Spring 1996 (4.1)
Pages 54-55, 59
Azerbaijan's First Ambassador to the US
Interview by Betty Blair
Photo: Azerbaijan's Ambassador to the U.S., Dr. Hafiz Pashayev.
What a coincidence that your interview (January 26, 1996) comes on a such special day for Azerbaijan. The Wilson Amendment has just passed in the U.S. Congress which will finally clear the way for humanitarian assistance to our refugees.
Does that really mean US aid can go directly to the Azerbaijani government?
It's still provisional. The law reads that "if the President determines that humanitarian assistance provided in Azerbaijan through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is not adequately addressing the suffering of the refugees and internally displaced persons," then the US can direct aid to the Azerbaijani government. By the decision by the US Congress is politically very important for us. It's the first time we have had any reprieve since the "Freedom Support Act" (Section #907) was passed in 1992.
What's the next step?
We must show President Clinton that in numerous cases humanitarian assistance from the United States which was funneled through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was not very effective. The Clinton Administration has generally been supportive of Azerbaijan. They know the situation. We have one million refugees and displaced people in Azerbaijan in a population of 7.5 million all living within a geographical area the size of Maine or Austria. There have been situations, for example, when humanitarian organizations sponsored by the US could not legally repair leaking roofs of school buildings where refugees were living because these buildings belonged to the government.
I know of situations where refugees didn't have good access to water but NGOs funded through USAID could not legally dig wells because the Azerbaijani government owned all the drilling equipment.
I hope that US assistance will eventually expand into fields such as education, English language instruction, and education about the democratic process. When the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Kauzlarich, was here this past spring, he met with members of Congress to try to persuade them to repeal #907, complaining that "his hands were tied" in Azerbaijan because of this law.
What was Senator Dole's response to this legislature for humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan?
Dole's position has always favored Armenians. Whenever there is an issue between Azerbaijan or Armenia, Dole has always sided with Armenians. Recently, he stated again that he would block any attempt to repeal #907.
Over these past three years since you've been in Washington, you've dealt quite often with the Armenians and their Ambassador Shugarian. Do you detect any difference in their posturing or positioning in relation to the Karabakh issue?
I believe they're beginning to realize that it is no longer realistic to speak about Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country. They felt differently in 1993. We've always maintained that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan and that territorial boundaries must be respected. It seems they're beginning to realize that the region must remain under the sovereignty of Azerbaijan.
What evidence do you see for these changes in their attitudes?
Well, for example, those holding "hard-line" positions amongst the Diaspora, especially in relation to the Dashnaks no longer have any solid support in the Armenian Republic as the Dashnak Party has been banned there. As a result, the Diaspora in the US has become divided over this issue. Dashnaks held unrelenting positions against both Azerbaijan and Turkey. But these days, it seems Armenia is ready to cooperate and begin re-establishing relations with us.
This past October a dinner was held here in Washington which Armenia's President Ter-Petrossian attended. US Congressional members, seeking Armenian favor, spoke against Turkey and Azerbaijan. When Ter-Petrossian addressed the group, he pointed out that Armenia does not consider Azerbaijan and Turkey as their enemies and that we should all cooperate. This marks a significant change in policy.
You're Azerbaijan's first Ambassador to the United States. What has it been like to establish an Embassy here?
I'm often asked about my background before coming to the US. I like to tell people, "I used to be a scientist-a physicist, and as such, I was very free in an unfree country (under the Soviet regime). But now as Ambassador, I'm working in a free country but I'm very unfree because I'm a governmental official."
It's been a dramatic change for me personally but at the same time, a great honor to be appointed as the first Ambassador to the United States and to initiate significant work for the independence of my country. These are historical moments. Tremendous political and economic developments are going on in my country of which we're a very important part. We feel ourselves assisting the President.
