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The growing importance of the Caspian countries and their constant changes

Luísa Monteiro

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In this series of articles, we intend to present an overview on the Caspian countries, their history, their changing politics and economy in order to offer a complete analysis on the late panorama in this part of the world.

As a macro approach, political and economic relations juxtapose when it comes to the development plans of the Caspian Five and their expectations. Geographically close and sharing a basin with abundant natural resources, some of those countries have maintained relations since before they became independent, the prime example being an agreement on the region signed in the early 20’s between the then called Persia and the former Soviet Union. The current five littoral nations – Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – still struggle to tackle a solution for a fair division, while coping with external influences from Eurasian partners, the American pressure for businesses and omnipresence of the European Union.

Who moved my sea?

Russia is intrinsically connected to all the other Caspian countries, be that for its historical role as the most important player in this side of the world map or for its actual importance for being the region’s economic life belt. It is unarguably the member with the greatest incomes that also pushes the economies in the Balkans, and it physically controls the access routes to the said sea. One is in the country itself and one in the newly accessed Crimea, a ‘conquest’ that cost Russia many sanctions from the not-so-far West, nevertheless local relations in this occasion remained untouched.

Lately, the recession in the Russian economy also hit its Caspian partners, especially the independent former provinces, whose main economical sources are, not surprisingly, fossil fuels. The crisis was also responsible for Putin’s dream of a common currency in the Eurasian Economic Union (in which the only nation from the Caspian Sea is Kazakhstan) to disappear into thin gas.

Even so, the negotiations about the rights of exploitation for the countries in the area, which have lasted for more than a decade, made a clear progress in their last configuration, but show that the theme is still very sensitive for all of the members.

On the last meeting, in 2014, it was agreed that no nations apart from those that surround the sea would be allowed to have military forces there, under the pretext of maintaining regional security – and the message between these Cyrillic and Arabic lines is clear: keeping the American forces away from the Caspian waters. And although it was also settled that there would be a balance between those regional forces that does not show the slightest level of the complicity the referred countries will still be expected to cultivate before coming to the thorniest issue on the agenda that has already resulted in gunboat diplomacy.

The Achilles’ heel in the Caspian epic politics is how to divide the basin. Whereas Iran defends it must be equally divided into five parts, thus supporting the stance Caspian water plateau is a lake, Russia and the others support that it is a sea and the division should be proportional to the extension of the margin, by defining a total of 25 miles in the surface for exploitation and keeping an area for common use, which was supposed to relief tensions between the participant countries. As a third factor, it must be taken into account the difference in the legal status of the sea and lake. Whereas Iran strongly supports the lake solution, as mentioned before, the other Caspian countries argue that the Caspian is a sea. Accordingly, under this solution, the Caspian Common Force would need to observe the strictly defined rules of conduct under the UN Law of the Sea.

While the international community anxiously awaits a solution in the next meeting, expected to take place in 2015, the rich Caspian region remains untouchable for the countries who are not part of the Caspian Five and also for some of this group, since the agreement reached so far, in 2003, is trilateral (between Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan). Those resolutions, therefore, play a primordial role in the maintenance of a cooperative environment in the region.

A Vodka-Maotai tidal bore

The ex-Soviet republics, which had a previously shy importance to geopolitics, now gain recognition for the encounter of two distinct poles of influence – Russia and China.

Because of their political objectives, both nations share influence over the countries in Eurasia and, whilst Russia’s Look East policy aims to develop a common market and deepen its power in the area, China’s Go West counts greatly on the Silk Road Fund promises of an Economic belt through the funding of infrastructure in the same region, somewhat competing with funds cost by the US.

While the dual influence is beneficial for the region, once it foments local development in the main economic activities and physical integration, it is to say that both countries are willing to raise their controlling power, which might eventually have impacts in their relation.

The Casper Sea

Composed mostly of young nations, the Caspian region still has a long way to go both in diplomatic and democratic aspects. As a rich, yet discreet region, it counts with political regimes that are indisputably organized, but still making progress.

Both Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan rely on a traditional political system, which is characterized by a great conversion of roles in a strong leadership figure. That is to say that the government itself is prone to engage in a multiplicity of duties, such as keeping the local order, informing and communicating with the civilians, revealing high centralization of the available means in the administrative sphere.

The latest news in Kazakhstan, on the other hand, is not centered in communication. The country has anticipated elections on the verge of an economic crisis, choosing President Nursultan Nazarbaiev, locally referred as a ‘father’, with over 97% of votes, for a fifth successive term, against two opponents that actually supported the current government. Even though variety could be an option, it seems to not have been taken into consideration by the citizens, either because of great leadership performed by the president or an unexpressive opposition campaign.

Moreover, those countries are a pool of ethnicities, gathering many distinct peoples that have historically offered the governors extra difficulties in keeping a political unit. The main question is whether or not those governors will be able to deal with them all in an era where information flows faster and wilder than the waters in their sea.

Have we seen it oil?

To sum up, the promising Caspian region is full of opportunities for development in different aspects – economical, by the convergence of plenty of investment, political, because of the advances in international negotiations and, finally, humanitarian, with the exposition of the internal politics as a chance of putting the governmental system on the spot and making it better.

We will scrutinize all of them in the next weeks.

