Azerbaijanis look back to 2010 and forward to 2011

Editorial Note:  True to its tradition, Azerbaijan in the World is offering a brief survey of different perspectives on Azerbaijan’s foreign policy in 2010, looking into its evolving dynamics and assessing core accomplishments and major challenges of the year.

Azerbaijan in the World:  Please give your review of the main foreign policy achievements of Azerbaijan in 2010.

Elin Suleymanov [Consul General of Azerbaijan to Los Angeles, California]:  Azerbaijan continued to reinforce its position of an independent, pragmatic player as well as its position as a regional leader.  Indeed, the country’s consistent pursuit of its national interests has become a hallmark of Baku’s foreign policy.  Among its successes in 2010 were the conclusion of gas talks with Turkey and the signing of a strategic partnership accord with Ankara, visits by the secretaries of state and defense from the United States, President Ilham Aliyev’s meeting with US President Barak Obama in New York, the Caspian Summit in Baku, and the NATO declaration on unresolved conflicts.

Rasim Musabayov, Dr. [MP, member of the Milli Majlis international and inter-parliamentary relations committee]:  Azerbaijan’s foreign policy was active as can be seen from the number of international visits by Azerbaijani officials led by President Ilham Aliyev, as well as from visits by the foreign leaders to Baku.  We took part in all major international forums.  We received in Azerbaijan and productively conducted summits on the Caspian Sea, World Religious Leaders, and the AGRI energy summit.  Among the important agreements, I would note the Treaty on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Assistance with Turkey, as well as the Treaty on Borders with Russia. 
Fikrat Sadykhov [Professor of Political Science, Western University, Baku & Political Analyst]:  In the past year, we witnessed many events which have significant interest for Azerbaijan and demonstrate the growth of its diplomatic activity.  Azerbaijan peacefully and confidently developed, firmly occupying the leading positions in the region and strengthening its relations with its allies and partners.

Thanks to the political firmness and diplomatic flexibility of Azerbaijan, the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, about which Yerevan had so long dreamed, did not happen.  Moreover, in 2010, Azerbaijani diplomacy developed a broad campaign to attract the attention of the international community to the problems of the region.  That is clearly and convincingly shown by the speech of President Ilham Aliyev at the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, where he directed the attention of the chiefs of states to the non-fulfillment of four resolutions of the UN Security Council, as well as to the many activities conducted by the Armenian side on the territory of the occupied regions of Azerbaijan, ones which contradict the norms of the international law.  In connection with this, a serious achievement of Azerbaijani diplomacy was the organization of a fact-finding visit of the international mission headed by the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group to the occupied territories which had as its goal the assessment of the situation connected with the destruction of natural resources and the cultural heritage, as well as the illegal settlement and violation of property rights.

In 2010, the bilateral and multi-lateral ties of Azerbaijan significantly broadened.  The number of our embassies and consular institutions abroad increased, a development that allowed us more fully and widely to present our country in the international arena and to gain wider support for our national interests.

Among the high points of Azerbaijani diplomacy during the past year was the Caspian summit which took place quite constructively in Baku.  The agreement on security and also the joint declaration of the summit became an important stage in the development of cooperation in the Caspian basin.  This was an important step in the further progress toward the agreement on all questions concerning the Caspian, an agreement which is now being developed.

In a definite sense, the Baku summit exceeded expectations.  Mutually acceptable positions and common points of view on the most important problems of the region were agreed upon.  And these found expression in the words of the joint declaration about issues concerning security, the struggle with terrorism and separatism, as well as with extremism and drug trafficking.  But the main thing was the positive background and friendly atmosphere which was created by the summit.

AIW:  Please list what you see as the main shortcomings of the foreign policy of Azerbaijan in 2010.

Suleymanov:  As always, Azerbaijan’s diplomatic corps can and must do more in the area of public diplomacy in order to win broader support for Baku.  This is a learning process and the curve is, understandably, steep.  Yet, there is room for improvement in this area.

Musabayov:  On the whole, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy was adequate to the existing international conditions, tasks and possibilities of the country.  However, in my view, there was insufficient effort in the direction of European integration.  Moreover, talks with the WTO were too drawn out.  The potential of our country, the financial and cadres possibilities of the foreign ministry should allow for the conduct of a more creative foreign policy, one that would find and achieve additional possibilities to strengthen the foreign policy position of the country. 

Sadykhov:  I consider that broader and deeper cooperation of Azerbaijan with the countries of Latin America and the Middle East would more fully correspond both to our national interests and to those priorities which form the basis of our balanced, multi-vector foreign policy.  The countries of these regions have significant potential both in international regional organizations and in influencing Armenian diaspora organizations which operate in them. 

AIW:  How do you assess the progress achieved in 2010 in the process of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?  How do you assess the chances for resolving the conflict in 2011?

