Azerbaijan loses its first post-independence ‘Brzezinski’

Azerbaijan loses its first post-independence ‘Brzezinski’

Zaur Shiriyev*
As a Soviet diplomat in the embassy in Algeria, Vafa Guluzade sought asylum at the Turkish Embassy in April 1989 after the Soviet army brutally massacred peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi. Guluzade realized that Azerbaijan faced similar risks, as indeed it did, but his request was refused. Instead, the Turkish ambassador recommended that he support Soviet leader Gorbachev - a shining political star for the West at the time. 

A decade later, after serving as Chief Foreign and National Security Advisor to each of Azerbaijan’s first three presidents - Mutalibov, Elchibey and Heydar Aliyev - Guluzade resigned, weary of criticizing national policy and arguing for NATO’s military support for the newly independent states of the South Caucasus. With great prescience, he warned against the beginning of a new chauvinism in Russia, just as Vladimir Putin was moving towards the Russian Presidency. Guluzade died May 1, and with him died a trove of wisdom and experience particular to Azerbaijan’s ongoing political transition.

A career diplomat who resisted becoming foreign minister, preferring to remain a behind-the-scenes architect of foreign policy, Guluzade succeeded in establishing relations with Washington and the EU during his term as a chief foreign advisor (1991-1999), turbulent years for newly independent Azerbaijan. When asked about the country’s foreign policy trajectory, his answer was quiet and unassuming: “Our foresight is our struggle, and this struggle we started from scratch.”

During his term as Chief Foreign and National Security Advisor, his vision for Azerbaijan was based on two interlinked principles: Integration with the West and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Regarding the first principle, NATO integration was a key component. In January 1999, Guluzade declared that the U.S. should establish a military base in Azerbaijan; this statement resonated widely across Western capitals, as in this New York Times article. In a short book, “The Caucasus: Among Friends and Enemies,” he explains the origins of his statements: “It was entirely my idea. Many people wonder why I did it just at that moment. It was January, Aliyev was sick, lying in a hospital in Turkey. In Baku there were unhealthy conversations and I was worried about the fate of our nation and state. I made this statement without talking to the president and it grabbed the world’s attention and raised Azerbaijan’s image in the West.” As a result of his engagement with Western capitals, Guluzade succeeded in the changing the U.S. attitude to the Caucasus region. Today’s mega oil and gas projects, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars, were only realized with Washington’s political support and ambition. His ability to provide a long-term vision for the country made him the first (and thus far only) Brzezinski of Azerbaijan’s post-independence period. 

The second principle was the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a conflict that destabilized the status quo and brought increasing enmity between Azerbaijan and Armenia. During his time in office, Guluzade served as the representative of the president of Azerbaijan in closed peace negotiations with his counterpart, Gerard J. Libaridian. Today, Libaridian remembers the importance of what they achieved with Guluzade. Writing to me, he said the following: “We achieved important steps toward the cease-fire and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We were successful in the first, but only came close in the second and those today responsible for the resolution of the conflict should be missing his tough stance but open mind.” 

But in 1999, when Azerbaijan and Armenia were close to signing a peace accord, Guluzade resigned. Officially, he cited health issues, but in reality, he had no faith in the implementation of the peace accord due to Russian opposition. In his last long interview just few days before his death, he said, “Before my resignation, I told Heydar Aliyev that Russia would not allow him to conclude a peace agreement with Armenia in the current political environment. And when Heydar Aliyev and Kocharyan reached an agreement, the shooting incident occurred in the Armenian parliament at the end of October 1999 and ended that chance for peace. I had predicted just such a turn of events that would prevent any agreement from being realized.” His prediction - that Moscow did not want to see peace in the Caucasus for fear of losing its political leverage in favor of Western influence – remains very relevant, even 16 years after his resignation. 

Guluzade was known for his frankness and openness, loved by ordinary people – highly unusual after retirement from such a high-level political position. In the file held by the Soviet Foreign Ministry, it said the following of him: “Very sociable, is able to establish a trusting relationship with the higher circles of the host country.” Over the last 10 years, he predicted Russia’s collapse – while this was sometimes misunderstood, he foresaw precisely what we see today: Russia after Western sanctions. Guluzade didn’t trust Moscow as a reliable partner either within the region or externally, and due to his frankness and open criticism of Russia even while in office, the Russian authorities lodged official complaints with Baku.

In his last long interview with me, he talked off-the-record about his years in office, and refused my proposal to write his biography. His response was that “the best memory is the people’s, and history is consistent when memories are created in an open and liberal environment.” Azerbaijan’s political life will be the poorer for his frankness and openness, and the country will miss his rare brand of experience and vision.

* Zaur Shiriyev, Academy Fellow, Chatham House, London, UK.