Azerbaijan comes to Denver
By Chris Leppek
February 5, 2015
Intermountain Jewish News
NASIMI AGHAYEV, Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan, is a
remarkably patient envoy.
He admits that he’s grown accustomed to the blank stares with which
many Americans and others often greet him when he tells them that he
represents Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim, former Soviet republic in the
Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia that is now an independent nation.
Often, the affable and articulate consul general told the
Intermountain Jewish News in an interview last week, people not only
don’t know where Azerbaijan is, they don’t know what it is.
Even those who are better informed–who know something, for example,
of the bloody Nagorno-Karabakh War in the late 80s and early 90s
during which Azerbaijan lost a significant piece of its territory to
neighboring Armenia and ethnic Armenian militants–often know very
little else about Azerbaijan.
That’s OK with Aghayev. Informing Americans about his homeland, its
history, culture, geography, economy and future aspirations is a major
part of his job.
Founded in 1991, Azerbaijan is a relatively new nation, he explains.
It is a long way from North America, in a region in which, until
recently, the US has never had a major presence, and it has never had
a substantial immigrant population in the US.
Not to mention, he adds with a wry smile, the name Azerbaijan is
rather difficult for Americans to pronounce.
Based in Los Angeles–in the same building housing Israel’s consulate,
he notes significantly–Aghayev is responsible for 13 Western states,
He came to Denver to meet with Colorado state legislators and to be
honored by the Colorado Senate for his work in promoting ties and
friendship between Colorado and Azerbaijan.
He also hoped to meet potential business partners here, and to make
contacts for trade, education and other sorts of exchanges.
He asked for a meeting with the IJN, Aghayev added, because he wants
to establish and expand ties with Colorado’s Jewish community.
Having a positive relationship with American Jews, he says, is very
important to Azerbaijan, as are its strong political, economic,
cultural and military ties with the State of Israel.
Azerbaijanis, Aghayev says, consider their close ties to Jews an
integral part of their heritage, something of which they are clearly
`We’re trying to set a good example and show the whole world that it’s
possible for Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together in peace
and harmony. We have a strong societal foundation for that.’
Some 30,000 to 35,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan today, Aghayev says, a
few of them descending from European Ashkenazi communities, but most
of them descendants of the so-called Mountain Jews (also known as
Caucasus or Kavkazi Jews) who have lived in the greater Caucasian
region for a very long time.
`It’s a very vibrant community,’ he says, `an ancient community that
has been there over 2,000 years.’
Ethnically, culturally and religiously distinct from the Georgian and
Bukharan Jewish communities, which are based in different parts of
Caucasia, the Mountain Jews originated in ancient Persia. To this day
they speak a distinctive hybrid of ancient Farsi and Hebrew.
Many of the Mountain Jews have traditionally lived in the Quba region,
in a town whose Azeri name equated with `Jewish town,’ since this was
a place where Azerbaijani rulers guaranteed Jews rights of residency.
In the 20th century, after the Soviet Union absorbed Azerbaijan, the
town’s name was changed to `Red town,’ Aghayev says.
For some 16 centuries, Azerbaijani Jews have resided in an
overwhelmingly Muslim region. Today, Aghayev says, Azerbaijan is 92%
Muslim, with small Christian, Hindu and other minorities. Jews
constitute only some .10% of the current population.
Yet anti-Semitism–and religious discrimination in general–is
virtually unknown in Azerbaijan, he emphasizes.
`Through all these centuries, Jews have lived in Azerbaijan amidst
Muslim Azerbaijanis without any persecution, any pogroms, any
International studies on anti-Semitism back up that claim, with most
citing very low rates of anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan.
There are Islamic political activists, however, who routinely express
anti-Semitic and anti-Christian sentiments, and Azerbaijani
authorities have more than once arrested terrorist cells, backed by
both Iranian and Arab sources, that were likely planning attacks
against Jewish or Israeli targets.
Aghayev stresses that modern Azerbaijan is led by a government
committed to democratic and secular values.
`The government is separate from religion but it respects all
religious freedoms,’ he says. `For us, all religions are equal and
they all receive the same amount of attention from the government. So
we are building mosques, synagogues, churches.’
In 2011, for example, the central government built a new synagogue for
the Jewish community in the capital of Baku. More recently, Aghayev
played an instrumental role in obtaining a sefer Torah for the
congregation, asking Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles
to help raise funds from his congregants.
This week, Aghayev presided over a ceremony in Los Angeles in which
the Torah was presented to members of the Baku congregation.
Speaking a few days before its occurrence, he said, `It will be a
milestone event in the history of the Azerbaijani Jewish-American
LONG AGO, the region constituting modern Azerbaijan–a mostly
mountainous land with spectacular alpine views to rival those of
Colorado–was traversed by the legendary Silk Road, a critical trade
route of the ancient world.
Aghayev contends that the region’s exposure to so many traveling
traders from distant lands cultivated its sense of acceptance.
Although that exposure had its downsides, he concedes–`we’ve had many
uninvited guests as well’–Azerbaijan `has been a meeting place of
civilizations, cultures and religions.
`The Silk Road helped the development of the country. It also helped
develop this culture of respecting and accepting each other.’