For example, it was our Embassy that initiated the contacts with World Bank which has now approved special funds for refurbishing the water supply in Baku. This was one of the greatest needs in rebuilding our city's infrastructure. Soon Baku will have reliable access to water which will be of immeasurable benefit to everyone. I'm immensely proud to have been involved in this project.
Our work at the Embassy has both an Azerbaijani as well as American dimension. The United States knew so little about Azerbaijan. At the same time, Azerbaijan understood so little about the US, particularly in terms of how the government works. We knew, of course, that America was a powerful country, but we had no idea about its structure of government nor about American democracy. Even now, after three years, many people in Azerbaijan cannot tell you how American democracy works.
You remember Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski's visit to Azerbaijan in October 1995. In every meeting he was asked, "Are Americans blind? Can't they see that the Armenians are the aggressors? Don't they know that Armenians are occupying our territories? How is it that Americans are supporting Armenia?" It was a question that came from everybody-not just uneducated people but professors and scholars.
What was Brzezinski's reply?
He said that to understand this phenomenon, you have to know American democracy! Meaning that Congressional members can easily be influenced in order to get re-elected.
For me, it has been a challenge to introduce the American reality to Azerbaijan. During my last trip to Baku (January 1996), I read many newspapers and realized there is a new generation of writers and correspondents who are beginning to present American life and democracy very well. More importantly, they are eager to know more.
In that sense, I think I would criticize American oil companies. You know how important public relations work is. Oil companies in Azerbaijan are not doing a good job in that respect. They should help us make our people aware. For example, after we signed the oil contract with the Western Consortium in 1994, Azerbaijanis expected immediate results-not five or ten years from now. Wrong expectations disappoint people.
What specifically would you suggest?
They should work with our television and newspapers to help make America more well known in Azerbaijan-to explain what the future might be in Azerbaijan three to five years from now. I think they should have a one-hour program on Azerbaijani TV each week. Why not? It would show that the US is very much cooperating with Azerbaijan.
We're living in a very, very difficult period. Azerbaijanis need an optimistic view of the future. We Azerbaijanis reside in a very "tough neighborhood." And if the presence of the United States were more evident, not only through the pragmatic business interests, but through more human dimensions, it would be very helpful-for them and for us.
I know, for example, that many people deeply appreciate how you are publishing this magazine and introducing Azerbaijan to the international community. It's very important for Azerbaijanis to know that they're not alone. That's my point.
How did you find the mood in Azerbaijan in regard to the future?
In Russia the recent Parliamentarian Elections showed that many old people wish to return to the "good old days." But in the case of Azerbaijan, I believe our people comprehend the difficulties and transition that is taking place. Since 1990, we have suffered so much just to gain our independence. The disintegration of the Soviet Union gave us our independence. It is now that we are having to struggle and fight to hold onto it.
Independence, however, doesn't hold the same meaning for Russians. For them, what is independence? To be independent from whom? But we have suffered so much that even our elderly understand how bright the future can be if we can manage to overcome our present difficulties.
Lately, editorials in the "Washington Times," have suggested that Russia's tendency towards a "hard-line" foreign policy could again dominate the entire region again if Republics such as Azerbaijan and Ukraine yield to it.
Both these countries have real opportunities to become more and more independent. The resources and strong desire of people inspire Azerbaijanis; the size of the country and determination drive Ukraine. The up-coming June Presidential elections in Russia will be very determining for the region. If Yeltsin is elected, everything may go well in terms of US-Russia relations. If somebody else wins, it may be different. But this is nothing new for us. We've always lived with these uncertainties.
Tell me about the Azerbaijani Diaspora. Are they involved in helping the Republic?
There are many Azerbaijanis from Iran who are living in the United States though very few have settled here from the Republic itself. Many are highly educated and hold mainstream positions. Though not very well organized right now, I believe that a Diaspora will gradually develop. Generally speaking though, I believe that the character of Azerbaijanis hasn't changed much. Those living in Iran (25+ million) are very much like those living in the Republic (7.5 million).
In what ways?