Suleymanov:  The Muskoka statement of the presidents of France, Russia and US at the G-8 Summit was an important reaffirmation of the main principles for the settlement of the conflict.  There was also a certain intensification of actions by mediators, most notably by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  However, as it has been the case for over 18 years, these efforts have yet to produce any tangible sign that Armenia is ready for peace.  We should remain hopeful that in 2011 we shall see some real progress in the settlement, but obviously, Armenia’s short-sighted inability to see its own future strategically and to move beyond narrow ethnic notions continues to pose a major threat to our region.  Every year the conflict remains unresolved, this threat is becoming greater. 

Musabayov:  Unfortunately, no breakthrough on the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict took place in 2010, an unfortunate result of the unconstructive position of Yerevan.  The Armenian side did not accept—even with reservations—the renewed version of the Madrid Principles officially proposed at the OSCE Ministerial in Athens back in the summer of 2009.  And it did not do so despite the several meetings of the two presidents organized and mediated by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

At the same time, to call the past year useless in this regard would be a mistake.  In all basic diplomatic forums, Azerbaijan received support for its position, including from the European Parliament, the NATO summit, and the OSCE summit.  That is, the European Parliament adopted on May 20 a special resolution on “The need for an EU strategy for the South Caucasus”—one based on the report by the Bulgarian Member of Parliament Yevgeni Kirilov—demanding the withdrawal of Armenian forces from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan.  

The NATO summit in Lisbon—one which the Armenian president did not even attend—proved even more important.  In the Declaration adopted there, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to support “the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova” and ignored “the right to self-determination,” a principle to which the Armenians constantly appeal to cover their territorial pretensions.  

Finally, the declaration which was adopted in Astana at the OSCE summit on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the “three-plus-two” format—one which was signed by the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan—confirmed their readiness for a final resolution of the conflict in conformity with the principles of international law, the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, as well as on the basis of the joint declarations that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and US President Barak Obama made on July 10 at L'Aquila and on June 26 at Muskoka.  Let me also remind that, judging by the latter two declarations of the presidents of the US, France and Russia concerning Nagorno-Karabakh, the basic Madrid Principles say nothing about the possibility of its separation from Azerbaijan, while they do make clear the need for the liberation of the occupied territories and the return of internally displaced persons and refugees.

The world has still not put tough pressure on Armenia, but taking into consideration the very difficult economic situation of this country, it simply lacks the resources—economic, military and demographic—in order to hold out against a just resolution of the conflict based on international law.  Consequently, if the international community moves to exert pressure on Armenia—something that could also become a result of our diplomatic activity—there could be a breakthrough in 2011, although more probable appears to be an inertia scenario, with the sides continuing their tactical diplomatic and information struggle without decisive success.

Sadykhov:  Let us be open.  Radical changes concerning the resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and the resolution of the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh did not take place in 2010.  Official Yerevan as before marched in place, refusing to respond to the proposals of intermediaries and ignoring the norms and principles of international law.  In this way, Armenia drove itself ever more deeply into the dead end.

At the same time, the position of official Baku on the resolution of the conflict remained unchanged: the problem must find its resolution in the framework of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.  It is important to note that the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan was again confirmed both at the NATO summit in Lisbon and at the OSCE summit in Astana.  Moreover, in May, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Armenian armed formations from the territories of Azerbaijan, a serious slap by Europe at the prestige of Armenia.

The development of the situation shows that the resolution of the conflict will be possible only in the case of serious pressure from the leading states on the aggressor country.  In this context, Azerbaijan must work actively in three directions: First, it must devote its efforts to the realization of the resolutions and decisions adopted by international structures.  Second, it must intensify its diplomatic activity in work with leading states.  And third, it must develop its defense potential and economic possibilities.

AIW:  How do you assess the energy diplomacy of Azerbaijan in 2010 and what in your view are the prospects in this area in the future?

Suleymanov:  Azerbaijan continued its consistent policy of diversification of export routes and its contribution to European energy security.  As already mentioned, the transit agreement with Turkey is a major accomplishment.  In general, the Azerbaijani energy diplomacy in 2010 was built on Baku’s long-term strategy of developing Caspian energy resources and promoting regional cooperation.

Musabayov:  The diversification strategy is completely correct and is being implemented in a consistent way.  That Russia and Iran are now listed among the customers of our gas only serves to make our position stronger in the eyes of our major partners and transit states, that is Turkey and Georgia.  The realization of projects which will allow for Azerbaijan to enter the LNG market have good prospects for realization.  That will allow us to broaden the circle of our customers to include Romania, Hungary and Ukraine.  It is also a positive development that the question about a Trans-Caspian pipeline, at the initiative of Turkmenistan, has been brought back to the agenda.  Moreover, negotiations on NABUCCO are moving into a decisive phase, something of which the forthcoming visit by the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to Baku and further on to Ashgabat in the beginning of 2011 is indicative.

Sadykhov:  Situated at the crossroads of major trade and transport networks, occupying a strategically important role in the region, and having significant oil and gas resources, our country has become a potentially important regional energy and infrastructure center.  Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it plays an important role in energy security as a whole.  In order to achieve its own energy goals, Azerbaijan will devote first order importance to the questions of the diversification of routes for energy flows, something that is important both for the European and Eurasian directions.  The gas factor will assume significance in Azerbaijan’s energy diplomacy in the coming year, one linked to the opening of the major Umid field in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian shelf, the reserves of which are estimated at approximately 200 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 30 billion cubic meters of gas condensate.

