Ambassador Elin Suleymanov on outstanding Azerbaijanis of Great Britain and the United States and the role of the diaspora – Aze.Media


The third and final part of the interview with Elin Suleymanov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Azerbaijan to the UK, Ireland, Denmark, and Iceland. You can find the first two parts of the interview here and here.

The Armenian lobby is not as powerful as its activists claim

We know that the Armenian lobby in Britain is not as strong overall as, say, in France or the United States. However, at the same time, we remember that there are also individual representatives in the British Parliament with a strongly pronounced pro-Armenian position, such as Baroness Caroline Cox. What would you say is the extent of real influence of politicians like Cox on the British public opinion, including inside the parliament?

I think the root of the issue is the difference in the state structure itself. Great Britain has well-established state traditions, the British political system is more structured in such a way that the state interests are at the forefront, and the influence of not only the Armenian lobby, but the influence of any groups in general on politics is limited. It is not as direct or as strong as in, say, France or the US. In the United States, there is a lot of direct influence of lobbyist interests on foreign policy, and therefore the activities of the US Congress often fall under the influence of ethnic groups.

In Great Britain, the structure, the system itself, is different. As for the pro-Armenian persons, such as Baroness Cox, there is a religious element at the root. There is an element of discrimination on the basis of religion and, frankly, not only in her case. I think that people like Baroness Cox do have some negative influence. Although Caroline Cox’s recent attempt to smear Azerbaijan in the House of Lords ended with most speakers talking about the need for a speedy signing of a peace treaty and the landmine danger in the liberated territories. Overall, I would like to thank our British colleagues for their balanced approach. There is an understanding of where Britain’s interests lie and what they are and, of course, that partnership with Azerbaijan helps Britain, our region and ultimately Armenia as well, something that our Armenian neighbors themselves fail to understand. This also applies to the United States. Is it in the interests of the United States to have their policy in the region controlled by some absolutely aggressive group of people, who are not interested in anything but a strictly ethnic ideology? They are not even interested in the future of Armenia. If they did care about it, Armenia would not be in such a deplorable state today. If some of the resources spent on lobbying against Turkey and Azerbaijan had been spent on something constructive in Armenia, Armenia would be better off. What good is it to the average Armenian citizen if the diaspora is trying to push a resolution or a bill against Turkey and Azerbaijan?

It used to be difficult for Azerbaijan to oppose the Armenian lobby. What would you say the balance of power is now?

I believe the Armenian lobby somewhat exaggerates its power, which is also part of the business model for raising funds from ordinary Armenians living abroad. Of course, this lobby does some damage, but it does not offer any constructive initiatives. It is not only Americans who have had enough of this constant pushing of ethnic nationalism; I think even the Armenian community is fed up with it. As for the result, there are attempts and provocative statements, but all in all, can we recall what great accomplishments the Armenian diaspora has had?

They failed to achieve a strengthening of Armenia, the US position during the 44-day war, objectively speaking, was relatively restrained, and in 2019, American direct aid to the Armenian separatists in Karabakh was finally terminated. Unlike the Armenian side, Azerbaijan did not gloat about it. And the enactment of the notorious anti-Azerbaijani Amendment 907 has already been frozen for many years, proceeding from the interests of the United States itself. By the way, our first ambassador to Washington, Hafiz Pashayev, did a lot of work in this area. Today, the efforts of the most extremist groups among Armenian lobbyists are not met with much enthusiasm even in Armenia itself.

But the Armenian diaspora provided substantial financial assistance to Armenia…

Yes, Armenians used to raise money every year in Los Angeles for the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund. By the way, this is against local laws, because the formal head of the foundation is the president of Armenia. As it turned out, a huge amount of that money had been misappropriated. And our President Ilham Aliyev talked about it many times. Where did all this money go? What did they do with it? Armenia is a very corrupt country at its core, and it is not surprising that the money of the fund disappeared. The Armenian side itself launched an investigation. I think the Armenians who had naively donated money to this fund finally realized how they had been cheated and robbed for years. There was even an incident when the director of this fund spent a large sum at an online casino. I believe Armenians today begin to understand that there are no and cannot be special benefits from external injections. They need an economy of their own that has to develop. But their own economy can develop only with the normalization of relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Azerbaijani dances in front of the White House

Azerbaijani diaspora associations play a significant role in counteracting Armenian influence abroad. How organized is the Azerbaijani diaspora in the UK? How closely does it coordinate its actions with the Embassy of Azerbaijan?

