer in the ministry, is heavily involved with academic research both in Azerbaijan and abroad.  Consequently, as the Foreign Ministry moves toward its centenary – it celebrated its 90th anniversary earlier this year – it is becoming ever more attuned to the new directions of contemporary foreign policy work, the ones which take public relations and public diplomacy seriously.