The “Baku process”: Azerbaijan’ s Intercultural Turn
Lorenzo Kihlgren Grandi 18 June 2013

Scholars, politicians, international organizations officials, media and social activists – most of them already familiar with such a format, shared with other experiences such as the Anna Lindh Forum – generously contributed to the success of the event by sharing thoughts and best practices, as well as by designing new ways of addressing the issue both on a local and transnational level.

Since the opening ceremony, in beautiful Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center, it was clear that the Forum has been also conceived as a way to reflect the rising strategic geopolitical weight of Azerbaijan.

A reiterated, strong commitment in institutionalizing the role of the country and its capital as international center for diversity and intercultural dialogue has been expressed in every intervention by Azerbaijani officials, from the President’s opening statement to the Minister of Culture’s intervention at the UNAOC Fellowship Alumni meeting. Participants to the forum were offered a number of guided tours of monuments and museums in Baku, in order to show its multi-faceted cultural heritage, symbolized by ancients mosques surrounded by 19th century Parisian-inspired buildings and modern skyscrapers.

A leitmotif in this highly publicized vocation consists in the “Baku Process”, proudly defined as “a very important event in modern history” by President Ilham Aliyev. Such a process, started in 2008, has seen the capital of Azerbaijan hosting a major intercultural event per year: the participation of Culture Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in the Baku meeting of Culture Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2008; a meeting of the Culture Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation attended by their colleagues from the Council of Europe in 2009; the World Summit of Religious Leaders in 2010, and the first Forum in 2011 and the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.

The respect for cultural and religious diversity in Azerbaijan has in fact been praised by several participants to the Forum, such as UNESCO DG Irina Bokova, who stressed the heterogeneity of the country’s intangible heritage – symbolized by Nowrooz, Zoroastrian New Year’s Eve, which is celebrated as a festivity by the whole country.

Moreover, the Forum represented the opportunity for Aliyev to give visibility to his domestic policy, explicitly mentioned in his opening speech: “We can say that Azerbaijan has successfully addressed major economic and social issues” […] “our strong financial position, a stable political situation, regional initiatives, natural resources and, most importantly, human capital are the factors leading Azerbaijan forward”.

The Baku Process undoubtedly represents a success for the Azerbaijani Government, paving the way to a progressively more active role of the country in intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. Nevertheless, an uncomfortable, long-lasting obstacle may prevent the country from fully realizing such a goal: the harsh dispute with Armenia regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which claimed its independence in 1992. Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a bloody war for this region, which was an autonomous oblast within the borders of the Azerbaijan SSR, mostly inhabited by ethnic Armenians. After the end of the war, in 1994, the Azerbaijani population has been driven out of the region, causing an unhealed wound mentioned by President Aliyev in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Forum.

Needless to say, the inability to find a viable settlement for the Nagorno-Karabakh issue might reshape Baku’s ambitions. Major witness of this source of regional instability, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Azerbaijan is currently focusing on the issue of missing persons and on detainees held for conflict-related or security reasons. While the second issue has been progressively solved through prisoner exchanges, the problem of missing people – more than 4600 – exacerbates the relations between the two neighbouring countries. Almost 20 years after the end of the war, Azerbaijan and Armenia reciprocally accuse each other of hiding and preventing missing persons to return home. No evidence of the secret detention of these persons have been proven by the Red Cross, thus making clear the instrumental nature of the issue, disrespectful towards the right of the concerned families to mourn their relatives. As far as the Nagorno Karabakh – related disputes exist, the “Baku process” is unlikely to be fully accomplished.