Azerbaijan an Island of Stability in a Sea of Chaos

The bombing of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline earlier this week is a reminder that the ongoing tragedy of the Arab Spring poses threats not only to freedom of the long-suffering men and women of the Middle East and nearby areas, but to the security of the world at large.

The blast, which Turkey is blaming on Kurdish separatists but which likely traces its origins to the civil war in Syria, poses no long-term threats to energy supply or delivery in the region. It does, however, emphasize the importance of those islands of stability in the region. Azerbaijan is a rare one.

The situation in the Middle East, as ever, looks vaguely dire. Iran is accelerating its rhetoric and — despite obvious misgivings — continuing to prop up the Assad regime in Damascus as it continues to develop what fairly clearly appears to be a nuclear arsenal. Syria’s civil war is rapidly approaching the bloodbath stage. Those states that underwent revolution in the Arab Spring are now settling into predictable patterns of violent rhetoric and Islamist governance. Israel faces a more hostile neighborhood than it has seen since the Yom Kippur War.

Baku has been able to weather this storm in no small part because of its unique makeup — its oil wealth, its careful development of non-petroleum industry, its historically tolerant Shi’i population, and its position at the crossroads of so many cultures and states in Eurasia. Azerbaijan has a small Jewish community of which it is inordinately proud, the five synagogues and numerous Christian churches (including a Catholocoi) in the country a testament to its history of ecumenical tolerance — an imperfect history, to be sure, but one that modern Azerbaijan takes seriously.

Baku has made a deliberate effort to join the community of nations, joining extranational organizations, working in the United Nations structure (where it is now a non-permanent member of the Security Council), and despite the Armenian invasion and war crimes in the early 1990s war, working with the Minsk Group to resolve the dispute with Armenia peacefully. Its efforts to develop the TANAP pipeline with Turkey will not only help exploit Azerbaijan’s natural gas reserves, but will also expand its role in Europe’s energy security.

Azerbaijan has enjoyed the benefits of its attitudes and growth, including positive growth in the first half of 2012 (a feat largely not replicated in Europe or much of the region), closer ties to the United States (Secretary Clinton’s visit in July highlighted Azerbaijan’s strategic cooperation and importance to the United States), and a greater seat at the table of Europe, where “economic and political stability” look to be in increasingly short supply.

Baku still has some work to do, and its next round of elections will do much to demonstrate whether its vibrant (but incredibly disorganized) opposition press and parties can find the cohesion needed to seriously contest the elections. Only if the opposition can effectively unite can the world gauge if what appears to be Baku’s sincere belief in the need for further democratic reform is bearing real fruit on the ground.

Even with all of that, there are worse places to be than Azerbaijan — for example, almost all of its neighbors.

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