Israel on Sunday ratified a visa agreement with Azerbaijan making it easier for diplomatic passport holders to travel between the Jewish state and the Caucasus republic.
The news was brought to Washington that evening by Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Rafael Harpaz, who with Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, Elin Suleymanov, was making
the rounds of Jewish Washington promoting the special relationship between the two countries.
The envoys spoke to an audience of 50 at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac. The discussion was sponsored by AJC and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Azerbaijan, which won its independence in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, is a Shiite Muslim country with close – and public – ties with Israel, both men stressed.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited the country just last week, only the latest of high-ranking Israeli officials to travel to Baku, the capital. Azerbaijan provides Israel with 40 percent of its imported oil. And when Israel was fighting Hamas in Gaza this summer and the United States briefly halted flights to Ben-Gurion Airport, Azerbaijan Airlines kept flying.
The country has a Jewish population of 30,000 “and zero anti-Semitism,” Harpaz said.
“The close relationship is good for Azerbaijan and it’s good for Israel to know that it isn’t up against the whole Muslim world,” Suleymanov said.
Suleymanov bemoaned the criticism his country receives from the West, despite its strong support for the Western mission in Afghanistan. Some 35-40 percent NATO supplies headed for Afghanistan along the so-called Northern Distribution Network pass through Azerbaijan, which has sent troops to support NATO operations, he said.
“The problem is, the United States feels it is convenient for political reasons
to criticize Azerbaijan incessantly,” Suleymanov said.
Azerbaijan has been criticized for its poor human rights record. A 2013 U.S. State Department report noted “increased restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly and association,
including intimidation, arrest and use of force against journalists and human rights and democracy activists online and offline.”
In the 2013 presidential election, incumbent Ilham Aliyev, the son of the country’s first president, won a third term with 85 percent of the vote. A delegation of international observers called the polling “unfair and rife with fraud,” The New York Times reported.
Suleymanov did not mention these issues. He did complain about the criticism his secular government receives “for not allowing radical literature and radical foreign preaching” and for an education ministry directive prohibiting girls from wearing the hijab, or headscarf, in primary and secondary schools.
“We are criticized because our girls are not forced to wear the hijab, and this is the worst problem in the Middle East?” he said.