|Jerusalem and Baku|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
As part of our tour of Jewish communities around the world, we decided to go to Azerbaijan, where we met Israel’s ambassador, H.E. Arthur Lenk, who received us very warmly at his residence. Since the creation of Shalom, we have interviewed many Israeli ambassadors, including in Moscow, Beijing and South Africa. But there was something special about the interview in Baku, because this is the only Israeli ambassador in a secular, Shiite Moslem country.
Located at the foot of the Caucasus, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, this little country has a strategic and political location of the utmost importance. A quick glance at the geography of the neighboring countries is very instructive. To the south is the frontier with Iran, to the north with Dagestan, which is a part of Russia; and on the west it is bordered by three states, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. The concentration of forces that surrounds this oil- and natural gas-rich country alone explains how significant and important is the Israeli presence here in this region.
Before telling us about the relations between the two countries, could you sketch for us the special nature of your mission in Azerbaijan?
Rather than answering your question directly, I would like to state several points that I think are fundamental. Today there are just three Shiite Muslim states in the world, Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan. The sad situation in Iraq and the Iranian reality daily make headline news. Azerbaijan is a secular country in the fullest sense of the word, and separation of what we might call “Church and State” is much more marked and real than in Israel, in several European countries, and certainly stricter than in the USA or France. At the same time, we are in a young country that has only existed 15 years, which left the Soviet fold having been stripped of everything by the Russians. So the country had first of all to forge a national identity, which had been totally eradicated by the Russians. In this connection, it is interesting to note that even though the practice of Judaism had been forbidden under the Soviets, there nonetheless existed several synagogues in Azerbaijan and the semblance of Jewish life. Islam, on the other hand, was totally prohibited. The result has been that the Azeris, who are Muslims, do not have the fundamentalist element in their practice of religion. Whereas for us Jews, the total absence of religious freedom is unacceptable, we have to note that Soviet influence has created an entirely secular, Muslim society, which is unique in the world. The family of President Heydar Aliyev, which has run the country since 1993, wanted a country that was certainly religious, but above all nationalist, tolerant and open to the world. To illustrate what I am saying, I will quote a couple of specific examples. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the Jewish New Year in 2005, President Aliyev invited the dignitaries of the local Jewish community to wish them a happy new year. At the beginning of 2006, President Aliyev went to Brussels to sign a cooperation agreement on energy with the Europeans. At that visit he asked to meet representatives of the Jewish community and the Rabbi. And lastly, when I went to the two largest synagogues in Baku on Rosh Hashanah 2006, in each a representative of the President read out his greetings for the New Year while I passed on those of the President of Israel. We thus have a clear message from the President of Azerbaijan, who wants it known that he wishes Jews to feel at home in this country.
Getting back to your question, you have to understand that when we assess our relations with a country, several criteria are taken into consideration: the quality of diplomatic relations, the balance of trade, how the country votes at the UN etc. Personally, the most important issue is to know the status of Jews in the country in question. Are they truly protected? Do they feel secure? That is the first question Israel should ask before getting involved in other subjects to do with bilateral issues. As I have told you, in Azerbaijan not only are the Jews well treated, but they are also an integral part of society. Today around 10,000 Jews still live here, the overwhelming majority in Baku. Almost 50,000 left for Israel immediately after independence in 1991, and here in Baku there is a Jewish Member of Parliament, Mr. Yevda Abramov. In Israel one member of the Knesset is from Azerbaijan, Joseph Shagal, who came on aliyah at the age of 41. In this connection, I would like to mention an interesting anecdote. For Israel Independence Day celebrations we organized a large concert. Mr. Shagal was in Baku. On the evening he turned up hand in hand with the Jewish Azeri Member of Parliament, Mr. Yevda Abramov. I can assure you that was a very emotional moment.
You are running the closest Israeli embassy to Teheran. What does that mean in your daily work?