I am deeply grateful to members of our diaspora in both the United Kingdom and the United States, where I previously worked. Despite their busy lives, their everyday issues and problems, our compatriots never forget their homeland, actively participating in events and advocating for Azerbaijan. This was especially evident in 2020, when members of the Azerbaijani community in Great Britain showed great unity, coming together to support the just struggle of our people and to convey the truth to the world community.

In the US, the Azerbaijani community was also very active in defending the interests of Azerbaijan, working as one. It was a surge of patriotism, which helped in many ways to inform the world community about Azerbaijan. I still cannot forget how we talked to our diaspora activists in different states of the USA until late at night via video link during the Patriotic War, how every Azerbaijani did their best for the country.

I would also like to mention how Azerbaijanis came together to support each other at the height of the pandemic. They raised funds and opened their homes for students and those who were temporarily stranded because of the closed US borders.

To be honest, I am very impressed by the accomplishments of our compatriots. They have achieved a lot. These are outstanding people—doctors, financiers, teachers, artists, professionals in various fields. When I meet successful representatives of the Azerbaijani people, who have achieved a lot on their own, I am happy for them. To a large extent, it is not about our community cooperating with the embassy; it is much more important that our compatriots become established in the societies of the countries where they reside, that they are successful, that they integrate, without, of course, forgetting their homeland. And in this way, by showing themselves and their success, they represent the success of Azerbaijan and our nation.

Much work is being done both by these organizations themselves and by the State Committee on Work with Diaspora. In recent years, the State Committee has played an increasingly important role in strengthening ties between our communities abroad and Azerbaijan. There have been successes and achievements in this area.

I would like Azerbaijanis, wherever they live, to achieve more in the societies in which they reside. Societies are made up of people, of individuals, and the success of each member of our diaspora adds to the rich mosaic of our nation.

The name of the British musician of Azerbaijani origin Sami Yusuf is known all over the world, and the most famous gymnasts of Great Britain are the members of the British national Olympic team Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova. The achievements of youngest athletes are especially gratifying: Azerbaijani teenager Samir Omar Jonsson won the Icelandic Junior Judo Championship and ten-year old Neil Vagif Morrison won the Scottish Gymnastics Championship as a member of the Aberdeen city team.

There are two Azerbaijani Sunday schools in London. Recently, students from the Karabakh School in London performed a spectacular program at the embassy to commemorate the Independence Restoration Day. Everyone who teaches children the Azerbaijani language and culture does so out of love for Azerbaijan, and at the expense of their free time, their weekends. How can this not be appreciated? The Azerbaijani communities in Manchester and Scotland are also very active.

By the way, when I was recently in the capital of Ireland, Dublin, where I presented my credentials to the President of Ireland, I had the opportunity to see a group of our compatriots, young professionals, mainly in the field of information technology. I am very happy about their success and grateful for the positive energy boost I got from my interaction with them.

It should be noted that there are also active and successful Azerbaijanis living in Denmark. For example, Dr. Messoud Ashina is one of the leading Danish medical experts.

Ali Tekin Atalar and Farida Panahova have long been dedicating themselves to Azerbaijan in London. Recently, there was a big fun, hearty celebration of the Victory Day, organized by one of the leaders of the community, Hafiz Bakhshaliyev.

Once again, there are a lot of talented people among our compatriots. I hope that no one will be offended if I do not mention all of them by name. For example, as for musicians, there are two well-known and very gifted violinists in Great Britain, Sabina Rakcheyeva and Nazrin Rashidova, as well as the family of musicians Rasim and Saadat Farziyevs.

We have already talked about the importance of educational and academic exchanges. Today, our compatriots are working at the world’s leading universities. For example, one of the world-famous prominent specialists in molecular biology, Professor Garib Murshudov at Cambridge University. Researchers at the Nizami Ganjavi Center at Oxford University are making important contributions to the study of our entire region. Famous Azerbaijani scientist Academician Nargiz Pashayeva is doing much in this field. Our scientists, artists, students and professionals in various fields—they are the “human gold” President Aliyev spoke of.

When we talk about our community in California, two great people come to mind first and foremost. I am very happy that I was fortunate enough to meet these two geniuses in person. One of them is Lotfi Zadeh (American mathematician and logician, author of the term “fuzzy logic” and one of the founders of fuzzy set theory, professor at the University of California, Berkeley—Ed.). I will never forget how we convinced him to come to Azerbaijan to participate in a science forum. You know, even though he was always an Azerbaijani, on that trip he saw a lot, he began to know Azerbaijan, met Mr. President, and it made such an impression on him that he mentioned Azerbaijan’s achievements everywhere. Later, before his death, he wished to be buried in Baku. He was a very interesting, brilliant person, a man of science and a citizen of the world. For me personally it was important that Lotfi Zadeh knew my grandfather, Academician Hasan Abdullayev, who had been President of the Academy of Sciences, and was familiar with his pioneering research in the field of semiconductors.

