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Vafa Guluzade: Kissinger of the Caucasus

Vafa Guluzade: Kissinger of the Caucasus

“If my voice was silent, Azerbaijan would be in a terrible situation; a country like ours must have an active foreign policy because we are under attack from many sides,” Azerbaijan’s Vafa Guluzade once told an interviewer. Nearly five years after his death his career serves as a lesson of what it takes to survive in the turbulent political world of the Caucasus. 

Guluzade possessed a chameleon like ability to change with the times and to know which way the political winds were blowing. Guluzade was a survivor. First as a Soviet diplomat, then as an Azeri diplomat, and finally as national security adviser for Azerbaijan’s first three Presidents Ayaz Mutallibov, Abulfaz Elchibey and finally Heydar Aliyev. Guluzade died on May 1, 2015 but, his shadow still lingers over the Caucasus.

He was born in December 21, 1940 to a professor of Turkic literature. At an early age, his grandmother, whose relatives had been exiled to Siberia or fled to Turkey, took the young Guluzade aside. In hushed tones, she told him the truth — that he must not believe what he had heard; Lenin Baba was in fact a criminal. Nevertheless, Guluzade graduated from the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow in 1967 with a degree in modern Egyptian literature and at least some belief in the Soviet system. As a young soviet diplomat, he served in Cairo during the 1973 October War and following the independence of his native Azerbaijan, he would serve as a national security adviser to three Azerbaijani Presidents including Heydar Aliyev.  Like diplomats of an earlier era, it was linguistic skills that proved instrumental to his success. In addition to his native Azeri, Guluzade spoke fluent Russian, Arabic, English, and decent Persian

Cairo Connection

As a young diplomat in the Soviet diplomatic corps with fluent Arabic language skills, he was appointed to Cairo. “Cairo was a great town, mother of the world as they say in Arabic and coming from the Soviet Union it was really liberating,” he told me once in a long interview.

He happened to be the Second Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Cairo during the October 1973 war. His Arabic language skills made him a natural choice to translate a meeting between Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet representative and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Soviet meetings with Egypt were supposed to be semi-secret and Kosygin objected to being photographed at the meeting. Yet, Sadat outflanked him “We must take at least one photo for the history books.”  Sadat told the Soviets. A photo showing Kosygin and Vafa Guluzade being greeted by Sadat was later published in Newsweek in 1973 and was used by the Egyptians as propaganda to suggest Soviet support for the Egyptian cause to regain control of the Sinai peninsula. 

“Sadat was a man of peace, but knew he wouldn’t get lasting peace with Israel until he proved Egypt’s military prowess on the battlefield.” Gulzade reflected. 

I spoke with Vafa Guluzade on the sidelines of an event at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in 2012 and I took the opportunity to ask him about one of the great mysteries of the October 1973 War. In the closing end of that conflict, the Egyptian Third Army was surrounded on the Sinai by Israeli forces. Down to the present historians have debated if it was on the verge of collapse when the war ended. “We were very worried about the Third Army because the Israelis kept violating the cease-fire; the Soviets thought it would collapse. That was part of the reason why the Soviet Union was ready to intervene,” he said in a measured tone as he reflected on events that almost led to World War III.

Yet, he says focusing on the fate of the Third Army missed a larger point about the 1973 war. 

“The Israelis drove within a 106 kilometers of Cairo, but then they realized I think that they couldn’t go further. They could not occupy a nation several times bigger than Israel. Its sheer numbers suggested they would face a guerrilla war bigger than in Lebanon. That was the moment they realized that someday they would have to come to peace with the Arabs.” The real problem he explained was, “These countries can be easy to conquer but, hard to occupy.”

Guluzade would later translate for Syrian President Hafez Asad, Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev and many other Soviet potentates. It was also in Egypt that Guluzade first came to the attention of Heydar Aliyev by chance in 1973. The future President of Azerbaijan arrived in Cairo in 1973 as the head of a delegation to Egypt from the Central Committee of the USSR Communist Party. The interpreter with the delegation proved unfamiliar with Egyptian colloquial Arabic and Guluzade was recommended as a last minute replacement. Guluzade made a strong impression on Heydar Aliyev, then the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party. On his departure, he gifted Guluzade with caviar, cognac, a watch, and instructions to visit him the next time he was in Baku. In 1975, Guluzade was appointed to an administrative role with Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan by Heydar Aliyev. A position he would hold until his final international posting as Soviet diplomat to Algeria in 1987.

