The tragic events in Kyrgyzstan remind us of the most unfortunate chapters of Eurasia’s recent history, when the news from the former Soviet Union was dominated by stories of conflict and violence. Over the years, the United States has participated in a mostly successful effort to bring about regional stability and development, and it is important to follow through with this long-term vision. The upcoming visit of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the South Caucasus offers a unique opportunity to do just that.
Some recently suggested that focusing solely on the U.S. military base in dealing with Kyrgyzstan was a mistake. Perhaps the issue is greater, because focusing on any single aspect in a complex Eurasian region is counterproductive. Experience has shown that neither detachment nor simplified, one-dimensional approaches can be winners here. Strong, sustainable partnerships are built on long-term strategic interests and understanding. Herein lies an important challenge the United States faces in Eurasia: Achieving both strategic and tactical goals requires outlook and commitment.
For instance, the Obama administration’s initial focus in the Caucasus has been to push the opening of the Armenia-Turkey border at any cost, even as it forgot to appoint a U.S. ambassador in Baku. This is a noble objective, yet, realistically, it can only be achieved through recognizing regional realities and as a part of a wider strategic vision. America’s own policy in the late 1990s provides a good example. By looking at a wide range of objectives, including energy security, economic development, democratic reforms and security cooperation, the United States built strong versatile partnerships and helped the emerging nations establish themselves as full-fledged members of the international community. This was the time when Caspian energy, especially the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline became an integral part of the global energy infrastructure; Euro-Atlantic integration had become the priority; and democratic reforms made serious progress paving the road for the three nations of the South Caucasus - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia - to join the Council of Europe.
It is, therefore, a positive step that when Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was in Baku early last month to discuss security cooperation and Afghanistan in particular, the letter he delivered from President Obama emphasized the need to broaden U.S.-Azerbaijani relations in all spheres. Today, Azerbaijan is a nonideological, pragmatic and independent player committed to guarding its national interests first and foremost. In terms of regional stability and long-term U.S. interests, such pragmatism is exactly what is needed. No less important is that notions of tolerance and inclusiveness dominate Azerbaijan’s social discourse.
In fact, democratic reforms are best advanced through engagement within a comprehensive context. Throughout the region, much remains to be done, but the steady progress should not be overlooked. In Azerbaijan, from establishment of the transparency-award-winning State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan to rapidly growing levels of economic development to constantly modernizing social and political institutions, the process of nation-building has been vibrant and transformative. The reality is that, while some critics focus on existing imperfections and obvious shortcomings, institutional reforms take time and effort and are best advanced by evolutionary change. Being well-worn doesn’t make this argument less valid. An organically grown product is more sustainable, and, as I have learned in California, anything organic has more value.
The vibrancy of Azerbaijan’s domestic political discussion is demonstrated, among other things, by the fact that opposition politicians voice critical views in their many publications in the country and occasionally on the pages of the foreign press. Yet, our citizens expect more than simple criticism and look for hands-on, credible policies aimed at delivering essential services, growth, stability and reforms. This is the main reason why President Ilham Aliyev is, overwhelmingly, the most popular politician in the country.
Stability and functional state institutions are the necessary starting points for overall progress. The United States (in fact, all major regional players) benefit from having stronger, viable nations in our region capable of fulfilling their commitments. One formula for that is resolving existing conflicts. As the situation in Georgia in 2008 showed us, unsolved conflicts cause major flash points capable of undermining the advances already made. In the South Caucasus, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict remains the main challenge to sustainable peace and security. Whether to support the shaky status quo based on the use of force against civilians and division in isolated single-ethnicity enclaves or to support a vision for the region based on integration and prosperity should be a no-brainer.
As Mrs. Clinton embarks on this regional tour, what seems to work best for the United States is a pursuit of a lasting, thorough and predictable U.S. strategy of engagement. Incidentally, this helps strengthen democratic institutions as well.
Elin Suleymanov is Azerbaijan’s consul general in Los Angeles.