The other genius was an artist. I am talking about our Chingiz Sadikhov, the legendary pianist who lived in San Francisco. He was old and seriously ill. Still, when he touched the keys and played, it changed the energy of everything around him. I had never heard anything like it. Unfortunately, he, too, passed away. In one of my articles, I wrote that if the language of Azerbaijan is music, Chingiz Sadikhov was its interpreter.

Both these men were very radiant people whom I often remember and from whom I learned a great deal. One of them always loved Azerbaijan and carried this music in him. And Lotfi Zadeh learned to love Azerbaijan over time. When he came and saw the country, he rediscovered it and fell in love with it.

Speaking of Azerbaijani culture, of course we need to make sure that the world knows about it. But there is also an important aspect of uniting and consolidating Azerbaijanis of the world around their culture, first of all our musical heritage. In this regard, the role of First Vice President of Azerbaijan Mehriban Aliyeva is invaluable. It is her support and tireless efforts to develop cultural programs in Azerbaijan and beyond that continue to unite Azerbaijanis and make the connection with the homeland stronger and deeper.

Our community in the United States, as well as in Great Britain, is rich in special people. For example, the Houston-Baku Twin Cities Association has been headed by Irada Akhundova for a long time. There is a very dynamic Azerbaijani community in the state of Texas. Twinning relations also exist between Monterey, one of the most beautiful cities of California, and Lankaran, and Shafag Mehraliyeva, who lived in Monterey at the time, played a key role in the establishment of this partnership. Another interesting example is the partnership between the Switzer Heights neighborhood of San Diego and Nasimi District of Baku.

Overall, the activity of our compatriots in many states has increased significantly in recent years, and this can only be a good thing. The Azerbaijani Society of America, the most established organization, headed by Tomris Azeri, has been active in the state of New Jersey since 1959. Adil Baghirov, Javid Huseynov, and Yusif Babanli’s initiative to found the US Azerbaijanis Network played a major role in consolidating the community back in the day. Many representatives of the Azerbaijani intellectuals were united by the Congress of Azerbaijani Societies of America. We often hear about the achievements of the Association of the Azerbaijanis of New York, their efforts are strengthening the partnership between Brooklyn and Sabayil District of Baku, and the Azerbaijani flag is raised every year in the center of Manhattan, on Wall Street. How can one not be proud when listening to Jamila Javadova-Spitzberg perform for the first time ever the music of Gara Garayev on the pipe organ at Washington National Cathedral, or when pianist Nargiz Aliyarova plays at Carnegie Hall? Today, Azerbaijani Tarlan Ahmedov helps refugees from all over the world who come to the US state of Maine, and the state of Florida knows about Azerbaijan thanks to the efforts of Tofha Eminova.

Obviously, these are just a few of the many organizations and names of our compatriots who are doing a lot for their homeland. It is impossible not to mention, for example, the achievements and activities of the Azerbaijanis of Canada.

Let me tell you about another episode. There is a cultural center called My Way in New York City. The center is headed by Alyona Badalova, who runs interesting projects in the arts, including dance. In the spring of 2018, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, a large group of children, students of this center, came from New York to Washington, D.C., children of different ethnic backgrounds. They performed Azerbaijani dances in front of the Washington and Lincoln monuments, in front of the White House. I think they even caught President Trump’s attention with their dancing. There were Azerbaijani flags flying around. There was such an energy that everyone realized at that moment: Azerbaijan would definitely win. It must have been symbolic that our music was playing and flags of Azerbaijan were flying in the center of Washington.

One of the moments I recall was just before I left the United States on May 28, 2021. It was still during the pandemic, so it was not possible to celebrate the holiday formally on a large scale, to organize a big reception. My colleagues and I were on a trip to Boston at the time. It so happened that the friendly and active community of Azerbaijanis of New England gathered at the home of our compatriot, Tunzala Eynullayeva. There were 40-50 people from different states and we decided to celebrate May 28. Our famous pianist Emil Afrasiyab and his wife Leyla performed “Can Qarabağ” there and everyone joined in. It was very emotional. At that moment, I realized how great the connection between our compatriots abroad and Azerbaijan was. That evening was a great and very memorable gift from our community just before I left the United States.

Why rabbis in the US look forward to Azerbaijani events

How involved are representatives of other peoples of Azerbaijan in the Azerbaijani community in the United States? Or is it a union of Azerbaijanis only? What is their role in the activities of our diaspora?

