It is a great pleasure to have this opportunity and honor to reflect on 25 years of U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership. Azerbaijan is a valuable partner for the United States. Our expanding cooperation in business, energy, security, and social development is built on the foundation of 25 years of mutual respect and shared interests. The United States has a vested interest in Azerbaijan’s successful development and prosperity. Azerbaijan is a reliable partner in an uncertain neighborhood. It is increasingly important as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Our partnership has also been central to the remarkable transformation that has taken place since Azerbaijan reemerged as an independent state in 1991. During that time, Azerbaijan has benefitted from a willingness to make bold choices to chart a course in its own interest and to form mutually beneficial relationships with the United States and other countries that support those independent decisions. The United States’ commitment to Azerbaijan over the last 25 years is backed by more than words. In total, U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan exceeds $1.3 billion since 1993.
The United States Has Been Committed to Azerbaijan from the Beginning
The United States has shown its commitment to the Azerbaijani people since before the fall of the Soviet Union, when the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty drew the world’s attention to the events of January 20, 1991 and Azerbaijan’s move toward independence. The brave citizens who demanded freedom are just one example of the Azerbaijani people’s willingness to make hard decisions that open the path to a better future. Less than a year later freedom would come to Azerbaijan.
The collapse of the Soviet Union represented enormous opportunities for advancing peace, prosperity, and human dignity, but significant challenges nevertheless remained. Azerbaijan emerged, not into peace and prosperity but into war, and the United States was among the first countries to recognize its independence and to seek to halt the fighting and to help those affected. Azerbaijan’s decision to sign the ceasefire was an important moment in its own right. Recognizing the dangers of continued conflict, Azerbaijan committed itself to finding a peaceful resolution. It also placed trust in the United States as one of three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. We take that trust seriously and our commitment to assisting the sides in reaching a peacefully negotiated settlement is as strong as ever. While the resolution we all hope for remains long overdue, the decision to pursue peace instead of war has been a major factor in Azerbaijan’s successful development. The United States was there from the beginning to help Azerbaijan heal the wounds of war and look to the future.
In the early 1990s, The United States focused its assistance on delivering humanitarian relief to the more than 1,000,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) humanitarian assistance program focused on providing emergency food, health and shelter to vulnerable individuals suffering in areas affected by the conflict. That assistance continued even after the ceasefire was in place. For example, in 1996 approximately 140,000 IDPs received food through USAID-funded programs. By 1998, the assistance had expanded to include health care for over 400,000 people, and was providing shelter for more than 25,000 Azerbaijanis.
The United States has continued to help Azerbaijan deal with the aftermath of the conflict. The U.S. military has refurbished schools and supported water engineering projects to assist people affected by the conflict and its aftermath. The United States has also provided more than $30 million to help clear mines and unexploded ordnance in Azerbaijan. At one site near Saloglu, for example, there were over half a million pieces of unexploded ordnance. Today, the land has been cleared and school has been safely situated on the site while the funds raised by selling the scrap metal gathered during the clean-up were used to build a sports stadium for the village’s children. More impressive still, with U.S. support, ANAMA has grown to become one of the leading de-mining agencies in the region and now offers training to other countries including Georgia, Egypt, and Afghanistan.
The United States and Azerbaijan: Partners in Developing a Brighter Future
As Azerbaijan has continued to develop, the nature of our assistance has moved beyond the initial relief efforts to long-term cooperation. In the new century, USAID began to transition towards broader economic, social, and democratic development programs that would help the general Azerbaijani population. USAID provided resources to improve the overall quality of health care. It established loan programs to support small and medium enterprises in the agricultural sector while other programs improved doctors’ and nurses’ skills and promoted healthier family planning practices. In line with Azerbaijan’s aspirations for democratic development, USAID has provided assistance to the Central Election Commission, including for training for election officials, and voter motivation and education. USAID, along with a number of State Department programs, also worked to strengthen the quality of journalism and other key attributes of a modern society, so that Azerbaijani citizens could be more informed, more engaged, and support the development of a robust democracy.