Luísa Monteiro is a bachelor in Social Communication and is currently taking a Master's degree in Communication and Politics at PUC São Paulo. Her researches are closely linked to the studies of internet as a democratic agora and her latest academic production correlates the (offline) social movements and their exposure on the net.

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Eastern Europe

Expanding regional rivalries: Saudi Arabia and Iran battle it out in Azerbaijan

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s the pot calling the kettle black. As Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of seeking to encircle it with its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as Qatar, the kingdom and the Islamic republic are extending their bitter rivalry beyond the Middle East into the Caucasus.

The two countries’ latest battleground is oil-rich Azerbaijan, an authoritarian, majority Shia Muslim but secular former Soviet republic on Iran’s northern border with a substantial ethnic population in Iran itself. Recent Saudi overtures came amid reports that Azerbaijan’ s security services had warned the government about Iran’s growing influence in the country.

The report suggested that an informal lifting in 2013 of a ban on preaching by Islamic scholars linked to Iran that had been quietly imposed in a bid to stem the flow of Azerbaijani Sunni Muslims joining the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq had enabled the Islamic republic to make inroads.

“Iran’s religious activities have become particularly successful,” said Azerbaijani journalist Kenan Rovshanoglu in a study of religious freedom in the country.

Published by Turan, an independent news agency, the study noted that 22 of Azerbaijan’s 150 madrassas or religious seminaries were controlled by Iran.

Iran and Azerbaijan have long tiptoed around each other with both countries concerned that the other could use its religious and/or ethnic affinities to stir trouble. Azeri speakers account for at least a quarter of Iran’s population.

Azerbaijan is, for its part, worried about Iran’s close ties with Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked into a decades-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Iranian concerns about Azeri nationalism were fuelled when supporters of Tractor Sazi FC, a top club in Tabriz, the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, that is a symbol of Iranian Azeri identity, chanted Azeri nationalist slogans three years ago during protests against the government’s environmental policy and alleged anti-Azeri corruption in soccer .

Azar News, leaked in 2015 a letter allegedly written by Brigadier-General Gholam-Asgar  Karimian, the club’s former chairman, detailing how Traktor Sazi could be used to unite Azeris against what the general termed “racist and separatist groups.”

Azar is operated by the National Resistance Organization of Azerbaijan (NROA), a coalition of opposition forces dominated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group that enjoys Saudi support but was tainted when it moved its operations in 1986 to Iraq at a time that Iraq was at war with Iran.

The letter said the groups were campaigning for a “study the mother tongue day.” It suggested that the mother tongue referred to was Talysh, a dying northwest Iranian language that is still spoken by at most a million people in the Iranian provinces of Gilan and Ardabil and southern Azerbaijan. The letter implied that the groups General Karimian was concerned included Azeri separatists.

The letter appeared to advocate measures to weaken the separatists by combatting widespread racist attitudes towards Azeris and improving services in East Azerbaijan. Racial attitudes towards Azeris is something Traktor Sazi knows a lot about.

“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” said a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

Discussing Azerbaijani policy towards Iran, Elkhan Sahinoglu, head of the Center for Applied Politics at Baku’s Western Caspian University, noted that Azerbaijan had no intention of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, but could not “disregard the future of the Azeris who reside in Iran.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corp said in November that it had “dismantled a terrorist team” in East Azerbaijan that was “affiliated with global arrogance,” a reference to the United States, and its allies, including Saudi Arabia. The announcement came weeks after Iran said that it had eliminated an armed group in a frontier area of the province of West Azerbaijan that borders on Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkey and is home to Azeris as well as Kurds.

Columnist Huda al-Husseini highlighted Saudi interest in Azerbaijan in a recent column on Al Arabiya, the television network owned by Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) in which the government reportedly obtained a majority share as a result of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent asset and power purge packaged as a campaign against corruption.

In an article entitled ‘Will Iran turn Azerbaijan into another Iraq?’, Ms. Al-Husseini, quoting an anti-Iranian Iraqi author, Raghd Abdel Rida al-Jaberi, asserted that Azerbaijan feared that it would follow in the footsteps of Iraq where Iran allegedly had destroyed the Iraqi military and turned Iraqis into slaves who had been convinced “that washing and rubbing the feet of Iranians who are heading to visit (Imam) Hussain’s tomb brings them closer to heaven no matter what they do afterwards.”

In a media environment that appears to be pre-occupied with supporting the government’s often sectarian-tinted, anti-Iran policy rather than reporting facts, Ms. Al-Husseini suggested that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s recent attendance of a cultural festival in the kingdom at King Salman’s invitation was part of an effort to resist Iranian encroachment.

Military delegations from the two countries earlier this month discussed closer military cooperation including holding joint military exercises “as well as a number of other issues of mutual interest,” according to Azerbaijani media.

Azerbaijan has also over the years built close military ties to Israel, which like Saudi Arabia, is staunchly opposed to Iran. Israel and Azerbaijan discussed, prior to the 2015 international agreement that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, using Azerbaijani airbases had it opted for taking out the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities. The agreement put an end to talk about a military strike.

The bottom line is that if Iran is seeking to encircle Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and Israel are trying to encircle Iran. The mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s belief that Iraq is Iran’s model for Azerbaijan is an Iranian suggestion that Lebanon is Israel’s model.