I must say that our community is inclusive. It includes representatives of many peoples of Azerbaijan. But it is very important that we should also look at our South Azerbaijanis, they are part of our community, they are very active and patriotic, and probably even more emotional. I would say that for many of us South Azerbaijanis are exemplary patriots. When I was a student in Toledo, Ohio, in 1992, there were few of us in America. Azerbaijan had recently become independent, and it was South Azerbaijanis—famous doctors Shapoor Ansari and Ahmad Frukh and then young Ahmed Obali—who, when they learned that a student had come from Azerbaijan, proposed to establish together an Azerbaijani center in the American Midwest. That is to say, it was from them that this call of patriotism came and continues to come.

Of course, we always have and will always have tremendous support from our Turkish brothers. They are the closest people to us, and we feel their constant support. I am grateful that as a student I never felt lonely because they were there for me. It was an unforgettable day for me when after the terrible missile attack on Ganja in October 2020, Nobel Laureate Professor Aziz Sancar, who lives in North Carolina, called the embassy. He learned that little Khadija had lost both parents in the Armenian attack and offered to support her further education at his own expense. This is the kind of people our Turkish brothers are!

And, of course, our Jewish friends. Jews have always supported Azerbaijan sincerely, honestly. I have another story to tell you here. Our events, after the official part, sometimes continued with a musical program. Both Azerbaijani and other music was performed. Since a lot of Jewish guests attended Azerbaijani events, sometimes “Hava Nagila” was played as well. I still remember one rabbi I knew saying to me, “We wait every year for the holiday of May 28th to visit you.” Of course, I was glad to hear that, but I still asked him why us of all people. He said, “You know, the only place in Washington where we can dance Hava Nagila is at the Azerbaijanis’.” This is a small example of the multifaceted nature of Azerbaijani culture.

Speaking of 1992, I was a fellow of the Muskie Program in its first year (the Edmund S. Muskie Fellowship Program, named after the famous American politician, was approved by the US Congress in 1992 and helps students from Eurasia get a postgraduate education in US universities—Ed.) At the time, though, we were called the Benjamin Franklin Program. And by the way, an interesting, curious thing happened there. Everybody from the former USSR was gathered there, and I remember that one of the administrators of the program was an Armenian American. At that time the Armenian lobby had just succeeded in getting Congress to pass the anti-Azerbaijani Amendment 907. The administrator of the program found out that I was from Azerbaijan and asked me how I had gotten in. I told him that I was a graduate of Moscow State University and had applied for the fellowship through Moscow. He was very concerned, because he apparently had done his best to prevent Azerbaijanis from getting into the program. That is, they wanted to completely limit the opportunities for Azerbaijanis, but they could not fully control the enrollment from Moscow. That is how the first year of the Muskie program turned out. Imagine that we were called participants of the Benjamin Franklin Program, and suddenly they announced that they had decided to rename the program and call it after Senator Muskie. We knew about Benjamin Franklin—he was a great man, after all, but many of us had never heard of Senator Muskie. So, they gather us in early 1993 in Washington for a seminar, announce what trainings, workshops, and conferences we are going to have, and they say: we are having a reception with Senator Muskie in the evening. All the participants were somehow wary, because it is customary to name things after deceased people, and Benjamin Franklin fit into that logic. Anyway, everyone was wondering how the reception was going to go. And then this old man shows up, sees the stunned faces of students from the former Soviet Union, and says, “Oh, I see, you all thought I was dead, but I’m still alive, I am Senator Muskie.” Everyone gathered around, started taking pictures with him, and he then said, “I’d say we’re even, because you didn’t know I was alive, and I have no idea why the program is named after me.”

Anyway, a big whole is made up of small parts. We just recently celebrated the National Flag Day in London. Our uniquely talented jazz musician Isfar Sarabski performed at the event, and Sabina Rakcheyeva also played with him. The concert was a big hit and the guests would not let the performers leave. And I recalled how back in 1990 our “What? Where? When?” team was at a game in Odessa. The Azerbaijani tricolor was raised on a ship in the bay of Odessa then. We made arrangements with the captain of the two-masted yacht Saint Catherine about a boat ride and were very proud that we sailed for 30 minutes with our flag raised in the Black Sea, probably for the first time since the 1920s. Rovshan Askerov, Khafiz Gaibov, Anar Azimov, Anar Kaziyev and others were there.

When you see how far Azerbaijan has come over the years, the success our country continues to achieve, you realize what efforts these achievements cost and the importance of President Ilham Aliyev’s political will and strategic vision for the future not only of Azerbaijan, but also of the entire region.

Yalchin Aliyev

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