Return to Baku

After Algeria, he returned to Baku. Rafiq Nishonov, Chairman of the Soviet of Nationalities had offered Guluzade a position in Moscow. When Guluzade suggested he would prefer to work in Baku, Nishonov personally phoned Ayaz Mutallibov, then the President of Azerbaijan. Yet, the relationship with Mutallibov was fraught with tensions, as Guluzade increasingly came to see the President as Moscow’s puppet. Towards the end of his rule, Mutallibov’s assistants were seeking to prohibit Guluzade’s access to the President. On May 15, 1992, Mutallibov was overthrown in a coup. Following national elections on June 17, 1992, Abulfaz Elchibey was sworn in as a President of Azerbaijan. Guluzade’s friendship with Elchibey reach back to their student days when Elchibey was too poor to afford a proper suit for the class photo one year and borrowed Guluzade’s which the future Azeri diplomat never asked for in return. An incident in later in life that Guluzade compared to the details Pushkin’s 1836 novel “The Captain’s Daughter.”

Elchibey fled from power in June 1992 as Heydar Aliye maneuvered to rule the country. Writing in his  memoir “Caucasus among Enemies and Friends”, Guluzade wrote, “I consider that Elichibey’s sudden escape to Keleki is a mystery with numerous interpretations. I personally proposed to Elchibey to provide us all with weapons so that we could fight to the end, as in Chile [when Socialist president Salvador Allende died fighting a coup in on September 11, 1973]. He gave me no answer and secretly flew to Keleki.” Soon, Guluzade was contacted by Heydar Aliyev, whom he had first met in Cairo 20 years before, “I am an acting President of Azerbaijan and I would like to work with you” Aliyev told him.

The 1988-1994 Azerbaijan-Armenian Karabakh War left some 40,000 people killed on both sides and a million people displaced from their homes. Some 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory is occupied by Armenia up until the present day. The economy was in shambles; the average state salary was only $15 a month. The national budget was only $100 million and only 25% of the nation’s 3.31 billion GDP was generated from exports. Azerbaijan’s fate looked bleak. Instead, thanks to Western investment in the petroleum sector and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, wealth flowed like oil from a barrel. In 1994, the country’s GDP stood at 3.31 billion, but had grown to 73.56 billion 20 years later according to World Bank figures.

The goal of ending Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani territories and bringing peace to the southern Caucasus would allude Guluzade’s efforts during his time in power. As early as 1995, he signaled Baku was willing to enter negotiations with Armenia and give Nagorno-Karabakh de-facto self-governance. He even proposed to make energy starved Armenia a transit country for the BTC pipeline. While direct negotiations with Armenia proved fruitless Vafa Guluzade campaigned successfully to have the conflict discussed at the OSCE Lisbon Summit in 1995. There Nagorno-Karabakh was recognized as an integral part of Azerbaijan’s territory and the meeting decreed that the issue would be resolved on the basis of talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

It was a clear diplomatic victory but it did not bring Armenia to the negotiating table. Instead Guluzade found Armenia even more intransigent as a result. Increasingly he felt the path to peace was being blocked in Moscow — not in Yerevan. Running out of options in January 1999, Guluzade called for Azerbaijan’s NATO membership or at least the leasing of Azerbaijan’s territory for a U.S military base. It wasn’t the first time Guluzade had offered outspoken views. After the war with Armenia he had spoken of the possibility of Azerbaijan joining Turkey. Yet, the kerfuffle over his NATO sentiments was more than he expected and contributed to his resignation in October of that year. For once it appeared he had been out of step with political realities.

Imperial States

While Guluzade took a friendly view of the United States and Turkey, he saw Russia and Iran as essentially empires in the traditional sense of the word. Both countries (while republics) had inherited the borders of former empires and home to millions of citizens who might prefer to have their own states. He had in mind in particular the 20 million ethnic Azeris in Iran or South Azerbaijan as some Azeri historians refer to it. He believed that because of their imperial structures and borders eventually the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran would collapse. The reunification of Azerbaijan with South Azerbaijan was he believed as inevitable as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet, in the same breath, he decried these imperial-states, he also noted inclusion of Azerbaijan in the Russian empire was a positive event in Azerbaijan’s history as it lead to the eventual independence of Azerbaijan. “I speak better Russian than many citizens of Russia.” he once noted proudly. He could speak with equal passion about the beauty of Persian poetry as he could on Iran’s threat to the region (Iran had provided material support to Armenia during the Azerbaijan-Armenian War). Toward the end of his life he came to believe that Russia’s incursion in Ukraine made the value of a friendly regime in Baku more important to American leaders. Crisis could also be opportunity.

An obituary published in Hurriyet Daily News by Zaur Shiriyev, Chatham House Fellow compared Guluzade to former U.S national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. But Guluzade liked to compare himself to another American diplomat: Henry Kissinger, who Guluzade met on several occasions. Guluzade shared the realist worldview of both Brzezinski and Kissinger. Like Kissinger, Guluzade’s influence lasted long after his time as a public servant and just like Kissenger he was able to maneuver himself into prominent roles in multiple administrations.

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