Language, culture, traditions and music. And in respect to the idea that Azerbaijan really deserves to be independent. Many of these Azerbaijanis living abroad seem eager to help the Republic achieve real independence. As more and more business opportunities become available, the economy will become the driving force for their involvement.
Quite a few Iranian Azerbaijanis from the US are starting to visit the Republic these days, aren't they?
Especially Azerbaijani young men living here go to the Republic to find brides. They call, requesting visas to get married in Baku. Traditionally, people have relatives on both sides. It's not uncommon for someone in Baku to say, "I'm Tabrizi" or for Azerbaijanis in Tabriz to say "I'm Bakui," indicating that their relatives originated from the other side.
But now, I see that they are identifying themselves more as Azerbaijanis and, in that sense, I believe your magazine has been very instrumental. In the United States, there had never been any publication available about Azerbaijan before you started. It's such a fine publication for people who want to know more about our country. It's becoming a catalyst for Azerbaijanis.
Our primary goal for the magazine is to reach out to people (primarily Western) who never had a chance to learn about Azerbaijan because so little was available in English. But I sense, as you do, that Azerbaijanis living all over the world are starting to take more pride in their heritage. I'd like to think that our magazine is playing a role.
It encourages Azerbaijanis to return to their cultural roots. I should tell you that your magazine has now become so popular in the United States that when I go to the State Department to visit Strobe Talbott (Deputy Secretary of State, Warren Christopher) or Jim Collins (responsible for the Newly Independent States-NIS), I always see "Azerbaijan International" lying there on the table beside "Time," "Newsweek" and other magazines.
Maybe they know you're coming and just put it out there for you! (jokingly)
No, no, it's always there in the waiting room in the State Department.
I'd like to think that our magazine contributes to understanding the complexity of the issues and trends that Azerbaijanis are experiencing during this difficult transitional period. For so many years, Azerbaijan was unknown to us in the West. Producing this magazine has become an exciting journey of discovery for us and, hopefully, for others as well.
But now that you've lived in the West perhaps longer than any other Azerbaijani diplomat, in what ways do you think Azerbaijanis and Americans can benefit from each other's culture and experiences?
First of all, we Azerbaijanis need to learn to be more business-minded, and more goal-oriented. The Soviets created incredible opportunities in education particularly in the fields of science, arts and music. It was a very expensive proposition and they succeeded in achieving very high educational and scientific levels.
But there's a significant difference between the science we did in the former Soviet Union and the science being done in the West. We concentrated on theoretical investigations, in other words, science merely for the sake of science, even in fields such as engineering. It was a terrible mistake. When our scientists invented something, we didn't care how fast it was implemented in industry. Our system did not have any encouraging or rewarding mechanisms. We were paid the same amount whether we developed anything or not. I think we should learn pragmatism from the West. This would enable our country to advance more rapidly in technology and enable invention to drive the economy.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, I don't believe that even the Soviet period managed to kill our spirit. We somehow always have had a desire for marketing. Many people used to find ways to work for their own private interests, especially in agriculture. This mentality eases our transition as we move from a centralized, to a market economy.
Americans, I believe, could immensely benefit during elections if there wasn't so much political posturing and show. There are entirely too many attacks and intrusions into a candidate's character and private life. Too often candidates seek to cripple and even defame each other-at least, psychologically. It's quite unimaginable to me how they can ever truly cooperate with each other once the election process is over after they've acted so viciously towards each other.
I'm also concerned about the disintegration of the family here in the US. Twenty years ago, when I was here on scientific exchange, families seemed quite strong to me. I'm amazed how quickly the institution of the family has deteriorated. In Azerbaijan, we have extremely strong family relations. Our families are the real core of our existence and our society. I hope we Azerbaijanis won't lose this as we begin our own economic transition. I hope, too, that Americans will be able to re-establish and re-create the strong family ties they once enjoyed which contribute ever so much to a strong society and nation.
From Azerbaijan International (4.1) Spring 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.