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Why Cultural Diplomacy Matters to Nation Branding: The Case of Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev Foundation



The paper looks at the relationship between nation branding and cultural diplomacy. It argues that both cultural diplomacy and nation branding are forms of soft power, with the cultural diplomacy also acting as a tool of nation branding. Namely, one form of soft power is also a tool of another form of soft power. The paper emphasizes the relevance of non-government actors in post-soviet nations for use of cultural diplomacy to drive the nation’s influence abroad politically and economically. It refers to Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev Foundation as case study to showcase an organization’s contribution to nation branding - a form of soft power by using another form of soft power - cultural diplomacy as a tool of nation branding. The paper concludes that the case of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation proves that cultural diplomacy is an effective tool for nation branding.

Key tags: Cultural Diplomacy; Nation Branding; Azerbaijan; Heydar Aliyev Foundation; Mehriban Aliyeva.


With the collapse of the former Soviet Union, newly independent post-soviet republics had to face a lot of challenges and threats and treat them with no previous statehood experience. First of all, some of them had to deal with ethnic and secessionist conflicts on one hand and to promote the newly-independent and absolutely unknown nations abroad on the other hand. This was very true for republics like Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan. These small nations faced ethnic conflicts even before the collapse of the Soviet Union and they turned into violent and secessionist ones just following the official collapse of the union. Moreover, they had to struggle with economic problems and introduce themselves to the international community. However, economic resources available were very scarce to do this imminent task while experience of statehood was almost zero-level. Cultural diplomacy could have been one of a few efficient options for international promotion of those nations. Azerbaijan was one, if not only, of the post-soviet nations to pioneer in using its culture to promote the nation abroad. Late president Heydar Aliyev was first to initiate use of culture, very often through its personal efforts, to promote the nation internationally. And with the establishment of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation in 2004, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva took cultural diplomacy efforts to a new level and launched implementation of such activities in a solid and institutionalized way that has been contributing to nation-branding of the country.

Relationship between Nation Branding, Cultural Diplomacy, and Soft Power

Cultural diplomacy and nation branding are two forms of soft power. The relationship between cultural diplomacy and nation branding is distinct: cultural diplomacy is also a tool for nation branding. Thus, cultural diplomacy is a form of soft power and a tool for nation branding – another form of soft power. The case of Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev Foundation clearly supports the argument.

Nation branding is a process to raise the reputation of a country and they promote it for a variety of purposes. Nations are making increasingly conscious efforts to hone their country branding in recognition of the need to ful?l three major objectives: to attract tourists, to stimulate inward investment and to boost exports (Dinnie, 2008: 17). To rephrase it differently, nation branding is designed to make a nation politically, economically or culturally more competitive in the world. In addition to those three key goals, P. Temporal suggests that nation branding can also increase currency stability; help restore international credibility and investor con?dence; reverse international ratings downgrades; increase international political in?uence; stimulate stronger international partnerships and enhance nation building (by nourishing con?dence, pride, harmony, ambition, national resolve) (Temporal, 2009). Another aim in the case of Central Eastern European countries is to distance themselves from the images of communism and the negative connotations evoked by 'Eastern Europe', which often meant backwardness, despair, something poor or inferior (Szondi, 2007:8-20). Besides all the above objectives, individual countries may have specific objectives. For instance, due to radicalization and Islamophobia in the world, emerging nation-brand Azerbaijan may have such an objective to bolster its secularity, multiculturalism and diversity hence branding itself as secular, multicultural and diverse nation. Besides, suffering from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, the country had to face Armenia’s anti-Azerbaijan propaganda designed to damage the good image of the country. Therefore, Azerbaijan may also have an objective to neutralize such biased propaganda and brand itself as a civil and friendly nation.

Although traditionally governments have been the major driving force for a country’s nation branding, nowadays non-government agencies have become active in nation branding. The farther of nation branding Simon Anhols argues that “country branding occurs when public speaks to public; when a substantial proportion of the population of the country – not just civil servants and paid figureheads – gets behind the strategy and lives it out in their everyday dealings with the outside world” (Anhols, 2003:123). Perhaps that is why cultural diplomacy carried out by non-governmental organizations is effective nation branding tool that creates an environment for people of culture, artists, sports people, scholars, musicians, or just ordinary people from different countries to speak to each other. 

The Case of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation

The Heydar Aliyev Foundation uses Azerbaijani culture and heritage, the values of multiculturalism and diversity to perform cultural diplomacy. The Foundation has committed to bridging between different civilizations, religions and cultures, which has become an essential ingredient in emerging nation brand of Azerbaijan. Another ingredient in that nation brand is the nation’s image as art, music and sports country.

