On July 23, Elnur Aslanov, the head of the Presidential Administration’s Department for Political Analysis and Informational Provision stated: “For the better promotion of history, politics and the culture of Azerbaijan, cultural centers in various countries will be opened in the near future. The president has given his instructions and the relevant state bodies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Economic Development and State Diaspora Committee are working on it” (www.gun.az News Agency, July 23). Aslanov added that one of the first centers will be opened at Cairo University.
Azerbaijan, having dramatically expanded its diplomatic representation around the world in the past several years (from some 30 embassies to 70 embassies and consulates), is now actively targeting public diplomacy efforts in order to better promote its culture and history abroad. Last September, President Ilham Aliyev established cultural centers at the embassies of Azerbaijan in France and Uzbekistan (www.abc.az news site, September 3, 2010) and the Humboldt University in Berlin launched an Azerbaijani chair (the first of its kind in European Academic circles) in December 2010. The latter coincided with the first world forum of Azerbaijani youth in Frankfurt, organized and financed by the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Yet, the government is keen to expand these efforts.
On July 5, 2011, Baku hosted the third world congress of the Azerbaijani Diaspora. The event was attended by 579 delegates from 42 countries and 211 guests from 30 countries, during which President Aliyev said, “Our diplomacy should be proactive. Our diplomacy should not be defensive, of a self-justifying nature. Our proactive diplomacy is working… we must be together both in and outside the country. Unity makes us stronger…It is no secret that in the first years of independence, we did not have great financial opportunities, while Azerbaijanis living abroad were not well organized. But now, our diaspora organizations counteract Armenian propaganda in all countries with Azerbaijani realities…” (www.president.az, July 5).
Baku’s growing confidence in itself is seen more so after the victory of the Azerbaijani duet in Eurovision Song Contest in Germany in May, 2011. Not only was this a huge triumph in public diplomacy in front of some 160 million European viewers, but it also provided an opportunity for Azerbaijan to host the contest next year in Baku. Some 60,000 tourists from all over the world are expected to arrive in Baku and the government commission, headed by the First Lady Mehriban Aliyev, has already started major preparatory work, including infrastructure development, construction of the concert hall for the event, expansion of the downtown boulevard and more efforts towards the beautification of Baku’s parks.
Other public diplomacy efforts include field visits by the youth of foreign countries to Azerbaijan and educational activities held with the support of embassies. In July, some 100 youths from eight countries were selected as the winners of the global essay contest “What do I know about Azerbaijan?” and were invited to travel to Azerbaijan, where they met their Azerbaijani peers and camped out in various regions of the country (www.today.az, July 25). Similar activities were held with the help of the Azerbaijani students union and the Association of Students and Alumni International Forum (ASAIF), both of which plan to hold major international youth camps in Azerbaijan in August of this year. Meanwhile, the third international music festival was held in Gabala from July 25 to August 5, with Euronews and other international media outlets covering the event. In March, Euronews also covered the global forum in Baku, dedicated to intercultural dialogue.
Azerbaijan’s thirst for such modern tools of diplomacy is driven primarily by the constant fear that the country is experiencing an informational blockade and that its arch-rival Armenia, using its strong and wealthy lobby abroad, spreads misinformation about the reality of the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan, having achieved impressive economic development, is also eager to invest its oil revenues in the further development of its culture both within the country and to promote it abroad. It took the government only a few months after the completion of the Mugham music center and contemporary art museum, to start the construction of a new carpet museum in the center of Baku. The old city of Baku has also undergone a significant facelift, attracting more and more tourists from abroad.
Some people would question spending millions of dollars on such cultural and information-related activities, while poverty in rural areas still remains a problem. Yet, it is the firm belief in the power of public diplomacy that drives the government to seek additional dividends from these activities. As Azerbaijanis celebrate the twentieth anniversary of independence, there can be no doubt that such projects will further increase aimed at showcasing the success of this young country.