The University of Toledo has changed a lot since Elin Suleymanov was a student there, and so has his country.
Mr. Suleymanov, the Republic of Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, graduated from the University of Toledo in 1994 with a master's degree in public administration. He spoke Monday at UT about relations between his country and the United States. His visit was sponsored by UT's Center for International Studies and Programs.
The UT campus has improved greatly, he said. Mr. Suleymanov still uses the English writing skills he learned in Toledo, and said his time in the city was a formative experience for his perception of the country.
He recalled former professors at the university, including one who harped frequently about the needs for improvements at the the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority.
“LMHA is still engraved in my brain,” he said with a laugh.
Azerbaijan is to the west of the Caspian Sea, and bordered by Iran, Russia, and Armenia. Mr. Suleymanov framed his country's relationship with the United States in largely strategic terms, focusing on its location on a fault line between East and West, Muslim and Christian countries, and a place where Persian, Russian, and Ottoman empires met.
Azerbaijan is largely pro-Western, has a secular government despite being majority Shia Muslim, and provided troops to both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
A pipeline that connects Azerbaijan’s oil fields in the Caspian Sea, and Turkey was successful in large part because of long-term U.S. support that spanned multiple administrations, he said. That kind of consistent position is vital for pro-Western nations; otherwise governments may be concerned that U.S. positions will change when a new administration is elected.
“A lack of commitments is a very dangerous thing,” he said.
He said that a proposed natural gas pipeline that would help provide energy security for Europe needs U.S. political support.
He also criticized the United Nations Security Council's inaction over resolutions passed decades ago that required the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijan territory. The two countries fought in the early 1990s after internal conflict between ethnic Azeris and Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
Mr. Suleymanov was asked by attendees about his country's involvement in U.S.-led conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, how Azerbaijan balances its relationship between the United States and its neighbor Iran, and about the decades-long dispute between Azerbaijan and its neighbor Armenia.
Ken Davis, who identified himself as UT employee, asked Mr. Suleymanov about public censures by the European Union and human rights organizations of Azerbaijan's human rights record.
Human Rights Watch, for instance, expressed concern in a January memo about the government's “harassment, intimidation, and violence against journalists,” restrictions on freedom of assembly, torture in police custody, and forced evictions of some residents, among other complaints.
Mr. Suleymanov said some of the criticism of his country's government is justified, citing specifically the levels of corruption within Azerbaijan. But he said that the country had gained independence from the former Soviet Union only in 1991 and that it takes time to develop strong democratic institutions. He noted that the aspirations stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” were not realized until the 1960s.
He said that Abraham Lincoln, whom he admires, was assassinated.
“It's not easy to build a democratic society,” he said.
Mr. Suleymanov said that while relationships between governments are important, people-to-people connections are the real key to good relations.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.