Aliyev’s friendship

Israel’s unlikely ally in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban (photo credit: LUKE MACGREGOR / REUTERS)
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban
(photo credit: LUKE MACGREGOR / REUTERS)

ROUGHLY ONE week after Ilham Aliyev secured a fourth consecutive term as president of Azerbaijan last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his congratulations to the winner, a "dear friend," in a letter published in the local press.

It was an expected gesture from a reliable ally, according to Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry officials, who spoke of Netanyahu with regard during my recent visit there. Netanyahu and Aliyev not only view the world in similar ways, I was told; they look at each other and see great opportunities for their small, youthful countries, both in fragile neighborhoods and engaged in narrative battles with territorial foes.
Their ties have materialized in hard, diversified trade. Azerbaijani and Israeli companies have sealed over $5 billion in defense contracts in recent years, and Azerbaijan's critical infrastructure relies increasingly on Israeli cybersecurity to protect its operations. Baku is Israel's largest source of oil, supplying roughly 40% of its annual needs. And that has made Israel, in turn, one of the top five importers of Azerbaijani crude – the lifeblood of this Caspian economy.
And so, despite widespread questions over the legitimacy of April's elections, there was to be no doubt over Israel's reaction to Aliyev's victory.
"I reiterate my invitation for you to visit Israel at your earliest convenience," Netanyahu wrote in a letter to the Azeri leader. "I hope to see you again soon." I was invited to Azerbaijan as a guest of the Foreign Ministry and the election commission to observe and cover their early presidential polls, to learn of their national story firsthand, and to meet with members of their Jewish community. The elections were roundly dismissed abroad, and even privately in Azerbaijan by some locals, as unfree and unfair.
And yet, Baku's decision to invite so many journalists and foreign observers to judge for themselves its election infrastructure was in and of itself a telling choice. Azerbaijanis who spoke to The Jerusalem Report described with pride not a mature democratic process, but an economy leaps and bounds beyond where it was just a generation ago, when children who weren't sent to war in the West studied under candlelight and cued in breadlines – their own Singapore story in the Caucasus.

Locals don't deny the undemocratic story of Aliyev's success, but argue that his victory would be assured, anyway, even if their elections were kosher: As if he, the son of modern Azerbaijan's founding president, Heydar Aliyev, is the only man in the country who can keep it together and sustain its standards of living. Azerbaijanis embrace Aliyev as a figure who is ushering in for them a stable future that might, at some point in time, be ready for democracy.

Officials and locals offered me similar refrains: "We're not perfect," they said. "We're a young nation." But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the election, cast these excuses aside.
ACCORDING TO a preliminary report from the OSCE's monitoring mission, April's poll "took place within a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections." "Against this background and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, this election lacked genuine competition," the report reads. "Other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and distinction was not made between his campaign and official activities." One observer from Australia, who serves as a member of parliament, told the Report that she witnessed some irregularities. Overall, however, she found a spirited effort at mastering the vote – a democracy in its "teething" stage.
"Authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period," the OSCE report continues. "The election administration was well-resourced and prepared the election efficiently. On election day, international observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot box stuffing."

Israeli observers were there, as well, and one senior former official told the Report that Israel views Azerbaijani democracy as of secondary concern to them. "In the West, people think democracy is the natural end state of economic progress," said the official, asking not to be named. "That is not the case in practice. In rough neighborhoods, the people prefer stability above all else."

It may be an ironic statement coming from a representative of the only democracy in the Middle East. But Israelis believe they would have no friends nearby if they were to wait for pure democracy to sweep their region – and even then, the results would likely prove disadvantageous to the Jewish state.

"There's no perfect country – we know our challenges, our problems," Hikmet Hajiyev, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told the Report. "But what we need is a little bit of understanding and appreciation of our threat perceptions, our difficulties – including our geopolitical difficulties. And as our friends and partners help us, therefore we appreciate Israel because they understand our difficulties and our challenges."

The oil nation of Azerbaijan shares borders with Russia to its north, Iran to its south, and Georgia and Armenia to its west. To the east is the primary source of its wealth: the Caspian Sea, rich in oil, sturgeon and port opportunities.