“Tel Aviv wants to Lebanonize (Azerbaijan) under a ‘new periphery doctrine.’ This means that Tel Aviv intends to create a new periphery region and encircle Iran through its presence in the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Region and Azerbaijan,” said Iranian analyst Salar Seifoddini. Mr. Seifoddini was referring to Israel’s policy of periphery that seeks to forge relations with those bordering on Israel’s enemies.

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Eastern Europe

The Baku Process: An Effective Cultural Diplomacy Momentum of Azerbaijan

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The Republic of Azerbaijan is home of one of the earliest Christian communities in the world, the Caucasian Albanian-Apostolic Church in the village of Nic, the ancient temple of Caucasian Albania in the village of Kish, the round temple of Caucasian Albania, Khudavend Monastery Complex, the Momuna Khatun Monument, all of these unique religious and cultural monuments have deeply encouraged the Azerbaijani society and lifestyle to embrace a harmonious dialogue and preserve a combination of traditions and ceremonies of different cultures, ethnicities, civilizations and faiths.

The peculiar treasures, ancient historical sites, geographical position and the ethnic – national composition, make the Republic of Azerbaijan a special place where different cultures and religions can converge, harness an open dialogue and live in harmony.  Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire, has built an environment of tolerance, trust and confidence among the principal religious convictions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism; all of these elements of Azerbaijani society are shared throughout the world and the Baku Process plays an indispensable role towards harnessing intercultural dialogue, multiculturalism, spreading peaceful coexistence and prosperity across countries and regions.

On December 2-3, 2008, the President of Azerbaijan, H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev, initiated the “Baku Process,” as an interactive international platform that encourages: a dialogue among different cultures and civilizations; promotes Azerbaijan’s Cultural Diplomacy and harnesses multiculturalism policies that ensure a healthy cultural pluralism.

Intercultural Dialogue: a pillar of Azerbaijan’s Cultural Diplomacy

The Republic of Azerbaijan, under the vision and guidance of national leader Heydar Aliyev, has established a solid national economy, strengthened its infrastructure and shaped an effective foreign policy during the first decade of its independence (1993 – 2003).  Founded on the solid statecraft institutions and foreign policy of Azerbaijan, on December 2nd-3rd, 2008, the current president of Azerbaijan H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev established the “Baku Process” under the framework of an International Conference dedicated to: “Intercultural dialogue as a basis for peace and sustainable development in Europe and its neighboring regions”, with the participation of official representatives and Ministers of Culture from over eighty different countries.

The “Baku Process” aspires to promote intercultural, inter-racial and inter-religious dialogue among individuals, international experts, journalists and government leaders, while respecting the diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds encountered throughout the five continents.

The First Baku Process Ministerial Conference was entitled: ‘“Baku Process” for the promotion of intercultural dialogue (2008)’; it was organized in cooperation with the Council of Europe.  On this occasion the Ministers of Culture, from Europe, Asia and Western Hemisphere, discussed viable effective methods that could promote and strengthen the cultural dialogue and preserve multiculturalism policies in many regions and countries.  This conference happened to be one of very few venues where European Ministers of Culture exchanged thoughts and views on multiculturalism, cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy with their counterparts from the Muslim Countries in Northern Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia.

The Ministerial Conference of 2008 emphasized the vital role of effective dialogue, cultural policies, preservation of cultural monuments, and promotion of inter-religious tolerance and shared the values of Azerbaijani Multiculturalism Policy. The foreign dignitaries were introduced to a deeply rooted religious tolerance and cultural diversity that is presently flourishing among Azerbaijani people from Nakhchivan to Baku, from Shaki to Lankaran and from Quba to Tartar Region of Dağlıq Qarabağ (Upper Karabakh Region).  This conference was attended by representatives of the European Cultural Convention, Council of Europe, UNESCO, the International Organization of Turkic Culture TURKSOY; representatives of the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development shared their views on how to further strengthen cultural diplomacy projects in South – East Europe and in other regions of Europe, Africa and the Americas.  Under the framework of this event, the Ministers of Culture, adopted the ‘Baku Declaration for the Promotion of Intercultural Dialogue’ and established an interactive project entitled: “Artists for Dialogue.”  Through the platform of Baku Process, the cultural diplomacy of Azerbaijan has bolstered its presence in the world, promoted mutual understanding among different cultures and diminished the transnational perils and threats that come from extremism, intolerance, xenophobia and racism.  According to Dr. Rashad Ilyasov; “the ‘Baku Process’ has tremendously strengthened Azerbaijan’s geopolitical role in the global arena; modern Azerbaijan is actively contributing to the mutual development of cultures.”

On his meeting with Mr. Jan Dziedziczak, held on August 17th, 2017, Academician Kamal Abdulla emphasized the importance of intercultural dialogue and noted that: “in all international events, Poland has defended Azerbaijan’s just and right position and representatives of Poland have actively participated at international events.” The advanced cultural partnership between Azerbaijan and Poland is one of many concrete initiatives that have swiftly developed under the framework of the “Baku Process”.

Under the guidance of President Ilham Aliyev, the Government of Azerbaijan has established the Baku Process as an effective mechanism that fosters intercultural dialogue, shapes bridges of communication and confidence among nations and cultures.

