The dictionary explains a chess game as a well calculated and memorized sequence of moves.
When I was first invited to visit Azerbaijan, my impression was that this small country of approximately 10 million people is located between three countries, Russia, Iran, and Turkey that could devour it in one day. It can only exist and survive if it can walk well on eggshells.
I first met Mr. Hikmat Hajiyev when he served as the Spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan. I was given some 15 minutes to hear, in fluent English, his presentation of the country. My impression was that the man knows his country well, loves it and speaks on its behalf even better.
Over time Mr. Hajiyev, who is a terrific communicator, turned to be a friend and communication with him was of value to me when I was writing coverage of events in Azerbaijan.
Today, Mr. Hajiyev is serving as the Head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department at the Administration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Our friendship allowed me the opportunity to have a one on one interview with Mr. Hajiyev.
A few days ago, I met Mr. Hajiyev in his office in the immaculately clean and impressively elegant building.
Mr. Hajiyev obtained his Bachelor and Master degrees in international law and international relations in Baku and NATO Defense College in Italy and received International Policies Masters from Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels, Belgium.
Here is the underlying psychology of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy and why I compare it to a well-played chess game:
NG: “What does your position as the President’s Foreign Policy Advisor entail?
Mr. Hajiyev: “In a sense, it is diplomatic work. I am interacting with foreign countries and working on papers and diplomatic correspondence.
“Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, pursued by President Aliyev, is foresighted, logical and predictable. Azerbaijan’s foreign policy derives from the national interests of my country and is also open, transparent and inclusive. In other words, we do not hide anything from anyone, and we do not build our policy on the ‘or’ and ‘or’ basis. Instead, we prefer the ‘and’ and ‘and’ approach. As a result, Azerbaijan has managed to build friendly relations with neighboring countries – Russia, Turkey, Iran – and the United States, China, European Union (EU), Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.
“Let me give you also an example of Azerbaijan’s partnership with Georgia. Azerbaijani companies are the largest taxpayers in Georgia; more than half a million Azerbaijanis visit Georgia annually and contribute to the economy of this country. Once a good friend from this neighboring country half-jokingly told me, “we are happy because we have such positive and prosperous neighbor like Azerbaijan.” This attests that Azerbaijan has built and is building an effective model of regional cooperation, based on a win-win model.
NG: “Azerbaijan is a majority Muslim country, yet, and rather a dichotomy, it keeps very good relations with the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel. How come?”
Mr. Hajiyev: “Azerbaijan’s relations with the Jewish people go back thousands of years.
“As I already mentioned, we believe in inclusivity, not exclusivity, not to be against any government. With Israel, as with many other countries, we maintain our model of mutually beneficial cooperation, friendship and partnership.”
Once we touched on Israel Azerbaijan enigmatic to many, but rather so very positive relations, we moved to discuss the issue of Azerbaijan’s aggressive neighboring country, Armenia.
NG: “Mr. Hajiyev, there is an ongoing conflict, caused by Armenia’s invasion and occupation of 20% of Azerbaijan’s land and the murdering of innocent Azerbaijani civilians. What is your perspective as to settling this conflict for once and for all and moving the entire region to cooperate, along Azerbaijan’s foreign policy principles?”
Mr. Hajiyev explains:
Mr. Hajiyev: “We do hope that the new government of Armenia will not repeat the mistakes of the previous government. The fundamental problem is the fact of military occupation of Azerbaijan’s sovereign lands by neighboring Armenia. Therefore, Armenia must cease occupying Azerbaijan’s lands, withdraw its troops, as demanded by the United Nations Security Council relevant resolutions and build civil relations between neighbors. In a recent interview to Russian media, the Armenian Prime Minister acknowledged the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and admitted that Armenia’s economic problems are a major challenge for his country. I would rather say that both of these problems are closely interlinked. If the Armenian government wants to make progress in its economy, it should start engaging, constructively, on the UN resolution of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, based on norms and principles of international law.
“Relations with neighboring Georgia can be seen as a winner for Georgia and can be a winning proposition and implemented and applied to Armenia as well. But for that to happen, Armenia first and foremost, must withdraw its troops from seized lands of Azerbaijan.
“In inter-state relations, the rule of law must also prevail. Under the Charter of the United Nations, Armenia must also fulfill its international obligations and commitments.
“We are waiting with an open mind to resolve the conflict and have Armenia join the region’s vision of cooperation and prosperity.”
Not that Azerbaijan is a thorn in the United States’ foreign policy, but I am curious to know about the relations between the two countries, especially because as of recent, John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Advisor visited Azerbaijan.
NG: “Mr. Hajiyev, can you please tell me about Azerbaijan’s relations with my country, the United States of America?”
Mr. Hajiyev: “In the early days of Azerbaijan’s independence the United States support was immense. Without the support of the United States, we would not have been able to realize Azerbaijan’s energy projects, which strengthened the country’s independence and that of our partners. We do appreciate that the USA supports the Southern Gas Corridor Project, an initiative to bring natural gas of Azerbaijan to the European market. The United States is also one of the co-chair countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group. US and Azerbaijan’s soldiers, participated, shoulder to shoulder, in peace-supporting operations in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Our troop and logistic/transit support to the mission to Afghanistan mission is still ongoing. The two countries hold healthy and friendly relations.
NG: “What about Russia to your north?”