I ought to be a bit disturbed by that situation, but in fact I feel relatively secure here. I think I can venture to say that my colleagues posted to Cairo or in Jordan are less at ease than I am in Baku. Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are quite interesting. This little country, which in terms of area is four times larger than Israel, in fact has a small population (8.2 million inhabitants). At the same time, Iran has a large number of ethnic minorities, the largest being Azerbaijani, representing practically a quarter of the population. These people, whom estimates put at between 20 and 30 million, are spread out throughout the North of Iran, so much so that some Azeris refer to this area as “Southern Azerbaijan”. Political unification can clearly not be envisioned, even in the long-term. Having said which, family ties cross the border. This situation is not unlike in Israel at the rebirth of the State, where about a million Jews were living while several million more lived abroad. This situation rather complicates relations between the two countries, which, we will recall, share a long border. Azerbaijan thus has no choice but to maintain good relations with Teheran. When the country became independent, it obviously took note of its immense oil riches, most of which can be extracted from the Caspian Sea. Remember that at the beginning of the 20th century, almost half the world’s oil came from Azerbaijan. By the way, all those magnificent buildings we see today in old Baku date from that glorious period, and were in part built by the Nobel family and the French branch of the Rothschilds. In 1991, presented with this manna from heaven, the government was faced with a fundamental question, how to sell and transport the oil from the Caspian Sea? There were three solutions available. The first was to construct a short pipeline that in turn would connect with the major Russian pipeline, which would have permitted the possibility of quickly selling the oil and filling the State’s coffers that were desperately empty. However, the country had just freed itself from the Soviet yoke and so had not the slightest intention of mortgaging its energy independence to Moscow. The second logical option was to turn to the South. Iran is one of the world’s largest oil exporters, and it has all the infrastructure needed to receive and transfer Azeri oil, plus an opening onto the Persian Gulf. But in a way that meant mortgaging the future by putting themselves entirely in the hands of the Mullahs. In 1994, President Heydar Aliyev, today considered the Father of the Nation in the same way as Ataturk is in Turkey, had the brilliant idea of entering into what is commonly called “the contract of the century”. This was an agreement signed with the largest oil companies in the world, in particular BP and several American companies, which awarded them the right to extract Azeri oil on condition that they participated in the financing of a new pipeline, linked neither to north or south, but rather independent, following the western route of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan. The terminal is at the port of Ceyhan, located on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. The construction cost of this1,500 km oil pipeline was then estimated at $3 billion, which was equal to the country’s GDP. From 2008 it is expected that it will transport one million barrels per day to Europe and other countries that can be reached by sea. The importance of the vision of the Father of the Nation needs to be understood. It was not just that Azerbaijan did not have the wherewithal or any basic infrastructure; everything was missing: roads, hospitals, an adequate educational system etc. And what’s more, the country had just had 16% of its territory amputated, lost in Nagorno-Karabakh during the war with Armenia. Despite all that, President Ilham Aliyev decided to launch the project, convinced that in the medium- and long-term he would emerge the winner and be able to create the basis for a modern Azerbaijan financed from its natural resources. As you can see, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy requires the remarkable skills of a tightrope walker. The neighborhood is tough and complicated, and good relations have to be maintained with all the adjacent regimes. It should be emphasized that at this time relations with Turkey are remarkably good, and one could say that Turkey is to Azerbaijan what the USA is to Israel.
So the question is, what is Israel’s exact position in this highly delicate, fragile and complex balance of powers?
Few people know it, but between 12% and 15% of the oil sold in Israel comes from Azerbaijan. Do not forget that the Ceyhan oil terminal is located just 500km from the coast of Israel. Israel, like the European countries, is on the lookout for alternatives for its oil purchases in order to obtain some independence from the Arab countries. Azerbaijan oil provides just such a solution, placing a large amount of new oil on the European market from the Mediterranean perimeter. This will not bring prices down nor change the essentials of the oil market, but it does offer a source of oil from a country allied with the Europeans and Israel and that is not a member of OPEC. It must be appreciated that the alliance between Azerbaijan and the West goes very deep. Azerbaijan sent troops to fight alongside the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Azeri airspace was employed by the American forces for flights to Afghanistan, which earned it “Most Favored Nation” status in the USA. This is all the more important since Uzbekistan has distanced itself from the West. What’s more, you have to understand that for the Iranians, what happens here is absolutely fundamental. To the east of Iran is Afghanistan, which today can be considered American territory; to the south Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are also very close to the US, while America is present in force in both Iraq and Turkey. Thus the Iranian leadership has taken good note that the westernization of Azerbaijan means effectively a sort of closure of the encirclement of isolation. This situation is reinforced by the fact that Azeri leaders announce at every opportunity that the future of their country is tied to their alliances with western nations. In these circumstances, all the ingredients exist for strengthening relations with Israel.
