Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attended last month’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, held there a series of meetings with world leaders. Among them, one is particularly cherished by Israel, it is Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, because of the strategic alliance that exists between Jerusalem and Baku.
‘Azerbaijani-Israeli relations develop and nothing can hinder this’, said recently a senior official from Israel’s foreign ministry about the cooperation between the two countries who share many similarities: old nations but young countries, democratic values, hostile and unstable environment, importance of human life and family, many ethnic groups living side by side, need to fight a distorted image and hostile propaganda campaign. Like Israel, Azerbaijan criticizes ‘those who don’t want to see the reality on the ground’.
“The Azerbaijani-Israeli strategic partnership relation encompasses many different areas, like energy, security, defense, agriculture, trade but it is also mostly characterized by the human factor, with a vibrant Jewish community in Azerbaijan,” Hikmat Hajiyev, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan told EJP in Baku, the country’s capital, located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, a city which mixes modernity and tradition.
The Jewish community of Azerbaijan, with around 30,000 people, is viewed today as an example in the world how in a secular country with a majority Muslim Shia population, which borders Iran in its southern part, all faith communities, including Judaism, live in perfect harmony and mutual respect.
There are 7 synagogues in the country, including two in Baku and three in Quba, an old city in the north east of the country, also dubbed the ‘Jerusalem of the Caucasus’, where an entire Jewish population, known as Mountains Jews, lives. The sole example in the world of a Jewish city outside Israel.
Moreover, a new Jewish Museum is being build with government financial support in Quba.
70,000 Azerbaijani Jews made aliyah – the Hebrew word for immigration- to Israel in the years just after the country gained independence in 1991 from the former Soviet Union when economic hardship preceded the oil booming.
Israel, which opened an embassy in Baku as early as in 1992, buys oil from Azerbaijan, through the Baku-Tbilisi-Cyehan pipeline, while Azerbaijan is interested in Israel’s technologies, science, medical know how and is importing defense-related equipment. Annual trade between the two countries amounts $5 billion and there is a twice weekly flight between Baku and Tel Aviv.
There is an Azerbaijani-Israeli parliamentary friendship group and the ADA University in Baku, which hosted former President Shimon Peres, is partnering with the University of Haifa for an exchange of students every semester.
On the political side, it is worthy to mention that both countries face the same kind of ‘double standard’ attitude from the international community, and particularly from the European Union.
Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, is targeted by the Western media and also the EU political echelon for its ‘settlement policy’.EU-Israel political relations are showing strains since the EU decided last November to label Israeli settlement products entering the European market. A measure denounced as ‘discriminatory’ by Jerusalem.
“With our friends in Israel we had a very open discussion. This is not an issue for us. Our view is not different from the mainstream view of Israel’s society and Israel’s government. We have no problem with importing such products in Azerbaijan,” replies Hikmat Hajyev, when asked about his country’s position on the labelling question, as he argues that people in the settlements are working to get salaries. “If you stop importing their products, they will lose their jobs” he says.
According to him, the two-state solution “is the only guarantee for sustainable peace in this part of the world and for the security and safety of the Israeli people.”
Azerbaijan, too, is regularly denouncing ‘double standards’ by the European Union and the media, when it comes to the image of the country and also regarding the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenia since 1992 along with 7 other adjacent regions, taking up 20% of the Azerbaijani territory. Since then one million of refugees have been forced to flee their homes in the disputed areas.
The two countries signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994 and since the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group – Russia, France and the US- are holding peace negotiations.
“We are witnessing regular unfair criticism and attacks in the European Parliament against Azerbaijan,” deplores Bahar Muradova, Vice President of the Milli Mejlis, the country’s 125-member parliament, and chairperson of the Human Rights committee.
Herself a refugee from one of the 7 occupied districts, she deplores the difference of attitude of the EU when it comes to this conflict and the one adopted by Brussels towards Russia following the annexation of Crimea.
“This is very disappointing because we attach a lot of importance to our relationship with the EU,” she said.
As a result of an ‘offensive’ resolution of the EU parliament last September on the so-called ‘violation of human rights’ in Azerbaijan, Baku suspended its participation in the Euronest parliamentary assembly, a forum in the framework of EU’s Eastern Partnership grouping members of national parliaments from Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
In her conversation with EJP, Muradova was proud to say that “Azerbaijan is the only country where there is no anti-Semitism”, contrary to what is happening in several countries of Europe.
Moreover, despite the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, there are 30,000 Armenians living peacefully in Azerbaijan, she explained. “Isn’t this tolerance and respect of human rights ?,” the MP asked.
Turning to the succesful integration of one million refugees from Nagorno Karabakh region, she believes the EU, which is increasingly coping with the migrant crisis, has to learn from Azerbaijan’s experience.
Despite the ‘cooling’ in its relation with the EU, Azerbaijan attaches great importance and hope in the upcoming visit to Baku of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
“We expect this visit will lift all misunderstandings and revitalize our relations,” says Dr Azay Guliev, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament who also chairs the Council of State Support to NGOs, as he explained that his country has proposed and initiated a strategic partnership with the EU based on close cooperation.
“We are not asking for money, we are not troublemakers, we are not sendig migrants to Europe. We only want equal partnership,” notes the foreign ministry’s spokesperson ahead of Mogherini’s visit in March.
But both him and Guliyev are stressing that the EU leadership must recognize the inviolability of Azerbaijan’s international borders and territorial integrity in conformity with international law when it comes to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
“If you support Ukraine or Georgia’s integrity, why not supporting Azerbaijan’s integrity ?”, Guliyev asks. “We hope that this conflict will end peacefully and that the occupied territory will be returned to Azerbaijan”, he says.
Mogherini will also be hearing from her Azerbaijani hosts how much the country cherishes its multiculturalism and tolerance – two notions regularly praised by the EU leaders in their speeches.
Soon after her visit, the country will host the Global Forum of United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, which was established to eliminate the tension between the West and the Islamic world. Holding this forum in Azerbaijan in 2016- which has been named Year of Multiculturalism in the country- is not only symbolic.
“Our multiculturalism should be developed as an example for the rest of the world at a time when anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are the main threats to our common home”, says Azay Guliyev.
“Wasn’t Azerbaijan the first country to give voting rights to women in 1918, even before the US did so ?” he asks to counter his country’s critics.