Azerbaijan in the world: Revisiting 2012 and looking forward to 2013 (1)

As in the past, Azerbaijan in the World once again has surveyed officials and experts on the most important foreign policy developments of the past year.  The previous issue featured the reactions of Azerbaijanis.  What follows are the reactions of American, Georgian and Russian observers of the Azerbaijani scene.

Azerbaijan in the World:  What do you see as Azerbaijan’s chief foreign policy achievements during 2012?
Tedo Japaridze, Amb [Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee, Parliament of Georgia]:  Some decisive steps taken in the oil and gas sector’s development probably form the short answer.  A longer answer is that Azerbaijan has managed to keep itself out of the headlines in a region that offers too many opportunities for sensational news.

Sergey Markedonov [Visiting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Centre for Strategic and International Studies]: The past year was full of a variety of events.  It began with Baku’s serious claim for, and a jump into, its special place in the international system.  At the beginning of 2012, the representatives of Azerbaijan took part in meetings of the UN Security Council as the non-permanent representative of the East European countries.  Although the UN has suffered a decline in its role in the world, for many countries and especially for those who recently acquired independence, any participation in international structures is extremely important.  And one could view this as Azerbaijan’s success and the recognition of the country’s (geo)political role in the East European region.  At the same time, of course, this result reflects more than Baku’s efforts in the last year; it is a product of the work it has engaged in for some time, especially given its far from simple competition with Slovenia for the position, the latter being a member of the European Union and NATO.

At the start of 2012, Azerbaijan’s bilateral relations with Iran became rather tense.  This reflected the rapidly developing processes across the Middle East and the confrontation of the West with Iran and the efforts of both Israel and Iran to secure themselves firm positions in the Caucasus region.  Ultimately, however, Baku and Teheran were able to pull back from extreme positions and did not cross “red lines.”  That, too, must be counted as a success.

One can characterize Azerbaijani policy as a seesaw.  That is, its course is directed at the preservation of constructive relations with various centers of power: with the West and with Russia, with Iran and with Turkey, with Israel and with the Palestinian Autonomy.  However, in the current year, Baku achieved the most in the structuring of relations with the United States and the European Union.  The situation around the Gabala radar station expressed a certain cooling of ties with Moscow.  But to speak about some kind of failure in relations between Baku and Moscow is not yet appropriate.

One can also consider a definite success the visit of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to Paris and his meeting with the new French President Francois Holland.  Recently, France has begun to show greater activity in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, and efforts to develop relations with a country, which inside Azerbaijan has the reputation of being pro-Armenian, is important for Baku.  That helps to explain why the negotiations, broken off by the Ramil Safarov affair, were renewed as quickly as they were. 

Thomas Goltz [Montana State University and Author, Azerbaijan Diary, 1998]: Oddly, it may be the hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest. 

AIW:  What were the major shortcomings of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy in 2012 and what lessons were to be learnt? 

Japaridze: Azerbaijan does not take uncalculated risks.  Diplomatic shortcomings may exist because of a failure to capitalize on opportunities, but it is hard to point to a single example of that.  One of the lessons of 2012 is that the economic and security landscape is changing rapidly; there are fewer independent variables in 2012 than there were in 2011.  Initiative is a form of adjustment that is necessary in a changing environment.  Inevitably, risks must be taken. 

Markedonov: I would call the Safarov affair the main mistake of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy in 2012.  I understand the domestic political reasons why he was pardoned, but in foreign policy, it is typically a mistake to act guided by emotions alone.  Losses from doing so are typically greater than gains.     

Goltz: The Safarov extradition and pardon did not play well outside of Azerbaijan.  The government could have been much more discreet in helping him back on his feet after the release from the Hungarian prison. 

AIW:  How do you assess progress made in the resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2012 and what do you see as the prospects for a settlement of the conflict in 2013?

Japaridze: On a symbolic level, things did not get better on that issue in 2012.  In substantial terms, there was an entrenchment of the status quo, which in essence implies effective crisis management, rather than “stability.” But there are no reasons to be optimistic for a settlement anytime soon.  Given that instability is detrimental to the region, Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan should seek a more regionally-based approach.  Tbilisi is in no way a disinterested actor, and we can do more for each other during 2013 in this respect. 