Do you believe Iran might launch a military operation or foment an Islamic coup d’état in Azerbaijan?
I am not convinced that this would be in Iran’s interests, even though, for all the reasons I have given, it regards Baku’s alliances with the West with a jaundiced eye. For the time being there is nothing to indicate that there are any steps in hand to set up an Islamic Republic, though nothing can be excluded.
Are there currently any particularly interesting common projects between Israel and Azerbaijan?
The cooperative agreements are extremely varied and often occur in the most surprising areas. In November 2006, for example, an Israeli company set up greenhouses north of Baku to grow strawberries there: Israeli technology (for the growing, packaging, storage etc) together with local labor. The purpose is to export strawberries to Moscow, which is much closer to Baku than to Israel. I took the Israeli businessman to the Azeri Minister of Agriculture, who not only was delighted with the project but also offered to find financing to double the capacity. On the other hand, as you will have already noted, the country’s road system is pretty decrepit. A new highway is being built to link the capital with the north of the country, and at the same time a major Israeli company has signed an agreement to build a similar highway in the western part of Azerbaijan. We have spoken a great deal about oil. If it is true that no Israeli company was involved in the construction the famous pipeline, today an increasing number of Israeli companies are involved in its operation and handle part of the security. Another interesting example concerns Azerbaijan Airlines. Among its fleet this small airline owns three Boeings, which are maintained by Israel Aircraft Industries. And cooperation extends into many other areas….
Do you keep an eye on the Jewish community in Iran?
Not really, on the one hand because the Jews do not live along the Iranian frontier, and on the other hand because those who want to leave the country use other routes and do not go through Azerbaijan.
How do you see developments in the relations between the two states?
The potential is excellent, even if for the time being Azerbaijan does not have an embassy in Israel and does not even have a non-resident ambassador. This, by the way, is strange, since 2007 marks 15 years of diplomatic relations between us. These are “diplomatic relations” in which just one of the two countries has appointed an ambassador, but nonetheless lively, solid and dynamic diplomatic relations. Without wishing to show off, I can say that our embassy in Baku is present, active and appreciated. We were welcomed with open arms at every level of government, and Israeli companies find first-class partners here. I hope that the Azeris will quickly understand that it is in fact in their interest to be present in Israel. But that is not a decision for us to take. I have to say that we understand very well their concerns and we are very aware of the fact that in the final analysis it is a Shiite Muslim country located on the border with Iran, and situated in an extremely complex geopolitical situation. Having said which, they state loud and clear that wish to cooperate at every level with Israel and with the Jews, whether or not they are Azeris.
What about immigration to Israel?
The big wave is over. Today there are still people who leave, but all Azeri Jews speak proudly of their family ties in Israel. By the way, the weekly flights are generally very full. Having said which, on account of the economic situation and the poor local labor market, many young Jews go to live in Moscow.
How would you assess anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli feeling in Azerbaijan?
I cannot say there isn’t any. Towards the end of the 2006 Lebanon war there were some anti-Semitic graffiti showing a Star of David and a swastika, which were scrubbed out in less than 12 hours without us having to do anything. Two and a half years ago a publisher wanted to publish “Mein Kampf”, but my predecessor intervened and it never got published. I think that the fight against anti-Semitism at the State level can only be tested when there is a specific case. I can confirm that Azerbaijan reacts well and reasonably. As to the press, I note with satisfaction that it is considered “pro-Israel” by our enemies. We cannot expect it be promoting Zionism, however, I have never had problems expressing myself and in getting over our point of view. During the Lebanon war I was very much in evidence on the TV shows. My Azeri is not good enough to speak in public, but there were some excellent interpreters.
At the academic level there is a certain amount of cooperation, and every Wednesday morning my personal assistant teaches a course on Israel at the main university in Baku, taken by students in international relations and Middle East studies. I am personally regularly invited to lecture at the University of Baku.
Cultural relations are growing; we had an Israeli film festival, with some showings at a little town just twenty kilometers from the Iranian border, and I took part.