In this context an important role has been played by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a non-for-profit institution under the leadership of Dr. Mehriban Aliyeva, First Vice President of Azerbaijan that is focused on developing projects in the areas of preservation of cultural sites, intercultural dialogue, education, youth and sports.  The priorities and strategic mission of Heydar Aliyev Foundation are to promote the cultural policy of Azerbaijan, foster international cultural research and promote cultural events in art galleries and concert halls.  In 2014, the Arts Council of Azerbaijan worked together with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation on implementing a waste recycling project together with German and Romanian art professionals and environmentalists. Such a prestigious project propelled by Azerbaijan’s cultural diplomacy architects, unveils Azerbaijan as a country that is committed to promote intercultural dialogue both at home and abroad; the leaders of Baku, Nakhchivan and other cities of Azerbaijan, have a track record of concrete actions that support their genuine aspiration to build bridges of dialogue and trust among civilizations and cultures using Azerbaijan’s multicultural experience, interethnic dialogue, linguistic diversity, religious tolerance and historical heritage.  Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Policy is focused to establish an International political community that Rousseau had envisaged, as a tool to man’s liberation from the tyrannies, ongoing deprivations; a community that serves as a staunch advocate of human rights, equalities, defense of liberties that have attained a great magnitude and thrust on many international conferences organized by the Government of Azerbaijan, under the framework of “Baku Process”.  Over the last decade Baku has served as a seedbed of pluralist dialogue, intercultural communication and incessantly serves as a platform where the consequences of constant xenophobia and regional war are diminished and in Rousseau’s words: the only way of combating this war is to find a form of government that will set the law above them all.”  Policies implemented by the Government of Azerbaijan are a genuine example of peaceful religious coexistence, were freedom and constitutional rights dominate the functioning structure of the state and its independent institutions.

Baku: a Center of European Cultural Policy

On October 13-15, 2009, the “Baku Process” invited more than ten European Ministers of Culture to participate in the first session of the Sixth Conference of Ministers of Culture of Islamic countries.  The member states of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) organized the Ministerial Roundtable on “Fostering Dialogue and Cultural Diversity – Baku Process: New Challenge for Dialogue between Civilizations,” on this venue European ministers discussed the pressing cultural issues between the Islamic and European communities.  Furthermore, a special emphasis was placed to the involvement of governments, local communities and to the promotion of multiculturalism policies throughout Europe and the Middle East; as well as active engagement of youth, elected officials and teenagers.

On April 7-9, 2011, under the patronage of H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev, the Republic of Azerbaijan decided to host the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, supported by renowned international organizations such as UNESCO, UN Alliance of Civilizations, World Tourism Organization, Council of Europe, North-South Center of the Council of Europe and ISESCO.  The objective of the 1st “Baku Process” Forum was to advance cultural initiatives promoted by Azerbaijan in the sphere of cultural diplomacy, intercultural dialogue at the regional and global levels and to mark the beginning of a consolidated International Forum that tackles cultural issues and pressing international security matters that are affecting today’s world.

The “Baku Process” Forum (2011) examined the hurdles that prevent communities from engaging in an effective dialogue and tackled intercultural issues based on geographic and historical contexts. Its main theme was: “United Through Common Values, Enriched by Cultural Diversity,” additional plenary sessions and workshops addressed the example of cultural diversity in Azerbaijan as a positive role model to other regions and nations that aspire to preserve cultural diversity, democratic institutions, top notch education standards, faith and religious harmony as well as a propitious investigative journalism environment.

Geographically located at the heart of European and Asian civilizations, equipped with outstanding religious tolerance and admirable intercultural dialogue, the city of Baku hosted 500 participants from five continents and the representatives of 102 countries, including: public elected officials, heads of international organizations, religious leaders and heads of state. Moreover, the Intercultural Cooperation Platform was established; this venue attracted a wide array of participants and encouraged an extensive discussion on cultural issues and challenges, in this occasion the ‘5A’ platform was established.  The symbolic “5A” platform marked the inception of the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue that would be organized every two years, guided by a presidential decree signed in May (2011) by H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

On May 29th – June 1st, 2013, Baku hosted the 2nd World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue dedicated to generate a meaningful platform focused on cultural diversity, cultural diplomacy, intercultural cooperation, public diplomacy, regional security issues and religious affairs.  The “Baku Process” Forum has emerged as a reliable juncture that deals with ongoing challenges and opportunities that derive from multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue, the following topics were discussed at a greater length on many parallel sessions: “How to build the world’s future together”; “How to build a popular support for cultural diversity”; “The New Era of Globalization: Hybridity of Cultures in a Changing World”; “Supporting Intercultural Actions.”  Furthermore, under this framework, there were other conferences organized such as: “Global Intercultural Cities Learning Community”; a workshop on “Intercultural Dialogue through History Teaching: Best Practices and Challenges”; “Tourism as a key driver of Mutual Understanding and Tolerance among Cultures”; “Intercultural Dialogue through Faith and Science.” This Forum was supported by UNESCO, UN Alliance of Civilizations, UN World Tourism Organization and ISESCO; it brought together principal national and international leaders and decision makers.  The 2nd World Forum hosted for the first time a conference that brought together – in Baku – more than fifty Ministers of Culture and Tourism from Europe, Middle East, Latin America and South-East Asia.