Markedonov: I cannot evaluate progress in the resolution of the conflict, for I do not see any.  On the contrary, the negotiation process was stagnating as I mentioned above.  It took much effort to get the parties back to a dialogue.  It is difficult to expect progress, because the positions of Baku and Yerevan have not evolved and there is no willingness for compromises by either side.  Moreover, the renewed Madrid Principles which diplomats and experts talk so much about only contain general frameworks for the resolution of the conflict.  Many of its provisions, as all are aware, are contradictory and there are no mechanisms for putting them in place.  In my view, that is what everyone should be focusing on.  As Armenian-Turkish normalization has shown, the signing of some paper still does not mean real progress, because in order for the provisions of the document to work, there must be tangible instruments, which do not yet exist.    

Goltz:  I saw no progress worth mentioning; only greater saber-rattling on both sides, which, because I take the Azerbaijani position on this issue, I find entirely understandable. 

AIW:  How do you assess Azerbaijan’s energy diplomacy in 2012, and what does the future hold for it? 

Japaridze:  Azerbaijan’s energy security is founded on the principle of balanced engagement of state and non-state actors.  Rather than being addicted to grand symbolic gestures and attention-capturing declarations, Baku’s energy diplomacy has a stealth quality where hard and bottom-line oriented steps are followed by promises that can be delivered.  We in Georgia have a lot to learn from Baku.

Baku is now paving the way for the Trans Anatolian Pipeline launch and is building up existing infrastructure.  This benefits Tbilisi as well.  Making the most of what can be done is not an exercise in stating the obvious.  It is hard work.  Azerbaijan’s energy diplomacy is in this sense solid.  There are no recipes for success, but saying that everything that could be done has been done is a great accomplishment.  Azerbaijani prospects in the oil and gas sector look today better than they looked by the end of 2011.  And things can get better yet in 2013, because stealth and effective measures are being taken toward that goal.

Markedonov: As in previous years, Baku sought to use its energy resources to advance its foreign policy interests.  2012 brought nothing new in that respect.  In this regard, the declaration of Eric Rubin, a senior American official, is instructive, who suggested that, “America is interested in the continuation and increase of the pumping of oil in Azerbaijan and wants to support this.” The main intrigue of the year was the conflict between Baku and the influential British company, BP, but in the last quarter of the year, this conflict was significantly reduced.  Indeed, following the visit of Robert Dudley to Baku, President Aliyev spoke about “the solid cooperation” between Azerbaijan and BP.   

Goltz:  I congratulate SOCAR for continuing its push to become a truly global player. 

AIW:  How do you assess the evolving dynamics of Azerbaijan’s relations with its immediate neighbors—Russia, Iran, and Turkey—over the last year and what is likely to develop over the next twelve months?

Japaridze:  Each of these powers requires separate attention.  Azerbaijan needs to engage all its neighbors, but also to maintain room for initiative.  This is a fine balancing act that Azeri diplomacy has turned into an art.  This virtue, however, is driven by necessity; hence there is little scope for failure.

Russia and Iran could be engaged by “a region,” or by “an alliance” within the region, much more effectively.  And Turkey can play a role in this regional approach.  A greater degree of coordination with Tbilisi and Ankara is of the essence.  High-level coordination must now “trickle down” to capacity-building and protocol.  We need fine tuning of a relationship that works well.

Markedonov: As far as Azerbaijani-Turkish relations are concerned, no principle changes took place in 2012.  And there is no reason to think there will be serious changes in 2013.  The strategic partnership of the two countries continues and will continue.  As concerns Iran, the beginning of 2012 was far from simple.  A series of spy scandals and increasingly harsh rhetoric on both sides cast a shadow on that relationship.  The Azerbaijani special services arrested several groups suspected of preparing terrorist acts and espionage in favor of Teheran.  Further to that, Baku uncovered information about a network of 22 Iranian agents set up by the Corps of Guardians of the Islamic Revolution for use against Azerbaijan.  In its turn, representatives of Tehran in February demanded that Baku stop the provocatory actions of the Israeli special services against Iran on Azerbaijani territory.  However, already in March, there was a meeting of the defense ministers of the two countries, which managed to put an end to this negative trend.  And in October, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Baku to take part in the 12th summit of the chiefs of state and heads of government of the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OEC).

