A huge drive to forge greater links between Europe and the Republic of Azerbaijan has been established right in the heart of Brussels. The European Azerbaijan Society or (TEAS) aims to bridge the economic, political and cultural gap between Asia and Europe and heading the team is former Belgian Justice Minister Marc Verwilghen who says the future looks bright for the former Soviet state.
‘It is an amazing landscape and there is huge potential for the country to grow economically and culturally,’ said Mr Verwilghen, Director of Brussels’ Benelux office of TEAS. ‘You see Jewish people living in harmony beside Russian Orthodox and Muslims,’ and the people of Azerbaijan have huge respect for gender. They could certainly teach some of the West some valuable lessons,’ added Mr Verwilghen who is a big advocate of gender equality.
Nestled by the Caspian Sea beside Russia, Georgia, Iran and Armenia, the Republic of Azerbaijan is seen as a politically and economically stable state and has established diplomatic relations with more than 145 states and joined 14 international organisations including the United Nations. It is a member of the Council of Europe. It works closely with the EU on the economy, legislation and culture as well as in combating illegal immigration and human trafficking.
The country known as ‘the land of fire’ boasts three mountain ranges, volcanoes, subalpine areas and has nine of the world’s 13 climatic zones. It is rich in oil and natural gas and exports red wine, crops, green vegetables, textiles, meat, chemicals, metals and plastics. With its geographical location on the Caspian Sea providing good links to Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan is perfectly placed as a renowned major world trade corridor.
It is a country indeed where Shi’a and Sunni Muslims live in relative harmony alongside Jews, Russian and Georgian Orthodox and people from minority faiths such as Catholics and Baptists.
But beneath this idyll between its own people, the country is heavily scarred by historic separatist movements, aggressive war and a dispute with Armenia, a terrible legacy which still weighs heavily on the country today. The conflict has displaced around 1m people from their homes around the mountainous South Caucasus area.
Although the latest war started in 1988, the conflict dates back to more than 100 years. During the early 20th century, the Armenians were supported by the Russian Tsar and later by the Soviet Union. But it is the 1m displaced Azerbaijanis who live in extreme poverty today which TEAS is committed to helping.
Mr Verwilghen and his team are on a mission to win back the rights of Azerbaijanis caught up in the conflict and to restore peace and harmony to the Republic. The country, which gained back its independence in 1991 from the Soviets, has also lost thousands of its people during the bloody conflicts and as many as 877 cities, villages and settlements have been destroyed or set on fire during recent years.
Marc Verwilghen previously served as Belgian Minister of Justice between 1999 and 2003
Mr Verwilghen and his team at TEAS are lobbying the European Court of Human Rights to come up with ‘solutions’ for the displaced refugees. ‘They don’t want to go to other countries, they want go back to their homes in Azerbaijan, so they are displaced, they aren’t technically refugees,’ added Mr Verwilghen. He and his TEAS team are also asking for assistance from the United Nations in the fight for justice for Azerbaijanis.
In addition to humanitarian work, TEAS wants to promote and help further modernise Azerbaijan, a country, three times the size of Belgium, and to develop cultural links with Europe by inviting musicians, artists and live arts performers to come to Europe. With its capital city of Baku, ideally located on the Caspian Sea, it is a largely untapped tourist destination for European holidaymakers. Promoting Azerbaijan as an attractive tourist destination is definitely a high priority for TEAS and Mr Verwilghen added it would help gain a better understanding of a country so often underestimated by the world.
‘There is a lot of hope in Azerbaijan, ‘he said. ‘When I talk to the young students in the universities in Baku, they are optimistic and hopeful for the country. They ask questions but they are the right questions. They are forward thinking and I think they will help take the country forward.’
The TEAS team are proud to play host to dignitaries from Azerbaijan on March 8 when the film Ali and Nino will be premiered. The period piece set between 1914 and 1920, tells the story between an Azerbaijani Muslim boy and a Christian Georgian girl starring Adam Bakri and Maria Valverde. And from February 22 – 28, a photographic exhibition by Philipp Rathmer takes place in Brussels covering the unresolved Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. These are just some of many cultural events to be organised in Brussels over the coming months, proving TEAS’ strong commitment to Azerbaijan.
By Kim Revill