Vol. 5, no. 4 (February 15, 2012)

Azerbaijan’s cultural diplomacy since 1991: A personal musical journey

Sabina Rakcheyeva, Dr.*
Member, European Cultural Parliament
Member, Advisory Board at The European Azerbaijan Society

No culture, according to Mahatma Gandhi, can live if it attempts to be exclusive; but at the same time, culture stands behind every statehood and defines national identity.  When a nation’s greatest desire for independence finally comes about, what happens to its culture?  How and why does culture affect and impact a country’s foreign policies?  During the past twenty years, I have witnessed the evolution of Azerbaijani culture as “an insider”—as a musician studying and performing around the world in various countries, before coming to London where I currently reside.  On the basis of that experience, I argue here that cultural diplomacy remains an important tool of soft power that is able to represent a national identity in a way that has genuine appeal in our contemporary globalised world.  
Azerbaijan has been developing rapidly politically and economically since 1991.  Over the same period, the country also has been undergoing a cultural renaissance.  After two brief years of independence at the end of World War I, Azerbaijan fell under Soviet rule for more than 70 years and inevitably, the country's national identity, culture and arts were gradually “Sovietized.”  At the same time, however, Soviet policies of universal literacy and state subsidies for culture broadened participation in ways that laid the foundation for the more recent cultural renaissance.

Inevitably, the first few years of independence brought some political instability, and as a result culture suffered arguably more than other spheres of life, since many institutions were left without funding.  The lack of any platform to communicate coupled with financial difficulties, resulted in a decline, forcing many Azerbaijani artists to leave the country to find work overseas.  Despite this, the majority of cultural institutions were able to continue to function, albeit on a reduced scale.

With the beginning of political and social stabilization, the Azerbaijani government introduced a contemporary cultural policy and began its active participation in international organizations, joining UNESCO in 1992 and later, the Council of Europe in 2001.  Within the last few years, several state programs, in such spheres as tourism, theatre, music, and the safeguarding of Azerbaijan’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, have begun to be implemented in the country.  New museums, theatres, and cultural institutions have started functioning.

Besides internal cultural development, Azerbaijan has begun promoting its rich and vibrant arts on the international scene.  Since joining UNESCO, national committees have been established within the intergovernmental UNESCO programs, including those for the International Council of Museums (ICOM), International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), International Music Council (IMC), and the International Institute of Theater.  Azerbaijan also participates in a series of multilateral cultural projects.  Co-operation with the Council of Europe is a key element of multilateral engagement that includes several cultural initiatives.  Besides European schemes, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has developed collaborative ties with the Islamic Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), and has started collaboration with the EU’s Eastern Partnership.  At Azerbaijan’s initiative, the ministries of culture of the Turkic-speaking countries founded TURKSOY—the International Organization on Joint Development of Turkic Culture and Arts. 

But of course, this would not be possible without the active involvement of those who directly implement culture—artists and art professionals.  Known very little abroad during Soviet times, Azerbaijani artists over the last 20 years have been “exported.”  A new young generation of artists has access to the outside world and has become a part of the international art scene.  In particular, the world of commercial music has discovered one of the best-known mugham singer, Alim Qasimov.  Works by the Azerbaijani composer Firanghiz Alizade have been performed worldwide and the well known jazz pianist and singer Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh is one of the top artists in her field.  Independence has given a chance to young musicians, including myself, to reach international audiences at a very young age, and opportunities to study in the best music schools, and to perform both inside and outside the country.  Independent artists, chamber groups, orchestras, pop and traditional music ensembles today regularly perform around the world in major concert halls, while artists take part in international exhibitions and fairs.

Over the last decade, there have been some developments in creating non-governmental, often privately supported cultural units, such as art galleries, small concert venues, theatres, design agencies and centers for applied arts.  On the one hand, creating independent units encourages competition, which results in cultural development and diversity.  On the other hand, though, it is apparent that there are as yet no strong alternatives—either financially responsible or professionally excellent—that compete with state institutions like the Ministry of Culture and large private institutions like the Heydar Aliyev Foundation.  However, with each passing year, social change has contributed to the rise of a new model of national cultural policy, one that aims to combine “flexibility at the central level with activity and initiative at the local one.” 