I think that Azerbaijan-Iran relations, to a large extent, depend on the general dynamic around the Islamic Republic.  If a military confrontation between Iran and Israel and/or the West does not take place, Baku does not have a great deal to worry about.  If such a confrontation does occur, again, regardless of the position of Azerbaijan in such a hypothetic conflict, the situation will become difficult.  Iran is concerned that Azerbaijani territory could be used by third parties for putting pressure on it.  But it seems to me that the seesaw policy practiced by Baku will not lead Azerbaijan to be exclusively on one side or the other of this conflict.  One should not forget that presidential elections will take place in Iran in 2013 just as they will in Azerbaijan.  And although it is difficult to expect foreign policy surprises from the Iranian campaign, a change in the presidency there may play a constructive role, particularly if a more moderate and pragmatic politician replaces Ahmadinejad.  

Russian-Azerbaijani relations evolved in 2012 under the shadow of the Gabala radar station.  In this direction, Moscow had contradictory feelings.  On the one hand, the military significance of the station has declined significantly as a result of the installation of a more advanced facility in Armavir on the territory of the Russian Federation itself.  But on the other hand, a military facility on the territory of the former USSR is by default a symbol of political presence.  And its loss is difficult for Moscow to take psychologically.  It seems to me that if Baku does not celebrate the Russian exit as some kind of “victory over the empire” and does not begin to make this into a PR case, the problem will gradually recede into the background.  We should also not forget that a vacuum is always filled somehow.  It is a rhetorical question as to whether Baku needs the US and its allies to exploit the site for their geopolitical games around Iran.   

Goltz: Azerbaijan’s relations with immediate neighbors in 2012 were a successful continuation of what former US Ambassador Stanley Escudero likes to refer to as the Heydar Aliyev policy of “quadralateral balance,” meaning that Azerbaijan cannot afford to become either too close to or too far from any of its neighbors.  I expect that policy to continue in 2013. 

AIW:  How do you assess the dynamics of Azerbaijan’s relations with Georgia over the last year and what is likely to develop over the next twelve months, particularly in light of the change in government in the latter?

Japaridze: It is clear that between Tbilisi and Baku there is a long and established strategic relationship, which may well develop into an alliance.  I have long backed the idea that a regionally grounded approach, of the type exemplified by Azerbaijani diplomatic culture, is the way forward for Georgia.

With Georgia’s peaceful transfer of power, what can be expected is a less confrontational approach to foreign policy that will be bottom-line oriented.  Much of our prospects for growth, be it in the energy sector, logistics, services, or tourism, largely depends upon concerted action with Baku.  Moreover, our “frozen conflict issues” are structurally interwoven.  We can do more for each other.  We cannot afford to idly rest on our previous achievements.  We must advance from noting “the potential” for shared growth and security enhancement to concrete action plans.  In sum, there is work to be done, amongst partners who know how and have the will to work together.  I hope Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s visit to Azerbaijan and his talks with President Aliyev have given these relations a new dynamic.

The need for longer-term and multi-dimensional cooperation is clear.  Time for planning and execution is not on our side given the volatility of the global and regional environment.  There is a need for speedy action and foresight.  2013 must be a year of hard work.

Markedonov: Bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia have gone through a complex period.  However, this is the product in the first instance of domestic changes in Georgia, where, following the parliamentary elections, a situation of dual power emerged.  There is a president who is losing his power and there is a prime minister who is attempting to come out on top.  Don’t forget either about the constitutional reforms and the elections of a president in Georgia in 2013.  Under such conditions, the foreign policy of Georgia has become less well defined, because Bidzina Ivanishvili is trying to show that he can be a more effective leader than President Saakashvili has been.  Among everything else, for example, the prime minister of Georgia wants to show that in its relations with Azerbaijan, his country must be an equal partner and not the one-to-be-led as was the case under Saakashvili.  That explains Ivanishvili’s declarations about the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Kars railways and his proposal to unblock the Abkhaz section of the railroad.  But it is also worth noting that all these declarations, which generated emotional reactions in Baku, were not realized.  And in the course of his visit to Baku just before the new year, Ivanishvili himself adopted a more careful position and confirmed his support for a strategic partnership with the Caspian littoral state.  

Goltz:  This is difficult to predict, but I hope for continuity in the relationship between Azerbaijan and Georgia.  

AIW:  How do you assess the evolving dynamics of Azerbaijan’s relations with the United States in 2012 and what does the year 2013 promise for the bilateral relations?

Japaridze: Washington’s policy in the South Caucasus is in a transitional or “reflective” phase.  Shifting attention from Eurasia to the Pacific, withdrawal from Afghanistan, contemplation on “a restart” of relations with Moscow, reflecting upon the Greater Middle East/Greater Caucasus positioning: these are the signs of an identity-building process that leaves little room for certainty.