Promotion of the values of multiculturalism and diversity has arisen from the idea of Azerbaijanism of late president Heydar Aliyev, who skilfully and wisely managed to benefit from the potency of cultural diplomacy from the very beginning of his term in office. One of the brilliant examples of how he personally invested efforts in cultural diplomacy is that he built personal connections with foreign celebrities of Azerbaijani origin and appealed to the international community through them. A perfect example to that is his engagement of world-famous cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who was born and grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan.

What makes the foundation’s cultural diplomacy successful is that it ensures equal participation in cultural exchange. Cultural diplomacy as famously defined by American scholar Milton Cummings is “the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understandings”[Cummings, 2003:1). According to Academician Ramiz Mehdiyev, the world order emerging in this millennium should ensure equal participation in cultural exchange (Mehdiyev, 2009). Very this idea of equal participation in cultural exchange is the key to success in cultural diplomacy. Equal participation doesn’t mean imposing one’s values, ideas and cultures on the other but respecting and appreciating the other’s. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation of a secular Muslim nation - Azerbaijan reconstructs the Holy Mary Cathedral in Strasburg, France and restores the Saint Marcellino and Pietro's catacombs around Rome for Vatican. These catacombs are among the most significant monuments of the Christian world. It is a rare, if not impossible, to see Muslims renovate churches in Christian countries or Christians renovate mosques in Muslim countries. Its support for preservation of non-material cultural heritage in African nations that are geographically and culturally far from Azerbaijan is another eye-catching contribution to understanding between civilizations.  And another proof of equal participation is the foundation’s project called “Azerbaijan – the address of tolerance”. Under that project, mosques have been renovated for Muslims, church for Christians, and a school and cultural centre has been built for Jewish children in Azerbaijan.

In 2010, UNESCO awarded its Goodwill Ambassador Mehriban Aliyeva with the Mozart Medal for strengthening the intercultural dialogue and former French president Nicola Sarkozy awarded her with France’s prestigious Legion d'Honneur (Officer of the Legion of Honour) for what he described as Mehriban Aliyeva’s outstanding service and loyalty to France. These awards mean considerable change in perceptions for the better. Nation brand is perception of foreign populations about a country. That is exactly why cultural diplomacy matters to nation branding: It changes perceptions. A few examples to how perceptions of foreign countries about Azerbaijan change for the better thanks to the foundation’s cultural diplomacy:

The foundation’s activities in France is a success story considering the fact that France traditionally shows cold attitude towards Turks and Azerbaijanis due to the presence of a large Armenian Diaspora and its effective leverages in France. In spite of that, tangible thaw and positive tendencies have been emerging in France’s attitude and public opinion towards Azerbaijan. The French media and officials feel that they can’t go on ‘business as usual’ with regard to Azerbaijan and shift their approaches in response to more aware and wary French public and electorate.

The 4-day clash between Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces early in April, 2016 was a test for perception of foreign countries about Azerbaijan. The world community and media, including the French media and general public, showed a significant objectivity in its reports about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict compared to previous periods.

Cultural diplomacy and nation branding may be significant for smoothing ethnic hatred that underpins ethnic conflicts hence contributing to conflict resolution and transformation. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a territorial conflict with ethnic context. The foundation’s overseas activities would ultimately play a role to melt or at least tone down the ice of hatred with Armenians against Azerbaijanis. According to Stuart Kaufman, hatred is not “ancient” but modern as ethnic hatreds are renewed in each generation (Kaufman, 2011:11). So, he rejects the notion of permanent “ancient” hatred and argues that ethnic hatred may change. Therefore, he holds that the key to real conflict resolution is the effort to change hostile attitudes at both the elite and the grassroots levels. Change in attitudes involves change of construction of one party for the other. Constructions are neither inherent nor granted for and as Alexander Wendt argues, they ‘arise out of interaction’ (Wendt, 1992:403). To rephrase that into the context, constructions change as communications and interactions happen. So do perceptions. A school built in Russia, Netherlands, and Romania or elsewhere by the foundation would remain for the life of that school to be the voice for Azerbaijan there and contribute to changing perceptions about Azerbaijan for a more positive, friendlier one. Information spreads very fast in this 21st century – the information age. Definitely, reports on Azerbaijan’s accomplishments as well as the Heydar Aliyev Foundation’s impressive projects reach Armenians as well. Perhaps, that may trigger appetite with the ordinary Armenian community of the Nagorno-Karabakh to benefit from such achievements as Azerbaijani citizens: it makes sense to be citizens of a multicultural and well-off nation-brand than unrecognized, self-declared entity with very poor present and uncertain future. The people of the republic of Armenia also may well understand that the conflict and related occupation run contrary to the interests of the Armenian people, who are heavily dependent on aid from the Diaspora abroad while they are excluded from Azerbaijan-led massive regional economic projects due to its occupation of Azerbaijani territories. Ultimately, at some point in future, such perception of Azerbaijan as a nation-brand would be an asset or a temptation for smoothing ethnic hatred and looking at the conflict from a different, constructive perspective.

