1 Aug 2012
Towards A More Sustainable Azerbaijani Public Diplomacy
“I don’t think I’ll stay for the Q&A section.” Most of us living in Washington, D.C. have probably heard our American friends say this at some joint event involving both the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities. They do not want to sit and listen to the same confrontational, but ultimately futile exchanges between these two communities. Members of one community will organize an event, which will be attacked by some members of the other, who engage in harsh positional rhetoric, trying to delegitimize the presented events and push forward their own agendas. As a result, there is a lack of an environment conducive for civil debates and interactions, limiting or completely hindering confidence-building measures that are essential for the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Furthermore, the degree and nature of Diaspora’s involvement in the political discussion in Washington D.C. is key to successful public policy efforts of both respective governments. Given the Diaspora’s importance, a constructive tone of such public events can provide fertile ground for interactions between the two communities, but also allow Azerbaijanis as well as Armenians to successfully convey their perspective on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After gaining independence in 1991, Azerbaijan’s desire to pursue more active public diplomacy was driven primarily by the constant concerns over falling behind Armenia in the “information war” front of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which remains to be the most important issue for Azerbaijanis.[i] Having achieved economic success, Azerbaijan is keen to use it oil revenues in order to promote its image abroad and influence foreign audiences. In the last several years, Azerbaijan has considerably increased its diplomatic representation around the world, which allows it to conduct a more successful public diplomacy. While it is true that Armenian diaspora still wields more influence over the U.S. public and politics, it is also evident that Azerbaijan has come a long way, achieving successes in a short period of time. Every year, Azerbaijan spends a great deal of time and money in attempting to promote its national interests by informing and influencing key figures inside the Beltway and general public.
Internationally and locally, Azerbaijan has successfully highlighted its unique and rich cultural heritage. In May 2012, Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, which was a test for Azerbaijani high-level government public policy. President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva were personally involved in preparations for the contest. While some might deem Eurovision as a kitschy pop contest, nevertheless, it is an important event by virtue of the huge audience it commands – 120 million viewers. That said – the coverage of Eurovision Song Contest also shed a light on the domestic problems in Azerbaijan, which are yet to be tackled.
In June and July 2012, as a part of cultural public diplomacy efforts, Azerbaijani culture and history were represented at the 46th Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival that took place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Azerbaijani tent set up by Karabakh Foundation at this important cultural event presented the visitors with taste of Azerbaijani cuisine, and examples of traditional music.
By organizing the aforementioned events, the Azerbaijani government is trying to raise foreign audiences’ awareness about Azerbaijan. According to this approach, awareness is the first step in also gaining more knowledge about the most important issue for the country – the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These public diplomacy efforts are instrumental on drawing sympathetic attention and fostering understanding of hardships and dangers related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is considered to be one of the least-publicized human disasters of modern times where prospects of another war still linger. Furthermore, such international events hosted by either side, which bring Azerbaijanis and Armenians together, is an important step towards nation-to-nation contacts.
In order to make government public policy efforts more sustainable, there needs to be more constructive Diaspora involvement, directed at promoting a more conducive environment for interactions on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Every year Washington D.C. hosts numerous events dedicated to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, organized by think tanks, universities, and other organizations. These venues are ideal platforms for the Azerbaijani community to present its perspective and contribute to the understanding of the nuances of the conflict in the United States. Additionally, taking into account the limited number of contacts between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, constructive participation at these events could underpin Track II Diplomacy, which is necessary to achieve progress in the direction of peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Nevertheless, more often than not the interactions turn confrontational and both Azerbaijani and Armenian communities are not doing enough in order to establish a more constructive environment for positive diaspora interactions. By contributing to a more favorable arena for civil debate efforts, the Azerbaijani community can convey their perspective on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict more effectively. Instead of reacting emotionally to the information presented by the other side, members of Azerbaijani diaspora should attempt to lay out their perspective in a more conducive and agreeable fashion. Taking a confrontational position and launching into tirades against the other party hinders Azerbaijan’s position in the eyes of the international community. Even logical tirades might push people away because it is the human nature to be put off by listening to someone who seems aggressive. Occurring parallel to the large-scale public policy work done by Azerbaijani government-linked organizations, a more constructive and sound approach by members of the Azerbaijani community, ranging from regular civilians to government representatives, could only make Azerbaijani public diplomacy efforts more sustainable and far-reaching.
[i] Caucasus Barometer 2010, Azerbaijan, “Most Important Issue Facing Azerbaijan,” http://crrc.ge/oda/.