I have long had a sincere fascination with the Caucasus. With well over fifty ethnic and linguistic groups, and nearly all of Earth’s existing climate zones squeezed into an area about the size of the northeastern United States, the region represents a profound patchwork of geography and anthropology. I have always been deeply impressed by the area’s rich diversity of people and places: from the chivalry of the Vainakhs of Chechnya and Ingushetia to the mud volcanoes of Qobustan and the complexities of the Georgian language. Therefore, I was thoroughly excited to visit the Republic of Azerbaijan in June of 2012.
In the spring, I won a national high school essay contest jointly sponsored by the World Affairs Councils of America and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. The two organizations challenged students across the United States to craft a mock briefing report on Azerbaijan for Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, highlighting Azerbaijan’s history, culture, and politics. This included analyzing the legacy of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-1920, and the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. I spent February researching the New York Times archives, the CIA World Factbook, and my school library to draft an essay designed to present myself as a junior policy expert.
Azerbaijan is in many ways an unexpected nation often overlooked and unknown to people in the West. It is a country of contrast between the traditional and the modern. Baku, with its crowded highways, intricate architecture, and designer boutiques rival any city in Europe. However travel outside of the bustling metropolis little has changed. Shepherds still guide their flocks across bucolic mountain vistas as they have for hundreds of years.
Even before the contest, I had developed a fascination of all things Caucasian through careful research and inquiries of the region. However, no amount of reading, could replace visiting the Caucasus and, before winning the contest, I had not traveled within a thousand miles of the Caucasus. For me, landing in Baku, and simply being on the ground among actual Azerbaijanis was in itself a remarkable experience. As we touched down at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, I was filled with expectation and excitement.
Our group was kindly hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and British Petroleum along with other government agencies and businesses. The oil industry dominates the local economy and is as much a part of Azerbaijani culture as dolma (a traditional dish made of stuffed cabbage). Frequent oil spills in the Caspian highlight significant issues between the oil industry and sustainability.
Politically, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a focal point of Azerbaijani politics and dominates public discourse. Enmity for Armenia is ever present and is sanctioned by the government. The specter of war looms ominously with no apparent resolution in sight.
On many occasions during the trip, I heard Azerbaijan’s economic development being compared with China. However, one of the key differences I see between the two is the emphasis Azerbaijan places on cultural reinforcement as it attempts to grow in the post-Soviet era. Whether talking with our tour guides, university students, government officials, or carpet vendors in the old city, most everyone in the country seems to have a passionate and overwhelming sense of optimism and pride in their nation. I admire Azerbaijan for its ability to supply key commodities (i.e. oil) to world markets, as well as the centrality of the Azerbaijani identity to the country’s future. There is indeed a fierce pride in their Caucasian roots, and from the national Mugham center, to the Flame Towers, to the iconic streets of Iceri Seher, it is apparent that economic growth is not displacing historical identity nor heritage in “The Land of Fire”.
Azerbaijan, is a young country demographically and politically. Nearly forty percent of the population is under thirty years old and the country achieved its independence only twenty years ago. While Azerbaijan continues to struggle with unique, regional problems in a post-Soviet world, I agree with the Azerbaijanis that I spent time with when I say that the future nonetheless seems bright. With their new place on the world stage (helped greatly by Eurovision, by the way!), I believe that the Azerbaijanis are in a fine place to assert themselves independently and proudly amidst changing global circumstances I wish them all the best, and hope to return soon. Sag ol.
Post written by Matthew Miller, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador. Matt spent this summer traveling in Azerbaijan with nine other students from across the US. He is in the 11th grade at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, PA.