Ambassadors Archive 1

Azerbaijan: Ambassador Dr. Hafiz Pashayev

The process of sanctioning an Ally: Section 907

By Hugh S. Galford

A nine-year diplomatic impasse with the United States is something most people would shy away from. But just such a struggle is what Dr. Hafiz Pashayev, Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Washington, has faced since his arrival here in 1993. 

The battle has been over the sanctions imposed on Azerbaijan in Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act. At the time of the Act’s passage, Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia were engaged in a war over the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Section 907 prohibited any US economic aid to Azerbaijan until the latter ceased offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and lifted the blockade against Armenia. The problem with Section 907 is that it made Azerbaijan out to be the aggressor, when in reality the country was on the defensive.

When he first arrived in Washington, the Ambassador’s goals were to purchase property for the Embassy, and to lift sanctions against his country. At our recent meeting, he had just returned from a sad visit to his homeland after his mother passed away.

Ensconced in his classic new chancery, on Embassy Row within shouting distance of Vice President’s Cheney’s residence, this soft-spoken diplomat smiles as he recalls his first interview with Washington International in 1993. That interview was held in a cramped space on 15th Street where he came as a former professor and physicist to open the first Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington. At that time he knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish, and he believed so much in the justice of his mission that he thought that once he was able to get the ear of Congress he would be successful.

To an insider, perhaps Dr. Pashayev would be considered naïve, but today he still appears amazed by the intricacies of Washington as he points out that Section 907 was grounded more in US domestic politics than in international realities. When the Act was passed, Azerbaijan had no diplomats in Washington, while the Armenian lobby was well-organized and –funded.

“There was no opposition to the legislation, no representation, no debate or discussion.” It was, in the Ambassador’s words, “an interesting situation.” Only half of the story was heard on the Hill, with detrimental consequences for Azerbaijan. Armenian nationalists in Nagorno-Karabakh voted for union with Armenia; Armenia backed the nationalists militarily. Azerbaijani military actions were in defense of their territorial integrity, not to gain additional territory. Furthermore, Azerbaijan could not blockade Armenia; the two countries share a single border. Trade had come to a halt between the two states, but due to the collapse of transportation infrastructures, not Azerbaijani intransigence.

The sanctions, Dr. Pashayev says, were “unfair but politically impossible to change,” even after the 1994 cease-fire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Since then, “there has been no war, but no peace” in the Ambassador’s words. Armenia still occupies 20 percent of Azerbaijan. This includes 13 percent outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan’s offer of “the utmost level of autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh—but not independence” has been rejected by Armenia. Ambassador Pashayev stresses that while Azerbaijani territory is still occupied, and while a million Azerbaijani refugees still languish in camps, Azerbaijan, the victim, is saddled with US sanctions as though it were the aggressor.

Throughout Dr. Pashayev’s tenure in Washington, he has lobbied tirelessly to change the US government’s position on Section 907. “Slowly,” he says, “information and the truth got through to the US and to Congress.” There has been a slow amelioration of the situation over the years. A number of exemptions to the Act have been passed, allowing humanitarian assistance, democracy-building and American business investment in the country.

The sanctions issue, Dr. Pashayev says, is “an interesting case to study US politics.” He notes that successive administrations—from the first Bush White House on—have opposed the sanctions, “but didn’t have the political will to fight” to end them. Enthusiasm for the sanctions existed only in Congress, usually without any understanding of the situation. In 1997, Dr. Pashayev says, he met with Matt Martinez (D-CA), to discuss the injustice of the sanctions. Rep. Martinez heard him out, and agreed with his arguments. Martinez then asked one of his aides how he had voted on the Act, and was told that he had voted in favor of it. Martinez was incredulous; “Didn’t we even bother to look at a map?” he asked. Martinez hadn’t understood that it was impossible for Azerbaijan to blockade Armenia, as the Act supposed.

Dr. Pashayev is hopeful that the sanctions issue is drawing to a close. In 1998, Robert Livingston (R-LA) proposed an amendment to the Act, which failed by 25 votes; later, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, proposed an amendment which fell three votes shy of passing the Senate.

The Aftermath of September 11

Following Sept. 11, with Azerbaijan’s increased strategic importance to the US, Brownback proposed another amendment that stated that the President could override the sanctions if it were in the nation’s security interests. This amendment, part of the appropriations bill, was passed; it was now up to President Bush to sign and send the memorandum to Congress stating that the sanctions should be lifted.

Several days after our interview, President Bush did in fact lift sanctions against Azerbaijan. In his Memorandum to the Secretary of State, President Bush writes: 

“I hereby determine and certify that a waiver of section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act of 1992 (Public Law 102-511):

  • is necessary to support U.S. efforts to counter international terrorism;
  • is necessary to support the operational readiness of U.S. Armed Forces or coalition partners to counter international terrorism;
  • is important to Azerbaijan’s border security; and
  • will not undermine or hamper ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan or be used for offensive purposes against Armenia. Accordingly, I hereby waive section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act.” 

Unfortunately, the sanctions have hurt not only Azerbaijan’s development, but also the US’ image in the region.

