As the world focuses on the passing of Hugo Chavez and the impact of his socialist policies on oil-rich Venezuela, halfway around the globe a different kind of leader has been quietly transforming his country into a prosperous and reliable partner of the West. Since assuming the presidency in 2003, Ilham Aliyev, the 52-year old Azerbaijani head of state, has used his country’s vast energy resources to make the transition from a centrally planned economy to a free and prosperous one. While socialism has ruined Venezuela’s enormous potential, Mr. Aliyev’s adoption of market capitalism has transformed his country into the Kuwait of the former Soviet Union with an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of 24 percent over the past 10 years.
Chavez’s governing style was to put demagoguery before country. In Mr. Aliyev, Azerbaijanis have a leader who has put his country before ideology. For example, unlike Chavez, who drove away American energy companies, Mr. Aliyev has welcomed cooperation with the likes of Exxon and Chevron. The results are phenomenal: Azerbaijan’s 1 million barrels per day of oil is exported via pipeline to consumers around the world without any glitch, and its oil fund now stands at more than $35 billion. Unlike Chavez, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mr. Aliyev does not use his country’s oil as a weapon. Instead, he shares Washington’s vision of an uninterrupted flow of oil and gas from the landlocked Caspian Sea to international markets.
Unlike Chavez, who spent his time with thugs and anti-Semites such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Aliyev has steered this Shia Muslim nation of 8 million clear of religious fundamentalism. When one meets with this forward-looking leader, the first topic of conversation is the importance of religious tolerance. Mr. Aliyev and a majority of Azerbaijanis pride themselves on having created a society whose foundation rests on cultural and religious coexistence. While operatives of the Iranian regime kill Israeli tourists around the world, Mr. Aliyev takes pride in inaugurating synagogues and churches in downtown Baku.
On foreign policy, while Chavez became the ringleader of the anti-American club, Mr. Aliyev has promoted friendly ties with the United States. Immediately after the attacks on our country on Sept. 11, 2001, Azerbaijan extended its hand of cooperation in the war against terrorism. Today, troops from Azerbaijan serve in Afghanistan carrying out dangerous missions alongside American soldiers. In fact, according to Sen. John McCain, Azerbaijan’s special forces have performed critical operations with courage and skill.
Mr. Aliyev also understands that we live in the 21st century and is investing his country’s wealth in the future. The recent launch of Azerspace I is a clear example of his forward-thinking approach. The satellite was manufactured by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., supporting 1,500 American jobs. He understands that growing the nascent satellite industry will boost his country’s intellectual capacity and knowledge stream through constant research and education. It is not surprising that 2013 was declared the year of information and communications technologies by the president. The launch of Azerspace marks another milestone in the partnership between Washington and Baku.
Although Azerbaijan is making steady progress in its transition to a free-market economy and an elevated standard of living for its citizens, challenges remain. The legacy of human rights violations and corruption inherited from Soviet times has presented some bumps on the road to smoother bilateral relations between the United States and Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, under the leadership of Mr. Aliyev, Azerbaijan is making the arduous transition to a democracy. Washington must work with Baku in order to address these issues, but also remember that America’s transition to a free and fair country took many years.
In recognition of Azerbaijan’s role as a reliable and responsible ally in the broader Middle East and its strategic location (situated between a belligerent Russia and theocratic Iran), Washington should take two immediate steps to further broaden and strengthen this relationship: First, the United States must make a more robust effort at the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. President Obama’s second term affords no domestic political land mines. Since the new secretary of state, John F. Kerry, is known to be a friend of Armenia and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is a good friend of Azerbaijan, it is in U.S. national security interest to end this “frozen” conflict. Second, Mr. Obama should invite Mr. Aliyev to the White House to show America’s appreciation to a friend and ally. Beyond showing our appreciation, we must send a signal to Moscow and Tehran that we will not tolerate any adventurism or pushing around of smaller countries in the region.
As the world contemplates the effects of Chavez’s rule of Venezuela, it is a useful moment to consider how a very different kind of leadership in a strategically important, energy-rich country has led not to confrontation, but to partnership. Azerbaijan still has some work to do in building its democratic institutions, but in the meantime, it has been laying the foundations of economic prosperity for its people. For an example of how Venezuela could have turned out better, one need only look at Azerbaijan.
• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.