When I decided that the first Azerbaijani-American Youth
Conference would be an interesting column topic, it was with the
assumption that most readers, like me, would struggle to spell its
name and locate it on a map.

Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country located between Iran and
Russia, is a former Soviet satellite with a history of conflict
with neighboring Armenia. The population is ethnically Azeri; there
are also about 20-30 million Azeris living in Iran, while the
population of Azerbaijan itself is only 8 million.

Seemingly unknown to the multitude of students streaming in to
the dining halls below, the conference drew about 50 attendees,
most of them Azeri, and took place in Covel Commons on
Saturday.

The conference was put on by the Azerbaijani American Council of
California.

Javid Huseynov, a doctorate student at UC Irvine, said the
purpose of the event was to strengthen ties between Azeri
communities from a variety of countries now residing in the United
States. There are 400,000 Azeris in the United States, with over
100,000 of those living in California, he said.

With Russia trying to strengthen its hold on the region and
American-Iranian relations becoming more tense everyday, our
relations with their neighbor, Azerbaijan, will be important. It is
a chance to secure friendship and promote democratic values in a
country that has both ties to a large population of Iran and huge
oil reserves.

The Azeri population in Iran has nationalistic tendencies, and
recently they have staged protests due to the economic situation in
the region, said journalist Abolfazl Bahadori.

Bahadori is a graphic designer who works part-time for Radio
Liberty, a U.S.-sponsored radio station based in Prague that
broadcasts to Azerbaijan. He reports specifically about the Azeri
population in Iran.

There are no U.S.-backed radio stations broadcasting to Iran in
anything but Persian, perhaps missing an entire population that we
could be communicating with, he said.

With Azerbaijan’s key location and economic growth, I
wondered why there was not more interest in the conference outside
of the Azeri community. The only non-Azeris that I met were two
Turkish USC students hoping to demonstrate Turkish solidarity with
Azerbaijan.

With few oil-rich democracies and fewer Muslim democracies, the
U.S. should show greater interest, and look to promote
Azerbaijan’s transition from Soviet satellite to a democratic
nation. International monitors of the 2005 election of President
Ilham Aliyev found the elections to be tainted by fraud.

Huseynov said because Azerbaijan only gained its independence
fifteen years ago, they are becoming democratic “in an
evolutionary way.” Because of their membership in the Council
of Europe and other ties with the west, “it is inevitable
that they fall under European norms” and become increasingly
democratic, he said.

The U.S. already has strong economic ties with Azerbaijan. Their
newest oil pipeline spans 1100 miles and is a U.S.-backed project,
said Deputy Counsel General Elman Abdullayev.

For the U.S., Azerbaijan represents an opportunity to encourage
democracy in a primarily Muslim and oil-rich nation, a chance that
the U.S. must not let slip away.

For the average UCLA student, the Azerbaijani conference
represents the multitude of opportunities that exist right under
our noses, or in this case, right above our dining halls.

If you already knew how to spell Azerbaijan, e-mail Mishory
at jmishory@media.ucla.edu.