As a musician and cultural diplomat, I look at cultural activities abroad as acts of cultural diplomacy in practice.  Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan's cultural policy today is that of a country with a strong focus on culture and an understanding of its importance in bilateral and multilateral relations.  Any social changes have an immediate impact on culture and cultural trends, which in turn are vital to development.  The greatest achievement of the last years has been the emergence of a new social and cultural awareness, one that has increased appreciation of the national cultural heritage and an increasing number of young people studying the arts and culture.  As a country evolves, so does its culture and national policy.  In our time of rapid social changes, and as globalization brings new cultural priorities, there needs to be an innovative approach to implementing cultural policies if we are to succeed in preserving and transmitting artistic heritage. 

As a musician, I have experienced the diversity of cultures in many ways.  My own position in the musical world is twofold.  My affiliations with Azerbaijani culture and my background make me an Azerbaijani musician: I am a representative of Azerbaijani culture.  At the same time, though, my musical and academic training has been heavily influenced by Western music.  Thus, I affiliate myself with a global classical music community where musicians come from different cultures while all sharing a common ground, namely classical music training. 

Being a performing musician—“an insider”—has helped me to regard and experience music as a form of diplomacy in a different manner to many scholars.  As my career has evolved, I have tried to observe cultural relations in practice.  Having been invited to participate and perform in non-traditional performance environments, I came to realize that being an artist positions a person quite differently within society.  If used correctly, this unique positioning enables a person to influence the course of events.  This understanding prompted me to regard music differently than simply as an act of artistic performance.  I explore cultural diplomacy through music as a “soft power,” and as a contributor to intercultural dialogue within our current era of globalization. 

My primary intention was to seek ways to combine several cultural traditions and produce a unified performance.  The result was my album UnVeiled, which, now released commercially, attempts to bring different worlds into proximity, much as happens with more traditional political diplomacy.  In my recently completed PhD research, by presenting a model of relating musical collaboration to the multilateral diplomatic negotiation process, I look at how musical collaboration as a tool of public engagement can contribute to, and improve the effectiveness of, current diplomatic practices. 

In addition to stimulating intercultural dialogue, music has a great power to mediate.  I was recently asked a question about using music to promote a resolution of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  In fact, similar efforts have been implemented several times over the last few decades, such as the orchestra exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Divan East–West project founded by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim, and the recent visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea.  Although I have never directly participated in a collaborative music project between Azerbaijan and Armenia, I have taken part in world youth orchestras or in chamber music festivals where there were musicians from Armenia.  What gave me a positive outlook on the role of music in conflict resolution was that during such sessions, we musicians were united by a common idea—not a political agenda—by our cultural, musical idiom, and therefore, the general atmosphere of working together was always professional, respectful and friendly.

Music has the ability to communicate, regardless of the type of performance and the identity of the performers.  It can therefore literally “play” an active and significant role in peace building activities.  A very good example would be that when political and economic relations are frozen, it seems that only the arts and culture are able to interact.  Moreover, as culture is non-confrontational, often the only way to bring two opposing sides together is to invite them to share the experience of listening to a performance.  Cultural diplomacy, in fact, offers us the ability to listen to the opposing side rather than to talk, and this becomes a key to successful conflict resolution.  The more such cross-border music collaborations, festivals, non-political discussions and art exhibitions take place, the greater the understanding and tolerance will be between nations. 

Successful collaborative projects prove the importance of implementing soft power rather than applying military or economic hard power.  Indeed, history has proved that isolation and lack of dialogue neither resolves conflict nor brings peace, confirming the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”

* Sabina Rakcheyeva’s official page is available at www.sabinarakcheyeva.com.