Vol. 2, No. 24 (December 15, 2009)

Not by embassies alone: How Azerbaijan represents itself around the world

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

At the direction of President Ilham Aliyev, Baku has nearly doubled the number of its embassies over the last five years, but that achievement, which has stretched the diplomatic resources of the country, nevertheless means that Azerbaijan has had to adopt other means to reach out to many of the more than 100 countries around the world in which it does not have a diplomatic mission but with which it has important political and economic relations.  

Some of the mechanisms Azerbaijan has adopted will be quite familiar to students of the foreign relations of other countries, but others are more uniquely Azerbaijani.  And this combination, especially during a period of diminished growth, points to a future in which, however important embassies may remain both symbolically and practically, Azerbaijan like many other countries will be promoting itself not by embassies alone.

Since recovering independence in 1991 and despite its building up to more than 60 diplomatic missions in the intervening period, the Government of Azerbaijan has relied on seven additional mechanisms to advance its interests in other countries.  First, it has where possible jointly accredited its ambassadors to more than one country.  Thus, for example, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Estonia is also ambassador to Latvia where he is resident.  In most cases, joint accreditation is the first step toward the creation of an embassy.  Thus, initially, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States was accredited to Mexico and Canada, but now Baku has diplomatic missions in both places.

Second, Azerbaijan has an active program of developing consulates, including honorary ones.  Consulates, whether general or regular, can represent Azerbaijan’s interests either in parts of a large country distant from capital cities – such as Los Angeles in the United States – or in places where there is a unique Azerbaijani economic interest – such as Aktau in Kazakhstan.  And honorary consulates, although frowned upon by some countries, often provide both a channel of communication and a focus for Azerbaijanis abroad that helps promote Azerbaijan’s interests.
Third – and during the first decade of independence, the most important – Azerbaijan has used its missions diplomatic, parliamentary and otherwise at international organizations and especially at the United Nations to develop ties with governments to which Baku does not have diplomatic representation.  At the UN, Azerbaijani diplomats maintain contact with more than 180 states, making the country’s permanent mission there among the most important diplomatic posts it has.  Without having to fund embassies, Baku has expanded ties with many of them.  At organizations like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Milli Majlis deputies can reach out to representatives of member states where there is no Azerbaijani embassy.  And in various business, professional, and intellectual organizations, Azerbaijanis in these fields can reach out to their counterparts as well.

Fourth, Azerbaijan is making increasing use of the sizeable Azerbaijani diaspora in many countries.  Indeed, this is an increasing focus of Baku’s foreign policy.  Azerbaijani groups in Europe and the United States are increasingly active both on their own and in cooperation with both the Azerbaijani government and the Turkic diasporas to defend Azerbaijan’s interests and promote its ideas.  Although the European and US groups have attracted the most attention, diaspora groups in places like Latin America where Azerbaijan is “underrepresented” diplomatically probably play a bigger relative role than anywhere else.  And in the case of Israel, which has an embassy in Baku but where Azerbaijan does not yet have an embassy, the Azerbaijani diaspora plays a critical role in reaching out to Israeli politicians and media personnel.

Fifth, Azerbaijan has a special relationship with Turkey, a country with more than twice as many embassies as Azerbaijan has at present.  Where Turkey has a diplomatic mission but Azerbaijan does not, Ankara’s mission serves as Azerbaijan’s, an objective realization of the oft-proclaimed principle of “one nation, two countries.”  The existence of this channel has allowed Azerbaijan to develop close ties with many countries far from its traditional focus without having to make the investment in an embassy of its own.

Sixth, Azerbaijan often deals with other countries through its business community.  As an exporter of hydrocarbons, Baku has representatives – either permanent or temporary – in many countries interested in acquiring these precious natural resources.  Some of these representatives are government officials, but many are private businessmen who operate in support roles.  Given that President Aliyev has made the promotion of oil and gas exports a priority in his national plan, such people often function as representatives of the country.
And seventh, like many others of the former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan has on occasion turned to foreign firms to lobby on its behalf.  Often these firms have been retained in countries where Baku has an embassy and needs the additional help, but sometimes they are in places where Azerbaijan does not have a government mission of its own and needs either temporary or permanent representation despite that gap. 

As Azerbaijan builds up its diplomatic corps, it is likely that the country will rely ever more heavily on embassies.  But the experience it has gained with these other mechanisms has been sufficiently positive that it is unlikely that Baku will entirely dispense with them anytime soon.  And consequently, any evaluation of Azerbaijan’s diplomatic activity must take these and not just the embassies into account.