On May 18th – 19th, 2015, under the patronage of Azerbaijan’s President H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev, Baku hosted the 3rd World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue.  This major global event was supported by the UN Alliance of Civilizations, UNESCO, Council of Europe and ISESCO.  Under the main topic: “Sharing Culture for Shared Security,” the international participants discussed “culture and sustainable development in the post-2015 development agenda,” this was a perfect opportunity to celebrate the World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development (May 21st).  In 2015, “Baku Process,” highlighted once again the role of cultural policies, historical heritage, religions, faiths, immigration crisis, sports diplomacy, tertiary education, visual arts, business, university social responsibility and other aspects that promote effective intercultural dialogue; in such a convenient time when the United Nations has proclaimed the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures (2013-2022).  A number of sessions were focused on: “Sharing Culture for a Shared Security: Cultural rights in the modern age”; “Countering Violent Extremism: the Role of Religious Leaders in Promoting Religious Pluralism and Advancing a Shared Well-being”; “Shaping a Common Global Agenda: the Role of International Organizations in Building Trust and Understanding Between Cultures.”

The 3rd Forum, paid attention to the current global security and the role of nations in addressing the needs of vulnerable people and immigrants at a time of significant geopolitical instability, regional turmoil and European Union’s large bureaucracy.  Under the framework of this forum was hosted: the second Ministerial Conference on “culture and sustainable development in the post-2015 development agenda”; the first meeting of the new Academic Forum of UNESCO Chairs on intercultural and interreligious dialogue and was launched a book by UNESCO-Tudor Rose publication entitled “Agree to Differ.”  According to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev: “today, representatives of all religions, ethnic groups live in Azerbaijan and are contributing for its successful economic development; I think this is one of our biggest assets. And we are proud of that. Therefore we organize numerous international events to promote the values of multiculturalism, values of peaceful cooperation, mutual understanding. I think the world needs this kind of events, needs open discussions, exchange of views in order to strengthen the positive tendencies.”  The results of the Baku Forum will be included into the UNESCO publications focused on intercultural dialogue and support the development of future mission and strategic objectives, including the framework of the UN Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures (2013-2022).

The “Baku Process” is making a prominent contribution to solve contemporary challenges and promote an international environment where living together peacefully and intercultural dialogue acquire the necessary attention to become two major pillars that guide European Countries’ Cultural Dialogue and further strengthen the state of Azerbaijan’s Cultural Diplomacy in the world.  The “Baku Process” creates a rare opportunity for global conversations to take place between state and non-state actors; over the last ten years, it emphasized practical actions and pragmatic cultural collaborations.

One of many concrete examples of such a pragmatic cultural approach is the visit of Bulgarian Vice President, Mrs. Margarita Popova to Baku Slavic University (BSU).  On October 1st, 2016, the Vice President Margarita Popova held a meeting with the Chancellor of Baku Slavic University, Prof. Dr. Nurlana Aliyeva.  The Vice President of Bulgaria emphasized “the education and cultural cooperation between Baku Slavic University and other Bulgarian Public Universities.”  In the same vein, Chancellor Nurlana Aliyeva provided an overview of the Bulgarian Language and Culture Centre that is working at the Baku Slavic University.  In an interview for Azerbaijan State News Agency (AZERTAC), Chancellor Nurlana Aliyeva stated: “the Bulgarian Language and Culture Centre aims to develop cultural relations between the two countries.”

On October 19th, 2016, Baku Slavic University (BSU) Chancellor Nurlana Aliyeva hosted a meeting with Bulgaria’s renowned archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov, a Counselor in the Ministry of Culture, Government of Bulgaria.  During this meeting Chancellor Aliyeva discussed the prospects for cooperation between the higher education institutions of Azerbaijan and Bulgaria.  This meeting was attended also by Editor-in-Chief of Standart daily newspaper Slavka Buzukova and her deputy, Mrs. Ekaterina Nikolova.

Chancellor Nurlana Aliyeva stated for Azerbaijan State News Agency (AZERTAC) that: “the cultural and scientific cooperation between Azerbaijan and Bulgaria are at excellent levels and Azerbaijani students demonstrate a special interest in the history, ethnography, economic and cultural life of Bulgaria.”  Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s First Lady and president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, Dr. Mehriban Aliyeva, has played a fundamental role in strengthening the cultural cooperation between Azerbaijan and Bulgaria.”

Later on Dr. Nikolay Ovcharov had a working meeting with State Adviser on Multinational, Multicultural and Religious Affairs, Academician Kamal Abdulla.  On this occasion Azerbaijani Academician Abdulla gave an overview of cultural events organized by the Baku International Multiculturalism Centre.  Dr. Ovcharov shared the interest and possibility to have courses of Azerbaijani Multiculturalism Model be taught at various European universities, to promote the religious tolerance of Azerbaijan throughout many countries of the world.

