More than 600 guests turned out to honor Azerbaijan’s Independence Day and Armed Forces Day at a June 1 celebration hosted by Khazar Ibrahim, the country’s ambassador in Washington.
The event, held in the cavernous atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center, attracted the ambassadors of 30 countries as well as numerous military attaches, think tank representatives and selected members of the Azerbaijani diaspora, which now numbers 700,000 in the United States alone.
Speaker after speaker praised the Caucasus nation’s ongoing cooperation with the United States. Ibrahim, emphasizing his country’s diverse economy and its exceptional role in supporting European energy security, promised that Azerbaijan would double natural gas exports to Europe by 2027 while pursuing its own path to a renewable energy future.
The ambassador also credited the role of modern Azerbaijan’s founder, Heydar Aliyev, for the country’s current prosperity.
That’s a far cry from 1918, when Azerbaijan declared independence following the fall of the Russian Empire. Col. Rustam Gozalov, the country’s military attaché in Washington, said that only two years later, the Soviets basically reconquered Azerbaijan and absorbed it into the USSR. Many sacrifices were made along the way, including the 350,000 lives lost during World War II.
After regaining independence in 1991, Gozalov said, Azerbaijan succeeded in developing a military that can today defend the country’s territorial integrity.
Brig. Gen. Colby Wyatt, director of the joint staff of the Oklahoma National Guard, has been part of his state’s military partnership with Azerbaijan for the past 15 years. Originally, the program involved just a company of about 140 soldiers.
But since then, he said, “it has grown to two battalions of Azerbaijani security forces and a battalion of support pursuing the vital operational capabilities concept of adopting the US or NATO model, in contrast to the old Soviet model.”
This allows them to develop “a plug and play” ability to work with NATO member states in addressing any kind of disaster, man-made or natural. The link between Oklahoma and Azerbaijan—both major oil exporters—also extends to the civilian sector, said Wyatt, with partnerships between Oklahoma State University and Azerbaijan State Agricultural University.
Erika Olson, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, underscored 31 years of partnership and US support for Azerbaijan sovereignty and independence.
“Our innovative shared vision created the Southern Energy Corridor that is now a lifeline for the region given Russia’s weaponization of energy,” said Olson, adding that nearly 8,000 people from Azerbaijan have traveled to the United States on exchange programs since 1991.
One of these programs is the State Department-funded Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX), which allows high-school students from 22 former communist and Soviet states to spend an academic year in the United States, living with a volunteer host family and attending a US high school.
Olson, who leaves her post this year, praised Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, as well as his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan, for concluding a second round of peace talks in April hosted by Secretary of State Tony Blinken.
“The United States remains dedicated to helping the countries of the South Caucasus reach the lasting peace they all seek,” she said. “A final agreement is within reach, and we are determined to help our friends achieve it.”
Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, talked about efforts to fight drug trafficking and violent extremist organizations, as well as curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Protecting critical energy infrastructure, such as oil platforms in the Caspian Sea, is part of a border security initiative, said Cooper. She also thanked Azerbaijan for its role in Afghanistan, where Azerbaijani troops helped maintain security at Kabul’s airport during the final evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians fleeing Taliban rule.
Among other things, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a proclamation designating May 26, 2023, Azerbaijan Independence Day. She noted that Azerbaijan was one of the world’s first countries—and the first predominantly Muslim country—to grant women the right to vote, having done so two years before passage of the 19th Amendment granting that same right to women in the United States. Later, Maryam Najafzadeh performed the Sari Gelin national dance, and also danced to music from the opera Koroglu.
One of the most unusual sojourns of an American in Azerbaijan was that of Spencer Nelson, a Utah State Hall of Fame athlete who satisfied his wanderlust with a decade of playing for professional basketball teams abroad, including Germany, Italy, Greece and Spain.
From 2010 to 2012, he also played for Azerbaijan’s national basketball team, helping his teammates defeat Albania and Romania.Nelson now works for Iron Gate Global Advisors, a Salt Lake City boutique investment firm. But Nelson’s time in Azerbaijan has always stayed with him.
“What I found as I spent the summers in Baku and trained with my teammates, who are still friends today,” he said, “is the more we worked together, the more we competed together, and the more my love and appreciation for the people of Azerbaijan grew.”