Azerbaijan, oil and the 21st century

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Baku, 12 June 2015 –

In 2015, oil means energy, natural gas means energy; oil and natural gas mean money, power and entry into the 21st century.

We find that to be true in Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus Mountains, bordering Iran to the south, Turkey and Armenia to the west, with Georgia and Russia to the north. History has been made here since the days of the Silk Road.

I visited a Muslim mosque constructed 800 years ago and the touched walls of Baku's "Old City," a walled fortress from which Azerbaijanis battled Persians and Russians for hundreds of years. Baku, Azerbaijan's capital city, surrounds the historical fortress with hotels, office buildings and a totally modern city.

I walked on land that Marco Polo did in 1271 when he made famous the Silk Road between Europe and Asia. Instead of the horses and camels of Polo's day, the Silk Road is now full of Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Hondas, Fords, Chevrolets, Volkswagens and GMC SUVs.

Baku had been a world leader in oil production since the 1880s; without that oil, in World War II the Soviets could not have resisted the Germans in for months, maybe even weeks. In fact, Azerbaijan produced 80 percent of all the oil and gas used by the Soviet army throughout the entire war.

Hitler sent hundreds of thousands of German soldiers to die on the road to Baku and its oil. They never reached it.

In 1990-91, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev plunged a dying Soviet Union into a black hole by sending Soviet soldiers to kill and wound hundreds of civilian men and women in Baku on one night in 1990; from that night emerged an independent Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan stumbled as an independent country to begin with; it only had two years (1918-1920) of democratic experience in its entire history.

To compound the chaos, Armenian invaders attacked Azerbaijan, claiming thousands of square miles of its territory, focusing on Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh (Karabakh means "black garden"). Armenians were aided by Russian troops and Iranian logistical support in occupying Azerbaijani territory, from which they promptly expelled Azerbaijan citizens in an ethnic cleansing exercise unseen since World War II, according to scholar Thomas de Waal in his book Black Garden.

Armenians still occupy almost one-fifth of Azerbaijan in 2015. The U.N. Security Council has issued several resolutions condemning Armenia for its invasion of Azerbaijan, which Armenia ignores.

Nonetheless, the 80 percent of Azerbaijan that Armenia doesn't occupy has become a modern country bursting with vision, construction and energy unrivaled in the part of the world so few know about. Modernization started under the country's first effective post-independent presidency, Heydar Aliyev (his two immediate predecessors were not effective).

Located on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, oil production has leveled off but new discoveries of oil and natural gas deposits have led a senior executive of the national oil company, SOCAR, to comment that they can deliver, to Europe specifically, oil and gas for a hundred years – even if they don't make any new discoveries.

Outside the walled 13th-century Old City, the eyes are exhausted from seeing the new construction occurring in all parts of the city.

Gleaming high-rise buildings are everywhere. New hotels, new office buildings and new apartments selling for as little as $55,000 are sprouting throughout the city.

More important than buildings are the people. Azerbaijan is a 90-percent Muslim country. Yet it is the most diverse country this writer has ever experienced outside the U.S.

In a single day, I visited two mosques; a Roman Catholic Church with a Czech-born priest who answers directly to the Pope; a Russian Orthodox Church and a working and thriving Jewish synagogue in downtown Baku.

The synagogue was built and gifted to the Jewish community by Aliyev. The two Jews I spoke with floored me with their energy and enthusiasm for a tolerant Azerbaijan. Other than the Soviet era, Azerbaijan Jews have lived without persecution for almost 2,000 years. The Jews are free.

One "Mountain Jew" – a group so-named because they live in the foothills of the Caucasus – told me that he had grown up under the Soviets and was not allowed to live freely, like now. His Guba Jewish community is 3,000 strong (out of an estimated 30,000 Jews nationally). They are happy now, free and proud to be citizens of Azerbaijan. Jewish leaders told me that in a synagogue the Soviets had not allowed to exist.

In the same day, I took my shoes off to enter two Muslim mosques, crossed myself with holy water in a Roman Catholic Church and wore a yarmulke in a synagogue, as did Muslims with me.

Besides the ubiquitous new construction, the most instant example of an energetic country is in being the site of the first-ever European Games – starting today, June 12 – in which 6,000 athletes will compete in new facilities, including a stadium holding 68,000. The European Games' paid-staff numbers 2,000, of which 25 percent are Azeris. Three-thousand officials will man the Games, as will 10,000 volunteers. (The country will host another mammoth Olympic-style event next year, the Islamic Solidarity Games, staffed by newly experienced sports administrators.)

Israel will be there at the European Games, in a Muslim nation that welcomes Israel as a trading partner; a Muslim country that supports and cherishes its Jewish residents. Even Armenia will participate in the Games, despite a state of war existing between both countries interrupted by a 20-year-long cease-fire.

Sitting in a sidewalk cafe, this writer counted the number of Azerbaijani women walking by and was struck by the number of women that weren't "covered" by head scarves, as required in other Muslim countries. That was living proof of modern Azerbaijan being a secular and tolerant state. Of all the women, I counted only three out of 100 who were covered. When I mentioned this to the British CEO of the European Games, he said he would have bet that it was only one in 200.

Azerbaijan is a vital energetic, proudly multicultural country built on ancient history, religious tolerance and secularism, hydrocarbons and an educated people bursting with energy, vision and optimism. They deeply desire to be part of a modern secular Western world; they very work hard at it.

Raoul Lowery Contreras, contributor

Source: The Hill

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