There are certain independent variables concerning the scope of engagement in the South Caucasus, not least security challenges both vis-a-vis Iran and the more enduring questions of Russia and of the revitalization of the Silk Road.  It should be remembered that that the hardware of the energy relationship between Europe and the South Caucasus owes much to Washington’s initiative.  By intent or default, Azerbaijan is always a point of departure when considering US
“structural stakes” in the region.

It is clear that in a fluctuating security landscape, Washington can probably count on Baku’s predictability as an actor in the region.  The fundamentals of this relationship are in this sense solid.  And the future of this relationship is promising, as far as Baku ensures effective and continuous communication.   

Markedonov: This dynamic was on the whole positive for Azerbaijan.  The United States and its allies are withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan.  And already today, Azerbaijan is playing an important role in the Afghan logistics of NATO.  In December 2011, Azerbaijan replaced the Georgian airline company Sky Georgia in the shift of alliance forces from Europe to Afghanistan.  In addition, energy policy is an important matter for the United States, as confirmed during the visit to Baku of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  One should note that the administration and the State Department have been much less critical of Azerbaijan on such issues as human rights.  That is one of the ways Azerbaijan has a better position than does Georgia or do other countries of the post-Soviet space.  American criticism of Azerbaijan was greatest over the Safarov affair, but that did not last long.    

Goltz: I do not foresee any significant changes in the status quo, even though I do not really like that status quo: The United States will continue to take Azerbaijan for granted; and the Armenian lobby in the US will continue to make mischief.  The presumed elevation of Senator John Kerry—one of the architects of Section 907—to secretary of state is a little disturbing.  But so long as the US and its allies remain engaged in Afghanistan, at least the Pentagon will endeavor to keep relations on a steady keel.   

AIW: How do you assess Azerbaijan’s activities in the public diplomacy sector in 2012?   

Japaridze:  Baku has effectively projected the image of a capital that is at one and the same time ancient on one hand and young and dynamic with its own sense of glamour on the other, thanks in large part to the Eurovision context.  As the latter’s side effect, Baku—largely unknown to a European audience—has presented itself as a rapidly emerging transportation, energy, and logistics hub in Central Eurasia.  This boost for Azerbaijan was a welcome one, but it provided a foundation for further work in public diplomacy.  

Markedonov: I cannot name any clear achievements in that area, all the more so because public diplomacy has serious limitations in terms of resources and possibilities for having an influence on the situation.    

Goltz: They may cost money, but continued sponsorship of visiting delegations from small member countries of the UN is a sound idea, as is the hosting of conferences such as the Second Annual International Baku Humanitarian Forum, which I had the pleasure to attend.  All these things showcase Azerbaijan.   

AIW:  What specific challenges do you think Azerbaijan’s foreign policy faces as the country moves to the year 2013 and what needs to be done to address those challenges?

Japaridze: Caught in between the Greater Caucasus and the Greater Middle East, Azerbaijan has as its greatest challenge ensuring that it will remain in a position to make its own choices.  This is not always easy, but it is an art that Azerbaijani diplomacy has mastered.  As a number of key regional and global stakeholders in the region have anything but an effectively predictable behavior these days, this art must continue to be developed.  Vigilance is advisable as is remaining out of the headlines. 

Another challenge is to detect and act upon opportunities that present themselves in each and every crises.  Maintaining foresight in the midst of a changing geopolitical and economic environment is no small a challenge.  Unfortunately, there is a limit to how calculated risks can be, when economic, diplomatic and security fundamentals seem to be changing.  But, in the midst of a crisis, assuming the initiative is fundamental.  The next year will require it.

Markedonov: Background factors will remain extremely important.  The situation in the Middle East (Iran, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is far from stable and therefore difficult to predict.  Any intensification of these conflicts will have a negative role on the broader region.  The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict still remains unresolved, and—most importantly—the two sides are still unwilling for compromises.  In this regard, for Baku it is extremely important not to give way to emotions and not to try to use this conflict for domestic political gains.  And, of course, at the same time, it is important to use the various diplomatic ties it has in the West and in the East for lowering Baku’s geo-political risks—in the Caucasus, in the post-Soviet space as a whole, and in neighboring regions as well (e.g. Middle East).    

Goltz: Aside from the possibility of a flash start of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the most worrisome thing on the horizon is the situation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel, and how that may affect Azerbaijan.