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For years, oil-rich Azerbaijan has been saddled with an image as a corrupt semi-autocracy. Now, however, oil money has given the country a budget for international self-promotion. Sixteen embassies have opened this year alone, with 11 more on the way. By next year, Azerbaijan will have 58 embassies around the world, more than double its total in 2004. But there’s a problem: not enough diplomats to staff them.

On busy Fizuli Street in the capital, Baku, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announces itself with a globe rising from a fountain. Inside the building – its creaky hallways and faded maroon rugs giving it the feel of a well-worn museum – Hafiz Pashayev, Azerbaijan’s former ambassador to the United States, is laying out the details for the ministry’s solution: the country’s new academy for would-be diplomats. “The ministry gave its capable diplomats to all the embassies; now we’re empty here,” says Pashayev.

Independent from the Soviet Union since 1991, Azerbaijan in many ways still feels like an outpost of empire. A long-standing war with neighbouring Armenia and a history of poverty and corruption crippled the country for more than a decade. But oil has always been its trump card – even if the country saw little benefit from its assets during the years of the ussr. It was not until 1994, when a bp-led oil consortium signed the “deal of the century” to export the Caspian nation’s oil directly to Europe, that Azerbaijan’s luck started to change. A €3bn pipeline was completed last May, and it has already helped turn Azerbaijan into the fastest-growing economy in the world, with gdp growth at 34 per cent in 2006 and €170bn in revenue expected over the next 20 years.

As Europe looks to diversify its energy market, it has increasingly paid court to Azerbaijan. Current eu President Angela Merkel met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in February to announce “serious interest” in expanding economic links. Azerbaijan is also the US’s favoured ally, coming out on the “for us” side of Bush’s terrorism dialectic, and the only largely secular Muslim state more sympathetic to Israel than to Iran, while near to both.

Up-and-coming countries have similar requirements to up-and-coming celebrities: the right international exposure. “The idea is to spread our presence in the world,” Pashayev says about the academy, which began the first of its programmes this March. “A lack of knowledge about Azerbaijan is hurting us.” The academy’s goal is not only to produce enough diplomats to meet the current demand, but to introduce them to a style of diplomacy new to Azerbaijan.

Soviet-style foreign relations are no longer suitable for a country making unprecedented overtures to a receptive western audience. “It wasn’t just a matter of corruption,” says a contact in Baku, speaking anonymously, about the old system. “It’s just that the system didn’t work. These kids would drive up in their bmws, smoke cigarettes and go home.”

Pashayev’s office wall is lined with photographs from his former life. He stands proudly with Bill Clinton, George Bush and seemingly everyone else down the Washington food chain. When he returned from the US this July, after a 13-year tenure that lasted through all three of Azerbaijan’s respective post-Communist administrations, he expected to retire quietly. Instead, he was tapped by President Aliyev (who is also his niece’s husband) to open the academy and serve as its rector. Formerly a prominent physicist, he learned what he knew about diplomacy only piecemeal while on the job.

“There was no time or money for diplomacy then,” says Fariz Ismailzade, the academy’s director of training. “Pash-ayev likes to say that until now, all our diplomats had been trained by life; now we want them to be trained more systematically,” he says. Which is why, as more embassies open, Azerbaijan’s standards for diplomats have been raised dramatically: of the 700 students who took the new foreign service test last year, eight passed. The school, which still lacks a campus, a completed curriculum and much of its staff, began with an eight-month executive education programme. Thirty students were handpicked from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, almost all foreign-policy specialists in their twenties.

The programme is split into eight monthly modules. The current roster, printed on a single sheet of green paper, lists courses on communication and negotiations, a crisis-management simulation, as well as workshops on international trade and the emerging economies of Southeast Asia.
“One of our government’s most important issues is to develop our non-oil sector,” says Pashayev. It has opened embassies in Korea and India with this in mind. “Businessmen, in my experience, come to embassies,” Pashayev says. “So for this reason, the issue of training diplomats has become extremely important.”

The idea, for now, is to bring in outside help. The first course, on the very basics of how to open and run an embassy – students learn how to set up press conferences, lead negotiations, and write press releases – was conducted by a former US ambassador from America’s Georgetown University. The second course, on international security, was run by the US- and Germany-based George C Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Next in line to teach will be the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and the Massachusetts-based Tufts Fletcher School of Diplomacy.

The academy has all the chaotic energy of a start-up company. Classes are conducted wherever there is space. Some are held in the ballroom of the Absheron, a hotel just off Baku’s long Caspian boardwalk. Weekly language lessons, in both English and Azeri for students who attended Russian schools, are held downstairs, where students sit at small desks in a meeting room filled with chandeliers and photographic displays from Azerbaijan’s history.

Pashayev is a firm believer in the importance of space. In a city hounded by construction, the academy’s options were limited, but Pashayev finally found a plot of land in March next to a stadium and a McDonald’s where the academy’s campus will be built over the next few years. This May, Pashayev will meet with 20 US architects in Washington DC to discuss his vision for the campus, a five- to six-storey building and 15 apartments to house faculty members from abroad. Its design, he says, is crucial. “We have a very ambitious vision,” he adds.

If all goes to plan, the academy will be a series of firsts: Azerbaijan’s first comprehensive English-language library, its first electronic library and career centre and the first online system for grades and registration. For Ismailzade, who was director of political programmes at the US-based International Republican Institute for five years before he joined the academy this year, it is a first too. “I would have never imagined myself working in the government,” he says. “I came here from a well-paid job – but I’m attracted to the model of the academy.”