VII Global Forum of United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC)

On April 25th-27th, 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan hosted the 7th Global Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) under the main theme: “Living Together In Inclusive Societies, A Challenge and A Goal.”  At the official opening ceremony of this historic event, held at the heart of Baku, the President of Azerbaijan H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev stated: “It is not accidental that Baku hosts the 7th Global Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.  Because as the land of tolerance and our commitment to multicultural values, independent Azerbaijan has an extensive experience for development of the dialogue of cultures, realization of important projects aimed at the preservation of cultural diversity and to regulate the mutual relations between civilizations and to host prestigious forums”.

According to Mr. Milikh Yevdayev: “The delegates flew to Azerbaijan from every corner of the world, to discuss the power of inclusiveness in a world that is overwhelmed by division and strife.  Security experts, political scientists, heads of state, diplomats, organizational leaders, activists, students, and brave heroes, those who spend every day risking their lives at the frontlines of change – all came together for a meeting of their hearts and minds. Throughout the two days of intense programs and panels, the forum leaders gave particular attention to the role of religious leaders, women, youth, culture and education in perpetuating the message of building peace by actively and cooperatively coming together against hate and extremism. I saw many new faces, and also the familiar representatives of Azerbaijan’s own diverse religious communities: Muslim, Christian and Jewish friends, and important leaders in this effort. …”

On his article: “Reflections on Global Peace and the 7th Forum of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations;” published at The Jewish Journal, Mr. Milikh Yevdayev, emphasized: “There was something very powerful about this forum and its theme, as it relates to Azerbaijan in particular. The forum’s theme ‘Living Together In Inclusive Societies: A Challenge and A Goal’ made me feel a sense of pride. There could be no better fit for such a program than Azerbaijan.  Positive inclusion is central to our national character, and also to our historical identity.  We are a nation defined by our success with inclusivity, multicultural and multi faith respect – now and in times when there is so much division and hatred in various parts of the world.”  In his analysis Mr. Milikh Yevdayev underscored: “the UNAOC program was nothing short of uplifting, after weeks of immense worry and stress especially, as our homeland Azerbaijan came under attack again.  Before this, I wondered how to face the Passover Holiday while so many of my fellow Azerbaijanis were mourning their loved ones lost to the renewed aggression by Armenia in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region.”

In her keynote speech, the First Lady of the Republic of Azerbaijan Dr. Mehriban Aliyeva stressed that tolerance and multiculturalism are a lifestyle in Azerbaijan.  She also informed the participants about the severe humanitarian and environmental consequences of Armenia’s aggression against Azerbaijan and gave detailed information about the projects implemented by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation in the country and abroad on the basis of public-private and civil society partnerships.

The 7th Global Forum of the UNAOC was addressed by: the President of the Republic of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, and the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo.

Furthermore this global event hosted a breakout session entitled: “Constructing Peace, Deconstructing Terror,” where a number of matters in the Middle East and other regions of the world were addressed. Similarly, Baku hosted other sessions; according to Dr. Rafig Novruzov the following topics were embarked upon: “a new global social contract for regions destroyed by internal and interstate conflicts and ways to reduce attraction towards extremist behavior; effective ways to restore a sense of dignity among people feeling disempowered; the changing narrative from religious and sectarian to political and strategic dimensions of violent extremism.”

In these unique panels, some of the keynote speakers were: Baron John Thomas Alderdice, Former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly (1998-2004); Mr. Novruz Mammadov, Mr. Egemen Bağış, Former Minister of European Union Affairs, Republic of Turkey; Mr. Samir Barhoum, Editor-in-chief of The Jordan Times.  In his remarks, Mr. Novruz Mammadov emphasized that 20 (twenty) percent of Azerbaijani lands are under the Armenian occupation. Mr. Mammadov stated: “United Nations Security Council adopted four resolutions demanding immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from our territory, but these resolutions remain on paper. These resolutions demand immediate and unconditional withdrawal; in some cases, resolutions of the U. N. Security Council are being implemented within hours or days.  But in our case it is more than twenty years of no action. That shows that there is a lack of political will.”
In the framework of UN Alliance of Civilizations’ objectives focused on: the promotion of cultural and interreligious dialogue; respect and mutual understanding among civilizations; encourage solutions that bring societies together based on the UN fundamental principles of peace and security, human rights and sustainable development; more than 4,000 delegates from 147 countries participated in the 7th Baku UNAOC Global Forum. This event was widely covered by 117 foreign and local media representatives.

In the 7th Global Forum of the UN Alliance of Civilizations was adopted the Baku Declaration during the high level ministerial meeting.  This document emphasized Azerbaijan’s role as the host country of the 7th Global Forum of the UN Alliance of Civilizations under the name “Living Together in Inclusive Societies: A Challenge and A Goal”, as a way to bind multiple perspectives and strengthen inclusiveness and diversity throughout many countries and regions.  According to Mr. Sarkhanbay Khuduyev: “the Baku Process, started in 2008 under the guidance and leadership of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, whose aim is to develop inter-civilizational dialogue and address intercultural convergence beyond the boundaries of Europe; the Azerbaijani head of state is raising the current multiculturalism matters at the global level.”

