POWERFUL PERSPECTIVES

Azerbaijan 2016 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: YEAR OF MULTICULTURALISM

President Ilham Aliyev has declared 2016 the Year of Multiculturalism for Azerbaijan in an effort to promote and spread the country's long and diverse cultural heritage.

As a country that sits at the historic crossroads between the East and West and the North and South, it comes as no surprise that Azerbaijan is also the meeting place of many different cultures and lifestyles. Multiculturalism is an ideal that has lived at the heart of Azerbaijan since the country's inception, playing an important and often prominent role throughout its complex and interesting history. President Aliyev's declaration comes at an interesting time as well. Uncertainty permeates the international market, with devaluations and market slides recurring all over the globe as well as in the domestic financial market. Declaring 2016 as the Year of Multiculturalism was not a careless attempt at forced harmony during trying times, but instead part of a larger and more conceptually cohesive strategy put forth by the government to lead the society of Azerbaijan through both the good and the bad. This is not their first foray into championing the idea of a multicultural society either, as Azerbaijan set up the Baku International Multiculturalism Center in 2014.

To the citizens of Azerbaijan, the land upon which they live and the distinct cultural stamps that saturate their lives mean more to them than the artless platitude of a “melting pot” mentality. In Azerbaijan, the commitment to multiculturalism transcends the simplicity and insincerity of mere lip service and is not a movement born out of political expedience. The citizens of the country live and experience multiculturalism in their everyday lives. Even the national cuisine offers a glimpse into the multicultural fabric of Azerbaijan. There are notable influences and specialty dishes regularly prepared in Azerbaijan that have their origins in Iran, Georgia, Turkey, and Russia, among other destinations. Kebabs are widely available, as is khachapuri and caviar, for example. Eschewing one single culture in order to favor and embrace diversity is central to Azerbaijan.

A simple stroll around Baku will reveal to even the most skeptical cynic a city born out of a masterfully merged and rich cultural tapestry. At various points during a downtown excursion of Baku alone, one can get a true feel for the history and the various cultures that have influenced life in Azerbaijan. A stop at an old war monument or a stop in a dated apartment building may invite a feeling of nostalgia over the 71 year Soviet tenure, while a statue of Heydar Aliyev will fill your spirit with Azerbaijani pride as both a fixture and monument of the country achieving post-Soviet success. There are parts of the city that reveal an advanced, 21st century ethos, from the business culture that permeates downtown Baku, to the Flame Towers that stand tall and proud, extending a chance for all to bask in the citywide ambiance of the impressive light displays that illuminate Baku in the night. It is important to remember that there are also parts of the city that are quite literally ancient, with an 8th century Mosque and a 12th century church featured, for example, further evidence of a decidedly multicultural identity. As numerous as the ultra-high fashion and luxury shops are in Azerbaijan, it seems as if one is always a taxi ride away from an authentic carpet boutique, with these little storefronts housing carpets forged from the trusted hands of those fervently dedicated to the timeless craft. A different stop along the same path through Azerbaijan will prompt a person to feel as if they are surrounded by Bohemian cachet.

As an obvious bedrock in the composition of the country, the call to make 2016 a year dedicated to the ideals that lie so close to the hearts of Azerbaijanis was not only appropriate, but also timely. By making this bold declaration to the nation during this period of struggle, President Aliyev is reassuring the people of Azerbaijan through the keystone ideal that forged their identity as a people. The President's strategy with this declaration is bold and decisive: he is encouraging the citizenry to build upon the pre-existing principles of tolerance and multicultural understanding, ensuring that the Land of the Fire marches on.