The attitude is not well-defined by the word tolerance, Aghayev adds,
since tolerance implies a negative–that somebody needs to be
`tolerated’ despite their differences.
`In Azerbaijan, it transcends tolerance. It’s mutual acceptance,
mutual respect and celebration of each other’s culture. It’s a good
example for many others, especially in these turbulent times.’
Modern Azerbaijan is doing its best to maintain that historical
tradition, aspiring, in Aghayev’s words, `to build good relations with
all the countries in the world.’
It has `normal relations’ with most of its neighbors, including Russia
and Iran, and boasts `an excellent relationship’ with the US and
It has opened up energy development to such Western energy giants as
Amoco, BP and Total, and has a pipeline transferring oil through
Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea.
Much of that oil ends up in Israel, with which Azerbaijan also has strong ties.
Some 50% of Israel’s petroleum comes from Azerbaijan, Aghayev says.
Israel, in turn, supplies Azerbaijan with much of its advanced
The two nations do some $4 billion in annual trade, making Azerbaijan
Israel’s largest trading partner from Central Asia in the post-Soviet
According to a 2014 study by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic
Studies of Bar-Ilan University:
`In the foreseeable future, it is likely that Azerbaijani-Israeli
relations will only increase in areas such as scientific cooperation,
information technology, medicine, water purification, agriculture and
`We’re natural allies,’ Aghayev says of Azerbaijan and Israel.
`There are similarities between Azerbaijan and Israel. We are both
islands of stability in difficult regions.’
HIS COUNTRY’S relations with Israel are close and mutually beneficial,
he says, but an atmosphere of realpolitik does hover over their ties.
While Israel was one of the first nations to formally recognize the
new state of Azerbaijan, opening an embassy in Baku in 1993,
Azerbaijan has yet to open an embassy in Jerusalem, citing its
`complicated geopolitical situation.’
That translates into the difficulties such recognition might cause
with Azerbaijan’s Muslim trading partners, most of which, including
Iran and Turkey, are hostile to Israel.
That’s also why Azerbaijan treads very carefully when commenting on
such Middle Eastern issues as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. When
asked about it, Aghayev replied in a cautious tone.
`Our position is that a two-state solution is the best one,’ he says.
`We want the Palestinians and Israelis to find a common language. We
hope that whenever they relaunch peace negotiations that they will
finally yield some results.’
Despite such carefully calculated neutrality, and the overall
diplomatic high-wire that Azerbaijan has chosen to walk, Aghayev says
his country is very serious about its desire to maintain close ties to
`There is a common perception that Israel is at war with the Muslim
world but one example–Azerbaijan–shows that to be wrong. Our
bilateral relationship shows that it’s possible.
`We’re always very honest in our relations with Israel and with the
Muslim and Arab countries. The largest organization in the Muslim
world is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which has 57
members. Last year they appointed an Azerbaijani diplomat to represent
the organization in Brussels, in the European Union.
`It shows the trust they place in Azerbaijan as a bridge-builder.’
That position, Aghayev says, says a lot about how Azerbaijan sees
itself, and its international role, in the 21st century.
`We try to be honest, not giving the perception that we doing
something behind the door,’ he says. `So we are friends with Israel
but we also have great relationships with many Muslim countries.
`And it’s working.’
IF THERE is a potential sore spot in relations between Jews and
Azerbaijanis, it likely lies in disagreements over Armenia.
Azerbaijanis’ primary perception of Armenians is as invaders, the
instigators of the early 1990s conflict that resulted in tens of
thousands of deaths, more than a million displaced Azerbaijanis and
the loss of land that Azerbaijan still considers its sovereign
territory, primarily the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Many Jews see Armenians as victims, specifically of persecution at
Turkish hands in WW I, during a forced relocation effort in which as
many as one to 1.5 million Armenians were murdered.
The more recent incident, involving Azerbaijan, is described by
Aghayev as a `huge human tragedy’ resulting from Armenia’s `war of
aggression and occupation.’
Aghayev is less dramatic in describing the earlier incident, involving
the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which he says resulted in `human
suffering’ but did not constitute genocide.
Genocide, Aghayev says, implies a deliberate and systematic effort `to
eradicate a group of people because of their ethnicity or race.’
The Nazi Holocaust against the Jews was genocide, he says, but Turkish
action against the Armenians in 1915, which took place during a
wartime relocation, was not.
Partisans on both sides of the debate have long argued, and are still
arguing, over this semantic distinction, although most historians
place themselves firmly on the side that contends that the Ottoman
actions amounted to genocide.
Ever the diplomat, Aghayev hopes to find a neutral zone between the
two sides, even while acknowledging Azerbaijan’s enmity with Armenia
and its close cultural, ethnic and religious ties with Turkey.
Azerbaijan supports the idea of creating `a joint historic
commission,’ including Armenia, Turkey and other international
participants, to investigate what really happened.
`One side is saying it was a genocide, the other says it was not a
genocide and they will never agree,’ Aghayev says.
`There are two options. Either you stay enemies forever or you try to
find a common language.’
Chris Leppek may be reached at [email protected]