This land has been tugged and pulled by its neighbors for centuries, and as a result reflects a goulash of Iranian, Turkish and Russian cultures in its food, its architecture and its customs. After 70 years of Soviet rule, the nation declared independence at roughly the same time as its neighbor, Armenia, but with a different understanding of exactly where their border would fall.
Armenians have long held that Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region with few natural resources, is rightfully theirs due to its large historic population of ethnic Armenians; and yet Nagorno-Karabakh had been under Azerbaijani control since the 1920s, due to a Soviet decree, and was internationally recognized at the time of Azer baijan's independence in 1991 as part of its sovereign territory. A brutal war following independence resulted in an unsettled stalemate, with Armenia in possession of the land. Azerbaijan now considers 20% of its country under occupation and has vowed to take it back by any means necessary.
This ongoing conflict – which flared violently in 2016, and which both countries are arming for once again – drives Azerbaijan's diplomatic and defense relationship with Israel in critical ways. At the outbreak of 1990s war, Israel sided with Azerbaijan and provided its embryonic government with lethal arms. Israel recognizes Azerbaijan's claims to Nagorno-Karabakh to this day. And over the last decade, Baku has purchased billions in Israeli drones, missile defense systems and unmanned vehicles, and is building up a self-sustaining defense industry at home with Israeli guidance.
Despite the language of "occupation," of "internally displaced persons" and of a "right to return" that Azerbaijanis share with the Palestinians – Baku says that 300,000 Azeris and other minorities were forced from their homes in 1994 – officials in the government there all but dismissed any shared sense of struggle with Ramallah. Azerbaijan has squarely aligned itself with the Israelis, one official said, explaining: "The geopolitical circumstances of our conflicts are entirely different." Azerbaijanis say the foundation of their relationship with Israel is grounded not by contemporary strategic interests, but by its indigenous Jewish community– known locally as the Mountain Jews– who have lived at the base of the Caucasus for a millennium. While a small group, the Jews of Quba have largely lived in peace alongside their neighbors and have, according to Azeris, provided the nation with an understanding of Jewish history and a level of tolerance less common elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Quba appeared desolate and empty on my visit there, despite an expensive renovation of its Giləki synagogue and the construction of a new Jewish museum – the first of its kind in the region– next door. The governor told me that improving public transportation infrastructure was a high priority for him in order to promote the city as a tourist destination.
"QUBA IS our homeland, but as you know, it is the destiny of the Jewish people to be in Israel, and so you have had many move there," Rabbi Melech King, a leader of the Azerbaijani Jewish community, told me during a meeting in Baku. The capital also has a synagogue whose construction was recently completed. Unlike Jewish institutions across Europe, it does not require constant, live security guard.
King said that roughly 10,000 Jews remain in the community, and that many of them spend half of each year or more elsewhere, only returning in the warmer months to visit family and second homes. The Israeli sources of investment in Jewish buildings there is an effort to maintain Jewish life in Azerbaijan, King said.
"The collapse of the Soviet Union was a terrific event, and people were forced to change their lifestyles, so they sought opportunities elsewhere," King said. "This is the main reason why many left the Quba Jewish community. They have already now found good places to live." A Museum in Quba that opened in 2013 takes a number of striking cues from the Holocaust museums in Washington, Tel Aviv and Berlin, with its heavy use of concrete, employment of empty spaces and dramatic use of light.
This, too, is a museum built to commemorate mass killing. The Quba Genocide Memorial Complex marks the murder of 12,000 ethnic Azeris and other Muslims by Bolsheviks in 1918, during the first nationalist wave there. Documentation suggests the killers had the support of Armenia's revolutionaries.
The impressive complex overlooks the snow-capped Caucasus and was constructed here after the discovery of a mass grave – a surprising find to locals, as Quba is located hours away from the sight of most of the 1918 murders in Baku. The museum is operated by Azerbaijan's Ministry of Culture and Tourism and is just a short drive from Quba's main Jewish attractions.
"If you want to understand the Jewish people, go to the Holocaust Museum," said Hajiyev.
Azerbaijan's tiny Jewish population has become a powerful diplomatic tool in its relations with Israel. It was one point of commonality embraced both by Aliyev and Netanyahu during their last meeting in Baku in 2016. More controversial, however, is Baku's effort to pitch its Jewish history to officials and organizations in Washington – a strategy that has become a source of intense criticism within the US amongst its critics.
While officials frequently tout Quba as an example of Azerbaijani tolerance and pluralism, the Aliyev government is accused of using their Jewish connection for a cynical purpose: to whitewash and distract the US from its abysmal human rights record, and to cozy up to an American Jewish establishment that has far more influence in Washington's corridors of power than it ever would on its own.
Indeed, the Foreign Ministry does often highlight this historic connection, speaking of it with a pride that seems sincere, if also pragmatic. And if this is their strategy, there is evidence it is working.
On Election Day in Azerbaijan, as the predictable results were pouring in, invitations were sent out for a breakfast event hosted by Jewish, Evangelical Christian and congressional leaders on Capitol Hill "honoring the Republic of Azerbaijan for its longstanding support of Israel." Over 20 congressmen, as well as Azerbaijan's ambassador to Washington, attended the gathering.
"Some people don't understand the relations, that there is an emotional touch between Jewish people – not just American Jews, European Jews or Israeli Jews, but Jews everywhere and Azerbaijani people," Hajiyev told me when asked to respond to accusations of whitewashing. "We cherish it and we value it. And we're also thankful that American Jews help us share the positive message of Azerbaijan in the US."
In our interview, Hajiyev kept going back to a language of assistance – not of material aid, but of diplomatic support and friendship. He referenced former president Bill Clinton's pledge to help freed Soviet republics get on their feet after the union collapsed, and contrasted those policies with the approach of former president Barack Obama, which he characterized as a policy of "naming and shaming."
The Obama administration repeatedly condemned Aliyev for imprisoning human rights and civil society activists under dubious charges, restricting the operations of non-governmental organizations, banning freedom of assembly and controlling the press.
"Some parts of American society and American establishments don't understand and don't appreciate Azerbaijan and its standing in the region," Hajiyev said. "Because really, for us, the geopolitical difficulties here should not be underestimated. It is not an easy neighborhood. We are not Switzerland sitting in the middle of Europe. And being such a small country living where we are – it has not been an easy path." American Jews "seem to understand our realities," Hajiyev added, "and are helping us explain it to wider American society."