Mr. Hajiyev: “We have strategic partnership relations, and we hold high level and intense dialogue with our neighboring Russia.”
NG: “And on the same path, what about Turkey to your south-west just pass Iran?”
Mr. Hajiyev: “With Turkey, we have brotherly, very close relations along with ethnic kinship.”
I now entered a new arena on of Azerbaijan’s democracy format.
NG: “Please explain to me what I often hear that Azerbaijan’s democracy can be questioned?”
Mr. Hajiyev: “We are a young country that declared its independence only on October 18, 1991. Democracy is not a final destination, but rather an ongoing process. Azerbaijan is on the path of democratic development. There is no one single model of democracy, or one size fits all approach in democracy. In the democracy-building process, a guarantee social-economic, cultural and religious rights are as equally important as civil-political rights. It is an integral process that we can effectively see in Azerbaijan.
“Figures speak for themselves. In terms of investment per-capita, Azerbaijan is one of the leading countries on a global scale. More than 260 billion US dollars have been invested in our economy, and half of that is foreign investments. At the same time, we implement target-oriented social policy. Major investments in this field are made in human capital. During the last 15 years, the poverty level in Azerbaijan has decreased from 49% to 5.4% and 2 million new jobs were created.
“Meanwhile, the level of literacy in Azerbaijan is close to 100 %, and about 80% of the country’s population has access to the internet. More than 3200 new schools and more than 600 hospitals and medical centers were built and renovated.
“We are working on the diversification of Azerbaijan’s economy, with a focus on development of the non-oil sector. Industrial development, agriculture, tourism, and ICT sectors are among our priorities. Relatively recently the 3rd Azerbaijani satellite was launched.
“Along with new vision to improve and apply more modernity and more development aspects, Azerbaijan is now pursuing fundamental reforms in its economy, social, customs, finance, and policy, a total reform package. It is a strategic vision of Mr. Ilham Aliyev, our President. The future of Azerbaijan looks even brighter.
“We are also keeping closer eyes on international developments. In a geopolitically tectonic region, Azerbaijan is an island of stability and peace. Under such circumstances, ensuring the safety and prosperity of Azerbaijani nationals are among our priorities.”
Being a Muslim country but having rather a secular approach, I was curious to know how Azerbaijan related to the Muslim-Arab countries.
NG: “Please tell me what is Azerbaijan’s relations with the Arab nations, especially because I see so many of their citizens holidaying in the hotel where I stay while in your country.”
Mr. Hajiyev: “With the Arab countries, especially with the Gulf nations, we have intensity of tourism and traditionally good and friendly relations.”
NG: “Mr. Hajiyev, I always like to close an interview with a message by the interviewee. What is yours?”
For a brief moment, Mr. Hajiyev looked puzzled as to what kind of message he can come up with, and he then smiled and said, “I will give a message to Armenia.”
Mr. Hajiyev: “My message is to some people in Armenian diaspora or its lobby. Instead of finding ways to pass unnecessary resolutions, learn from the Jews in the diaspora. They do not live in the Jewish homeland, but they contribute a great deal to help, in any way possible, and strengthen Israel.
“What some members of Armenian diaspora are doing is constantly pushing Armenia into enmity and revenge. That will not make Armenia achieve the progress it needs.
“Instead of wasting money on negativity, some members of Armenian diaspora should encourage and support investing in their former homeland. Armenia can enjoy prosperity and peace, and the Armenian people can have dignity. Stop using negative propaganda and misusing funds negatively. Direct your energy to help Armenia, not leading it to more failure. Armenia’s future depends on good neighborly relations.”
I am very fond of Azerbaijan and its most hospitable people. I am sure other people who visited the country feel the very same and some would even consider staying there permanently. So, I asked Mr. Hajiyev, “what are the laws to immigrate and gain citizenship in your country?”
Mr. Hajiyev: “A person who wants to gain Azerbaijani citizenship must live in the country for five consecutive years; he or she can then apply for citizenship that is submitted to a governmental commission that makes the final decision, based on several factors.”
Mr. Hajiyev volunteers his own interview conclusion: “Today, Azerbaijan is standing firm on its prosperity and good development feet.
“Some Azerbaijanis who left the country to seek better opportunities are returning home. That includes Jewish community members who, in the early 90s, left Azerbaijan for economic reasons.
“As a young democracy, Azerbaijan has already proven to be a responsible member of the international community.
“We now realize that we are on the threshold of fighting extremism, radicalization terrorism, and even illegal immigration.”
NG: That is fine, only that the Internet has become a curse when it comes to all these evil-doings you are facing. One cannot block such from the public domain.”
Mr. Hajiyev: “So, we have come up with our own vaccination: education. Our literacy is 100%, and among females, the literacy is extremely high. Educated people make good citizenry.”
I could have taken more time to inquire about so many other subjects on fascinating Azerbaijan for which Mr. Hajiyev could have given me many more profound explanations. After all, my first impression of him was that he feels, smells and touches every aspect of his homeland. That has not changed.
As I was leaving, the Ambassador of Hungary walked into Mr. Hajiyev’s office to hold a meeting. After all, this is his job, foreign policy.
Azerbaijan is a very astute international relations chess player.
Thank you Mr. Hikmat Hajiyev and thank you Azerbaijan for letting me getting acquainted with you.