IV World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue

On May 5-6, 2017, Baku hosted the 4th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, under the main theme: “Advancing Intercultural Dialogue: New Avenues for Human Security, Peace and Sustainable Development.” This major global event focused on the role of faith, religions, migration, human security, sports diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, sustainable development and on ways to curtail violent extremism. The Forum provided a platform to discuss the best practices that ensure genuine respect for everyone, including freedom of religion, equal employment opportunities, good governance, effective healthcare systems and economic growth.  Heads of governments, ministers, representatives of various international organizations, senior policy makers, cultural diplomacy professionals, goodwill ambassadors, experts, journalists, practitioners, prominent intellectuals and activists, participated throughout the sessions of the 4th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue.  According to Prof. Mehmood – Ul – Hassan Khan: “the IV World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue has already prioritized its agenda by placing intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity higher on the international agenda, it is critical for human security and a prime responsibility of our time. Prof. Ul – Hassan Khan emphasized: “[Previous] World Forums have reached remarkable achievements by bringing together heads of governments, ministers, and leaders of various international organizations, senior policy makers…” to discuss pressing challenges of our time.

Conclusion  

The Republic of Azerbaijan is a very special country where various ethnic groups, cultures, religions have coexisted for centuries since The Byzantine Empire.  The favorable geographic location of Azerbaijan has exposed this country to admirable features of European and Islamic Civilizations, making Baku, Nakhchivan, Shaki, Dağlıq Qarabağ and Quba, to become genuine archaeological and ancient commercial routes between the East and the West, as well as from the North to the South.  Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire, unlike any other country in the Eurasian landmass has preserved cultures of many ethnic groups and has become a candid bridge among millenary cultures, multiculturalism and religious dialogue.

Under the patronage of H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, over the last ten years the “Baku Process” has hosted the following major events:

  • The I World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held on April 7-9, 2011; addressed matters pertaining to intercultural dialogue with the participation of 500 representatives from 102 countries from all continents. The main topic of the Forum was: “United Through Common Values, Enriched by Cultural Diversity.”
  • The II World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held on May 29 – June 01, 2013, tackled ways on: “How to build a global future together”; “How to build a popular support for cultural diversity”; “Matters on the New Era of Globalization: hybridity of cultures in a changing world”; “Supporting intercultural actions.” Another important session was focused on: ““Tourism as a key driver of mutual understanding and tolerance among cultures.” The main topic of the Forum was: “Living Together Peacefully in a Diverse World”.
  • The III World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held on May 18-19, 2015; reflected matters on human security, the importance of sharing different cultures; understanding that human security must be a fully shared responsibility among community leaders, educators and spiritual leaders. The main topic of the Forum was: “Culture and Sustainable Development in the Post 2015 Development Agenda.”
  • The IV World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue was held on May 5-6, 2017, tackled the role of faith, many religions, immigration policies, human security, cultural diplomacy, education, sustainable development and other matters. The main theme of this Global Forum was: “Advancing Intercultural Dialogue: New Avenues for Human Security, Peace and Sustainable Development.”

All of the aforementioned major international forums have generated tangible results in the realm of Azerbaijan’s Cultural Diplomacy and strengthened the role of the Government of Azerbaijan in the implementation of its foreign policy at the bilateral and multilateral platforms.

A few concrete results are:

  • On November 18th, 2016, Mr. Aslan Aslanov, Director General of Azerbaijan State News Agency (AZERTAC), was elected as the new president of the Organization of Asia-Pacific News Agencies (OANA) for a three years term (2016-2019). AZERTAC in cooperation with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation hosted on November 16-18, 2016, the 5th News Agencies World Congress and the 22nd session of the Council of CIS Heads of News Agencies.  Furthermore, on this occasion AZERTAC hosted the 16th General Assembly of the Organization of Asia-Pacific News Agencies (OANA).

Mr. Vugar Seyidov, Special Correspondent of AZERTAC in Germany was elected as OANA Secretary General.

  • The Government of Azerbaijan has helped inspire a number of regional governments, and international bodies, to pursue an active role towards strengthening their multiculturalism policies and religious dialogue, as well as intensify – and shape – these nations’ respective efforts in reducing religious violence, acts of terrorism and improve regional immigration policies. In this context it is valuable to indicate a few recent events that are held in Europe: the 2nd International Conference on “Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East,” held in Athens (Greece) on October 30-31 (2017); organization of the 1st Ministerial Meeting of the Ancient Civilizations Forum, held in Athens on April 24-25 (2017); and the establishment of “Ancient Civilizations Forum” or GC10.  In September 23rd, 2015, leaders of European governments met in Brussels to try to shape a common action “plan on refugees following months of recriminations and amid a sense of spiraling momentum of which the leaders have lost control.”

It is certain that the Republic of Azerbaijan has always harnessed an avant-garde foreign policy that addresses many global challenges that are deeply affecting Europe and Asia today.  Baku has supported, and become a global player, on all efforts led by the international community right at their inception stage; the Government of Azerbaijan under President Ilham Aliyev has proactively brought together Nobel Prize winners, heads of state and cultural experts to promote intercultural and interfaith dialogue — always intertwined with the world’s pressing challenges and obstacles of today and of the future.

The nation of Azerbaijan, with its tolerant attitude and admirable acceptance of other cultures, upholds the special values of intercultural and interreligious dialogue; characteristics that are essential to foster regional peace, economic development and ensure respect for international law.  The “Baku Process” will continue to promote intercultural dialogue between governments and nations, strengthen cooperation among many ethnic groups and encourage cultural partnerships among people living on different continents.