Our assistance to Azerbaijan is, and always has been a partnership. The United States works with the Government of Azerbaijan at all levels and across a number of government agencies. Today, U.S. assistance continues to support priorities identified by the Government of Azerbaijan including in its “Vision for the Future: 2020” development concept. These priorities include anti-corruption, economic diversification, women’s empowerment, fostering entrepreneurship, infrastructure improvement, and countering human trafficking. For example, USAID’s partnership with the Ministry of Economy and the Council for State Support to NGOs has strengthened local communities and improved the lives of thousands of Azerbaijanis since 2011 under the Socio-Economic Development Activity (SEDA). This program helps the people in communities to identify and address their top economic and societal needs. To date, SEDA has provided over $1.4 million to fund 66 projects in 58 communities, benefiting more than 91,000 people around Azerbaijan. Perhaps most importantly, the projects are chosen by the communities themselves and include improving access to drinking water, rebuilding roads and bridges, installing heating systems in schools and kindergartens, and building medical facilities.
Programs supporting people-to-people contact between Azerbaijanis and Americans have also played an important role in Azerbaijan’s development, in the lives of individual Azerbaijanis, and in our overall relationship. Over 5,000 Azerbaijanis have participated in U.S.-sponsored exchange programs. These programs include educational opportunities like spending a year at an American high school or studying for a master’s degree. They include professional exchanges focusing on areas such as entrepreneurship, veterinary services, combatting trafficking in persons, journalism, and education. Participants in these programs have returned to Azerbaijan ready to use what they learned to help their country as volunteers, teachers, and leaders. Alumni from these U.S. exchange programs continue giving back to their country and local communities, and hold positions at the top levels of business, government, and civil society. In 2003, Azerbaijan welcomed its first Peace Corps volunteers from the United States, who worked with communities across the country on youth development, boosting economic activity and growth in the towns and cities where they lived as well as providing English-language education. In all, over 550 Peace Corps volunteers served in Azerbaijan, living among the Azerbaijani people, learning the language, and helping them to improve their livelihoods. Those volunteers and their host families built lasting bonds for personal friendship and, in the case of the volunteers, on-going affection for Azerbaijan. And while talking about the strong people-to-people ties between Americans and Azerbaijanis, it is also worth mentioning that over the last 10 years alone our Consular section has issued non-immigrant visas to over 53,000 Azerbaijani tourists, businessmen, and students, all of whom had the chance to meet Americans face-to-face, strengthening the ties between our two countries.
Azerbaijan Continues to Benefit from Historic Decision to Open Its Doors to International Investment
In 1994, Azerbaijan’s decision to sign the Contract of the Century, making it possible for Azerbaijani Oil to flow to the west via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline built with western oil companies, showed true vision on the part of the country’s leadership. The Contract of the Century was more than a business deal. It was a decision about the direction of the country, a decision to break with the past and move toward greater links with the wider world and a more prosperous future. It sent a message to the world that Azerbaijan would act in the interests of its people rather than bow to pressure to remain closed off from the world. United States Presidents from Clinton to Obama have supported that historic decision and the project was reinforced with the ground breaking on the Southern Gas Corridor 20 years later. Now we are seeing concrete progress toward the completion of the Southern Gas corridor, one of the world’s major infrastructure projects, and one that further diversifies Europe’s energy sources and adds to the continent’s energy security.
The Contract of the Century also demonstrated Azerbaijan’s openness to work with companies from around the world. Indeed, many American companies have worked closely with Azerbaijan to develop Azerbaijan’s energy and telecommunications industries. Those business ties are both supported by our strong relationship and make the links between our two countries more robust and varied. The United States and Azerbaijan have a bilateral trade agreement, a bilateral investment treaty, and Azerbaijan boasts “most favored nation” trade status with the U.S. In 2008, Azerbaijan became part of the Generalized System of Preferences program, which gives duty-free access to U.S. markets for certain goods.