“The example of 907 is enough for many Muslim countries to look at the US with suspicion. Here is Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country, approaching the US as a friend, and the US Congress sanctions Azerbaijan.” Dr. Pashayev notes that at the time, Iranian newspapers ran stories that said, in effect, “Azerbaijan sold out to the US. This is what you can expect from the US.” The Ambassador adamantly proclaimed that there was no “sell-out” to the US. “We have an open policy; we are determined to go our own way, to become a democratic state, and to develop our own resources. We don’t want ‘Big Brother’ again.”

In addition to Western assistance, Azerbaijan’s development also depends on peace and security with its neighbors. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, US interests in the region have been to help the former republics of the Soviet Union to become independent, prosperous countries, and to help transform them from centralized to market economies and democracies. Azerbaijan, the Ambassador says, also holds energy and geo-strategic interests to the US. Azerbaijan has access to the huge natural gas and oil reserves on the Caspian littoral, and is a major north-south and east-west communications center. More recently the country’s physical location has taken precedence.

“Without countries like Azerbaijan,” Dr. Pashayev says, “it would be tough to fight terrorism.” Azerbaijan, he adds, has suffered from terrorism itself: from Armenian separatists to some fundamentalist forces in Iran, and as well from the general situation in the Caucasus. Politics impact economics, he says; “We want stable conditions for investors.”

Stability for Azerbaijan, however, is not a done deal. The conflict with Armenia has not been fully settled, Iran has aided Armenia against Azerbaijan—a nice foil to the idea current today of a unified Islamic world opposed to Christendom, the Ambassador notes, and Russia is still of major importance. Russia has signed a 25-year alliance with Armenia, and still has military bases there—some of which house Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction. Certain Russian power centers want to use Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia to keep Azerbaijan weak. 

Yet the situation is far from bleak in the Ambassador’s view. When asked if Azerbaijan felt more vulnerable in the region, he replied, “No, I am more optimistic than that.” One reason is that the US is more visible in the region. Another is economics. He is “hopeful” that relations with Russia under Vladimir Putin will improve. Putin, he says, “is more economic-minded than was Yeltsin. We expect to see the effects of this in the future, yet we need to create a network of economic interests now.”

That network is beginning to coalesce. Until 1996, Azerbaijan relied on getting goods to Western markets through either Russia or Iran. Since 1996, the country has been able to move away from Russia, but still depends on Russian good will. In 1996-97, Azerbaijan built a small oil pipeline through Georgia to the Black Sea; they are close to starting construction of the major oil pipeline from Baku through Georgia to Ceyhan, a Turkish port. Russians have long opposed this pipeline, but announced in December 2001 that they would be willing to participate in it. Azerbaijan, the Ambassador says, “wants Russian input and help. Business can soften the Russian political stance.” Beyond oil, he adds, Azerbaijan has very good opportunities in supplying Russia with agricultural products.

The Ambassador admits that difficulties still face Azerbaijan, but he is hopeful for the future. Once Section 907 sanctions are fully lifted, he says, “we hope there will be more assistance in security cooperation, infrastructure, and so on.” One particular point of concern is the educational system. “The old Soviet schools,” he says, “were a good educational system. Now, though, there is no money for higher education and science.” Azerbaijan’s image in the world is of an oil country, “but we are just starting to develop it,” he says. “We need five years of investment before we can expect to see a return.” Dr. Pashayev notes, however, that Azerbaijan’s GDP increased by ten percent in 2001, mainly through growth in the oil and industrial sectors. 

Another issue of concern is the environment. Dr. Pashayev describes Soviet style exploration as “a disaster. Fly over Baku, and you see the remnants: oil lakes, derelict equipment—a terrible landscape.” When Azerbaijanis began working with Western oil companies, they demanded special conditions: that the new explorations would be clean and reliable. The country—and the companies themselves—are trying to clean up the old areas. Dr. Pashayev adds, “The population is very aware of the danger. Civil society has become very active in raising these issues with the government.” One worry is how to extract oil from around and beneath the Caspian without harming the sea itself, for another export the Caspian provides is sturgeon—and caviar.

Azerbaijan, the Ambassador says, has entered into a special project with the World Bank regarding the Caspian. The country has a Ministry of Ecology, charged with overseeing environmental issues. And, he adds, “there is full compliance between the government, NGOs and oil companies. The companies are reporting to the government—and to the public. We also have dynamic, independent press people; they’re watching.”

As far as visiting the country is concerned, he sees increased promise within three to four years. There are “reliable, stable conditions” now in the country, and a still-good Soviet tourist infrastructure. The country is also building new hotels; the Ambassador singles out the new Hyatt Regency, which is “better than any in the US,” he says. The country itself has much to offer. The Caspian shore, the Ambassador says, is beautiful, and the climate good. “In a country of 86,000 square kilometers,” he says, “there are nine climate zones—from Alpine to sub-tropic.”

After working tirelessly for his country for the last nine years, fighting battles on multiple fronts, mission accomplished, he says his main goal now “is to go back home.” However, at this turning point his government may still need someone of Dr. Pashayev’s steadfastness, openness and commitment to democracy sitting in the US capital.