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Eastern Europe

Toward a New Partnership: Georgian Voices

MD Staff

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Photo: World Bank

Every winter, Beso Idoidze stands guard alone over the historical highland village of Dartlo. Even the harsh cold winds of Tushetian winters won’t make Beso abandon his post. As long as there is wood to burn and essential food items like potatoes, sugar, flour and olive oil in his larder, Beso perseveres.

Situated 2,000 meters above sea level, Dartlo village is cut off from the outside world from late September to the end of April, during which time it is only accessible by helicopter.

Once summer arrives, Dartlo’s other residents start to return. Their only source of income is tourism. Some own guest houses, others produce traditional handicrafts, while those who have horses offer riding tours. Some people also get involved in the ongoing restoration work that sustains the vernacular architecture of this unique village.

However, the tourism season is short: if lucky, the village might be able to stay open for four to five months – from early June to mid-October. That is why most of the residents prefer relocating to other, larger towns, or to the capital Tbilisi – bringing them closer to regular jobs. Over the years, the number of residents in Dartlo and neighboring villages has been steadily declining, leaving only elders like Beso to hold down the fort.

Maia Kiknadze runs a travel agency that was established in 1991, right after Georgia gained its independence. Caucasus Travel, the very first tour operator in Georgia, was created at a time when the country was virtually unknown to people internationally, had no tourism infrastructure, and lacked workers trained in the tourism-service industry.

According to one employee, “The company has spent many years and a lot of effort promoting the country internationally and training staff such as tour guides and drivers. In addition, because of the severe scarcity of places for guests to stay, we had to personally visit the regions and scout for living quarters suitable for foreign visitors.”

In the beginning, the company consisted of only three people, its founders. Within a few years, however, Caucasus Travel had grown and spawned two additional companies, Georgian Events and Explore Georgia, while a third company, CT Auto Georgia, came along later. By 2007, all of these companies, along with several others, were united under the banner of one holding company – Georgian Hospitality Group (GHG), which today employs 60 people full-time.

Georgia is increasingly renowned internationally for its culture, wine and cuisine, and adventure and eco-tourism. Maia believes that her company has played a considerable role in raising awareness about Georgia and in helping build-up its burgeoning tourism industry.

Lia Aleksishvili, who lives in Georgia’s Kakheti region, remembers when her bakery in the city of Telavi was only a tiny business. Over the years, she has managed to transform the small shop – which often struggled to make ends meet – into a successful and bustling local bakery.

Lia’s business also benefits the local community. The bakery employs four full-time workers and, when the holiday season arrives and demand for desserts and pastries peaks, four more people join part-time. Lia has also managed to use some profits from the bakery to invest in renovating the second floor of her building, turning it into a popular bed and breakfast.

Manana is a stay-at-home mother of seven children who are aged between 9 and 22 years. Her family lives in a three-room cinderblock hut with a leaky roof and cardboard for windows. Her husband Tamaz spends most of his time at the landfill hunting for scrap metal, and is the sole breadwinner.

Manana sees herself as living on the edge of extreme poverty, but she believes that there are households which are doing much worse. She is proud of her choice to have so many children. “They wear each other’s hand-me-downs, and it’s a lot of work, but I love kids. I always wanted to have as many as possible. There are large families who live in train carts, or who don’t even have a roof over their heads. There are people much worse off!”

Manana believes that the best way to tackle poverty is through equal access to education. “When someone with no ability can get into a school just because they can pay, and when my child, who is talented, cannot just because we don’t have money, that is wrong,” she says. “They are trading talent for money and I don’t want that to happen in our country anymore. My 14-year-old daughter Iro is great at table tennis, but we can’t afford to equip her or pay for regular lessons.”

Monthly social assistance from the state to the family amounts to GEL 500, which they claim is barely enough to buy shoes for all seven children, not to mention other mandatory things for school that don’t fall under the scope of the assistance program. Having an illegal job, with the fear of losing social assistance for the entire family, doesn’t seem like a promising solution to fighting poverty, Manana argues.

Nevertheless, Manana does her best to stay positive and optimistic about the future. This mother of seven dreams about having enough space for every one of her kids, in a house with dry walls and a roof that keeps them all warm and healthy.

Rusudan Kekelidze is the Principal Teacher at public school #210 in Tbilisi. In the early 1990s, she was at the very start of her professional career as a teacher. She still has vivid memories of that time: the ever-present smell of kerosene, students sharing tiny desks, and very poorly-equipped classrooms. But she also remembers that everyone had a common desire – to survive.

“It may sound dramatic now, but it truly was a fight for survival – physically, literally,” says Rusudan. “It was a fight for the future. No matter what the skeptics might say, we have travelled a long and difficult path since then. Today, we see how our school has developed. It is so much better than we could have imagined. Take, for example, the school’s infrastructure as a vivid sign of progress. Or, just listen to the words and sentiments in the hallways – I can, I want to, I will do, I’m happy to…”

“The future I imagine is more colorful and cheerful, and focused on success. I hope our students are able to start preparing their future paths here, within these walls. I hope the school is a good model for life, which is gradually developed and enriched with knowledge and practice,” says Rusudan.

Source: World Bank

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