Domestic dimension of cultural diplomacy matters to nation-branding. Azerbaijan is both geographically and culturally fit to accomplish the mission of bridging between differing civilizations, religions and cultures. The nation uses international music, sports and art events to do this mission. It hosted Eurovision song contest, 1st European Games, and will host the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017 in addition to numerous other events. Besides, the foundation initiates and holds its own arts, music and sports events to that end. The Gabala International Musical Festival, Maiden Tower International Art Festival, Baku Marathon 2016, “Mugham World” International Mugham Festival are just a few examples to that. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation both contributes to and benefits from such events to showcase the country’s rich culture and heritage, and ultimately, bolster Azerbaijan’s image as art, music and sports country. Nevertheless, bridging between differing civilizations, cultures and religions is the top ingredient of emerging nation brand of multicultural Azerbaijan, in which Mehriban Aliyeva as the president of the foundation has a significant share thanks to her diligent personal efforts.


Cultural diplomacy and nation branding are two forms of soft power. And cultural diplomacy also acts as an effective tool for nation branding. Thus, cultural diplomacy is a form of soft power and a tool for nation branding – another form of soft power. Since nation brand is perception of foreign populations about a country, cultural diplomacy matters to nation branding because it changes perceptions. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation’s case clearly supports the argument. Its cultural diplomacy activities positively affect perceptions of foreign populations about Azerbaijan.

An interesting dimension of cultural diplomacy and nation branding is that they may be helpful for smoothing ethnic hatred that underpins ethnic conflicts hence contributing to conflict resolution and transformation by causing the ice of ethnic hatred to melt or at least tone down.

Domestic dimension of cultural diplomacy also matters to nation-branding. International music, sports, and art events held in the country are good ways to foster cross-cultural understanding and promote the nation. Furthermore, the idea of Azerbaijanism provides domestic foundations for Azerbaijan’s successful cultural diplomacy and nation branding abroad.

 The Heydar Aliyev Foundation’s experience showcases practical benefits that an individual organization could offer to nation branding using cultural diplomacy. What makes the foundation’s cultural diplomacy successful is that it ensures equal participation in cultural exchange. It has committed itself to bridging between different civilizations, religions and cultures, which has become an essential ingredient in emerging nation brand of Azerbaijan. Another ingredient in that nation brand is the nation’s image as art, music, and sports country. Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO and ISESCO Mehriban Aliyeva’s profile as leader of the foundation smashes negative stereotypes about Muslim women in the west as her case proves that women do matter to inter-cultural and inter-civilizational bridging, which is so deficit in today’s world.

Rahim Yusif Rahimov is a is Baku-based independent researcher, he holds an MA in International Relations from the HULT International Business School, London, UK (2009) and BA degree from the Baku State University (1999). He speaks English, Russian, Arabic, Turkish and Azerbaijani.

His publications include:

“Ensuring Energy Security with the Eastern Partnership”

Azerbaijan: Handshaking with Strangers

“Why the West Must Champion Soft Power towards Iran”

 “Nimr Al-Nimr: Victim of Saudi Anger over Iran's Nuclear Deal”



Keith Dinnie (2008). Nation Branding Concepts, Issues, Practice.

 Paul Temporal (2009). It’s Time for India to Brand Itself, Times of India, 22nd February 2009.

 Szondi, G. The Role and Challenges of Country Branding in Transition Countries: The Central European and Eastern European Experience. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (2007) 3.

Anhols, Simon (2003). Brand New Justice: The upside of global branding, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Milton C. Cummings (2003). Cultural Diplomacy and the United States Government: A Survey, Washington, D.C: Centre for Arts and Culture.

Ramiz Mehdiyev (2009).  ?????? «????????», 19 ???? 2009.

Stuart J. Kaufman (2011). Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War, Cornell University Press, the United States of America.

Alexander Wendt (1992), Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics, International Organization, Vol. 46,  No.2.

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