In 2015, we celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the United States-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, observing two decades of commercial cooperation with a trade mission that included 14 major American firms representing a wide array of sectors. This latest trade mission was further testament to the growing success and importance of economic relations between our countries. American companies are involved in helping Azerbaijan develop their capacity in petrochemical production, and a U.S. firm recently won a contract to build Azerbaijan’s second communications satellite. Last year Azerbaijan also celebrated the first direct flights between Baku and New York on a U.S.-manufactured Boeing Dreamliner in 2014 and in 2016 our two countries signed an Open Skies agreement expanding and easing passenger and air cargo links – yet another clear sign of how business ties bring our two countries closer together.
But in business as in other areas, what we have done in the past is only the prologue to working together even more productively in the future. To help build that more prosperous economic future, USAID is working to help Azerbaijanis, especially women and young Azerbaijanis, become entrepreneurs and create new businesses and jobs. Since 2011 it has partnered with Azerbaijani financial institutions to provide more than 780 small and micro loans (totaling $7.4 million) in the agricultural sector to help them access the resources they need to invest in their businesses. USAID’s agricultural activities have helped farmers increase production and exports. For example, from 2010 to 2013, pomegranate production increased by 57 % and exports increased by 35 % thanks to USAID activities. Today, USAID’s agricultural activities are focused on supporting economic diversification, with programs aimed at improving quantity and quality of produce and further expanding exports by building commercial ties with markets in Europe and the Middle East. Plans are also underway to work with financial agencies to support reforms in the banking sector and monetary policy to strengthen financial stability.
With several successful demonstrations recently of the ability to move goods economically and efficiently from China to central and western Europe through Central Asia and the new facilities at Alat, Azerbaijan is showing the exciting possibilities offered by the revival of the Silk Road. Those possibilities will be increased still further with the Port, and soon through the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail system. The revival of the ancient Silk Road will not just be a transport route, but should, like the system that existed for centuries, be a catalyst for entrepreneurship, innovation, and individual creativity. Again, the United States has been and will continue to work with partners in Azerbaijan to provide expertise, services, equipment, and technology to realize this vision.
Azerbaijan is a Long-Term Partner in Regional and Global Security
The U.S.-Azerbaijani security partnership goes back to the earliest days of our relationship and Azerbaijan’s renewed independence. The 1994 security dialogue with the Pentagon provided a concrete example of U.S. support for the security of an independent Azerbaijan. It established a relationship that deeply appreciates Azerbaijan as a stalwart partner on security issues. The United States will never forget that in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Azerbaijan was among the first to pledge its support to the United States and has stood by that pledge. Likewise, the United States has contributed to military reform and security in Azerbaijan. Since 2002, the United States has provided nearly $50 million in Foreign Military Financing and nearly $11 million in International Military Education and Training to help Azerbaijani troops operate with U.S. and NATO forces. In addition, exchange programs and fellowships have helped improve Azerbaijani counter-terrorism activities. Indeed, Azerbaijan is an important NATO partner involved with the Partnership for Peace, the Planning and Review Process, and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Over the years, Azerbaijan has contributed to peacekeeping missions in Iraq and Kosovo, and continues to take part in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
Azerbaijan is also a committed partner in the global effort to counter violent extremism. Through its direct cooperation with the United States and others, Azerbaijan plays a key role in blocking financing for terrorist groups and through NATO’s Partnership Action Plan on Terrorism, again playing the role of an important partner in information sharing and analysis. However, Azerbaijan plays an important soft power role as well. As a secular, independent Muslim-majority country, Azerbaijan shows that different religions can co-exist, and even thrive. In fact, Azerbaijan’s long history of religious and cultural tolerance and acceptance is an example from which many countries could learn.
Looking Ahead to the Next 25 Years
Azerbaijan has come a long way in its first 25 years. It has shown the capability and willingness to make difficult choices, to defy pessimistic expectations, and to win partners sharing a vision for mutual success. Challenges certainly remain, and new ones will likely arise. But I have no doubt Azerbaijan can fully realize its potential as an independent, democratic, prosperous, and secure country. The United States has been among Azerbaijan’s strongest partners over these past 25 years. I wonder if anyone could have predicted where we would be now. However, looking ahead, I will predict that if we stay the course, and remember – and build on – our mutual interests and shared successes, we will have even more to celebrate when Azerbaijanis mark 50 years of independence.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
of the USA to the Republic of Azerbaijan