Embassy boom

Azerbaijan had just 26 embassies between 1992 and 2004. That number will jump to 58 during 2007.

Embassies opened in recent years

Belarus
Bulgaria
India
Indonesia
Jordan
Spain
Canada
Latvia
Hungary
Morocco
Poland
Romania
Japan
Greece
Los Angeles (consulate)
Tabriz (consulate)

Ambassador appointed, no embassy building

Czech Republic
South Korea
Qatar
Malaysia
Netherlands

Embassy planned, no ambassador appointed

Argentina
Croatia
Sweden
Kyrgyzstan
Lithuania
Mexico
Syria
Tajikistan
Thailand
Ekaterinburg (consulate)
Makhachkala (consulate)

Meet the new ambassadors

The eight students profiled here are from the academy’s first 30 recruits. They are the next generation of Azerbaijani diplomats and would-be ambassadors. Young and ambitious, their task will be to dispel negative images of the former Soviet satellite nation and help promote the oil-rich country as a loyal friend to the West and a good place to do business.

  1. Ramin Aliyev
    The translator
    — Aliyev, who works in the translation department, towers over his classmates and, with his eye for fabrics and colour and the temperament of a TV host, he seems to be grooming himself for a public audience of a different kind. “This is my first interview,” he says happily. Now 24, Aliyev graduated from Baku’s University of Foreign Languages, where he specialised in English and German. “When you learn English, you want to use it,” he says. Ramin’s favourite music is hip hop, which his brother introduced him to after studying in Kentucky. “I can’t say what the future will be. Everyone has a dream, and my dream is to be ambassador.”

  2. Tural Rahimov
    The publicist
    — Rahimov is concerned how he comes across. After his interview, he returns several times to make clarifications and to check that he has been quoted correctly. “The purpose of a diplomat is to represent your country perfectly,” he says. Rahimov, 26, works in the press and information department, organising press conferences and handling foreign journalists. “During school times, I read a lot about famous diplomats like Talleyrand, Kissinger and Brzezinski. I liked the job so much I decided to be a diplomat myself.” He thinks this over and then inserts a quick addendum. “And, of course, I wish to represent my country overseas.”

  3. Naila Rustem-Zadeh
    The human-rights specialist
    — A professional dancer from the ages of seven to 17, Rustem-Zadeh toured internationally as a member of Azerbaijan’s national folk troupe. Now 21, she is the youngest member of the international legal department, where she started as an intern before becoming a full employee in November, specialising in Azerbaijan’s adherence to human-rights conventions. She speaks English, Russian, Turkish, French and some Spanish, and her 15-year-old brother is learning Japanese. “I always wanted to be an ambassador to Spain,” she says. “I play guitar, speak Spanish and want to learn flamenco. I love everything to do with the country.”

  4. Erkin Heydarli
    The policy planner
    — Of all the academy’s students, Heydarli, 25, is the one you most imagine behind an ambassador’s desk. He speaks with the confidence and authority of someone twice his age. After finishing his military service, Heydarli took the diplomatic test in 2005 and was one of the eight who passed. Now he is a member of the foreign policy planning department. He has a nine-month-old son, and a wife who works for bp. “We were born in a period of gaining independence, and there was this feeling of patriotism. When I watched Aliyev and other politicians on tv giving speeches, I thought, ‘I want to be like them.’ ”

  5. Fuad Babayev
    The intern
    — Babayev has the cocksureness of any 21-year-old told he will go on to great things. Born in Krasnodar, Russia, he spoke Russian as his first language until he was four, when his family moved to Baku. Now working on his bachelor’s degree in international relations at Baku State University, he was one of a handful chosen by his university to be an intern at the ministry’s consular department. “He’s our star intern,” Ismailzade says. He plans to finish the executive programme and continue at the academy’s master’s programme, then go on to become a diplomat in the consular section so he can “defend citizen’s rights abroad.”

  6. Gulnar Vakilova
    The cultural attaché
    — At 32, Vakilova is the oldest of the academy’s students and she has already worked for three years at Azerbaijan’s Istanbul embassy. She apologises for her English before launching into an articulate conversation. She lived in France for five years, receiving a Master’s in French translation before starting a doctorate in international cultural relations. Now she is unesco’s liaison in the ministry, working on the preservation of historical monuments as well as the mughum, a classical Azeri musical form. Her musician parents live in Turkey. “But for me, it’s more interesting to be here right now.”

  7. Emin Teymurov
    The MBA
    — With a Master’s in management from a top US school, and fluent English, Teymurov, 24, could have taken a high-paying job in the private sector. He explains his motivation: “It’s only the love of public service that can make someone work for a low salary.” Teymurov is currently at the Department of Economic Development, where he coordinates with international financial organisations such as the World Bank and IMF. “The academy is one of the key achievements of our country,” he says. “Our president has said that we have to turn black gold into human gold, and this academy will help.”

  8. Jala Ibrahimova
    The security specialist
    — Ibrahimova lived in Armenia until she was six years old, leaving with her family during the war. Now 24, she is the only woman in the Regional Security Affairs Department, writing local election reports and coordinating programmes with international organisations. She is also working on her doctorate in Azerbaijani security policy. Her dream now is to work at the UN or in Strasbourg. “The establishment of this academy is of great importance for my country,” she said. “Being a diplomat is a very prestigious job but it’s not a matter of education. You also need to develop yourself personally.”

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