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Op-ed by U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Robert F. Cekuta
One year ago, I had the great honor of presenting my credentials to President Ilham Aliyev as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan. In one of my first meetings afterward with other government officials, I was asked a straight-forward question, “Are we friends, or not?” I instantly answered “yes,” however the question is a reminder to me that relations between countries, just like relations between individuals, need continued effort and attention.
With that in mind I would like to report on my activities over this past year and review how relations between the United States and Azerbaijan are growing.
Over the last year, I have enjoyed learning about the natural beauty, fascinating history, and cultural traditions of Azerbaijan. My wife, Anne, and I have visited many parts of the country, exploring sites both on and off the beaten path. Whether at the ancient rock carvings at Gobustan, the Palace of the Sheki Khans, or hiking in Azerbaijan’s countryside, I find there is so much to see and learn I feel that I am barely scratching the surface. My engagements are wonderful opportunities to interact with Azerbaijanis and to learn about their concerns and expectations. Some of the most moving encounters have been with communities of internally displaced persons (IDPs), where I have heard firsthand about the hardships they still face and the pain they feel at being separated from their homes. These encounters have given me a clear understanding of what people care about, where the country is headed, and also of what they think about the United States.
As I have said many times, there are three main fronts in our relationship – security, democracy, and economy/energy – and I say those in no particular order. They cannot be placed in order because they cannot be separated. A healthy economy is basic to a country’s security. Economies reach their fullest potential when rule of law and respect for the individual are guaranteed, and democratic societies flourish when citizens feel secure. All of those ingredients are necessary for Azerbaijan’s long term stability and prosperity.
The United States has always firmly supported Azerbaijan’s long term stability and prosperity. Moreover, Americans want a long lasting relationship with Azerbaijan andare with Azerbaijanis for the long haul. A stable and prosperous Azerbaijan is essential for advancing those same goals of stability and prosperity regionally and globally, whether in terms of fighting terrorism, building corridors of trade and economic prosperity along both new and old routes, or working to increase the stability and diversity of global energy sources and supply routes. In a region that is seeing rapid change in very uncertain times, Azerbaijan’s importance as an anchor of stability is as crucial as ever.
Helping Azerbaijanis strengthen that stability and prosperity is one of the most important aspects of the U.S. relationship with Azerbaijan. How we have done that over the last 25 years has changed as Azerbaijan has changed, as the country has become more prosperous and has come to face new challenges. Twenty-five years ago our assistance focused on direct humanitarian aid to a country in conflict. Today we are working with Azerbaijanis in helping women and youth become more successful entrepreneurs and to support the country’s efforts to boost agricultural production and other paths to increased economic diversification. Through one of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s, (USAID), programs, the Socio Economic Development Activity, (SEDA), for example, we are working with the Azerbaijani government to support community-based projects joining local governments, citizens, and NGOs to identify local challenges and find solutions to them. Among the 59 projects completed are actions to bring potable water to villages, to rehabilitate roads, and to build medical clinics in 52 communities. Over 85,000 Azerbaijanis in the last three years benefitted, and have gained the skills to address their own social and economic needs in partnership with their government representatives in future.
Other parts of the U.S. government are active on this front as well. The U.S. military’s European Command expertise has benefited numerous communities, including IDP settlements in the Barda and Aghjabadi districts, with programs to help improve water supplies and rebuild local schools. In fact, the United States has provided over $115 million in support for IDPs since 1993, and remains committed to this segment of Azerbaijani society, just as we remain committed to working through the Minsk Group process to help realize a lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh that will enable all IDPs and refugees to return to their homes and open the door for further prosperity and stability in Azerbaijan as well as for the entire region.
2016.02.22 / 15:05