AIW:  How do you assess the trend in relations of Azerbaijan with its nearest neighbors—Russia, Iran and Turkey—in the past year and what in your view are the prospects for the further development of these relations in 2011?

Suleymanov:  Azerbaijan’s relations with all its neighbors, except Armenia, continued to develop positively.  With Turkey, the recent agreements are indicative of the high-level of cooperation.  Azerbaijani-Iranian and Azerbaijani-Russian relations, too, led to some positive results this year.  The Caspian Summit in Baku attests both to this and to Azerbaijan’s growing regional role.  Importantly, Azerbaijan also further strengthened its already excellent relations with Georgia and with partners across the Caspian, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.  The outlook in all these areas looks bright for the year ahead.

Musabayov:  With these countries and also with Georgia, Azerbaijan has been conducting an intensive dialogue.  Trade and economic relations have been developing along an ascending line.  Yet again I note the importance of the treaty on strategic partnership and mutual assistance signed with Turkey and the border treaty with Russia.  Relations with Iran did not deteriorate, which, taking into consideration the situation around this country given its nuclear program, can also be considered an achievement.  The main thing is that Azerbaijan was able to make its relations with the neighbors stronger in such a way that none of them will manifest an “elder brother” syndrome in their relations with Baku. 

Sadykhov:  The activity of Russia toward our region increased in the course of 2010.  Three meetings of the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia took place with the participation and mediation of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev—in Sochi, Saint Petersburg, and Astrakhan.  And it is particularly worth noting that in 2010, for the first time since independence, Azerbaijan and Russia signed an agreement on their state border, something which has enormous historical and political importance.  It seems to me that the growing weight of Baku’s economic and defence potential and its influence in the region will have the collateral effect of keeping the Russian Federation actively involved with Azerbaijan in 2011, including in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict. 

During 2010, Azerbaijan actively and fruitfully developed its allied and partnership ties with Turkey.  A treaty on strategic partnership and mutual assistance was signed, which is now an important factor for the further rapprochement of the two countries.  It seems to me that the dynamism of bilateral relations in the new year will be distinguished by a high level of closeness and mutual understanding.  At the same time, one cannot exclude the possibility of new efforts toward achieving a rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan as a result of the pressure of a number of leading states.

As far as Iran is concerned, relations between Azerbaijan and this country in 2010 retained their stable, good-neighborly character given the historical, cultural, and religious closeness of the two.  There was an active political dialogue at both the bilateral and multi-lateral level, and economic cooperation increased.  An important event in the social-political life of the two countries was the visit to Azerbaijan by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one that resulted in the signing of a memorandum on mutual understanding in the area of energy and transport.

Iran, which is under strong pressure as a result of the international sanctions against it, will keep on searching for diplomatic levers to escape its existing situation and will attempt to do so by getting further closer with nearby countries and in the first instance with Azerbaijan in the coming year. 

In short, relations with these countries will be developed within the framework of the bilateral agreements already signed and in correspondence with the realities of geopolitical circumstances.

AIW:  How do you assess the trend in relations between Azerbaijan and the United States during 2010 and what in your view are the prospects for the further development of these relations in 2011?  

Suleymanov:  The New York meeting of Presidents Aliyev and Obama was an indication of the strong relations the two nations enjoy.  Azerbaijan’s importance was also underscored by the Baku visits of Secretaries Gates and Clinton.  Azerbaijan has been doing its part to deepen and expand the partnership we have.  For instance, we recently inaugurated Azerbaijan’s first honorary consulate in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The prospects for the bilateral relations are very promising and wide open.  The ball in this case is in Washington’s court.

Musabayov:  Here progress was minimal.  Although the Obama administration became somewhat more active in the South Caucasus, as the visits of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and of Defense Secretary Robert Gates showed, American attention did not increase.  Washington also was unable to overcome the intrigues of Armenian lobbyists and secure Senate confirmation for Matthew Bryza, although later President Obama gave him a recess appointment.  It is obvious that as long as the United States keeps on considering its relations with the countries of the region exclusively in the context of Russia, Iran or Afghanistan, to expect a significant change is unwarranted.

Sadykhov:  While one could still describe US-Azerbaijani relations, as they evolved in 2010, as those of strategic partnership, as a result of a number of circumstances, these ties were not distinguished by closeness and active cooperation.  In the course of 2010, in fact, one could observe a certain abstraction of Washington from the problems of the region and in particular from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.  Nevertheless, people in Azerbaijan regarded with understanding the political priorities of the US connected with the presence of its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and with its concerns about the nuclear program of Iran.

At the same time, as a result of the active diplomatic efforts of Azerbaijan, the United States intensified its foreign policy vector in the Azerbaijani direction and at the end of the last year, the US president bypassing Congress named an ambassador to Baku.  All this demonstrated the interest of Washington in the continuation of partnership relations with Azerbaijan and its understanding of the growing role of our country in the region.  Proceeding from the above, one can predict that US-Azerbaijani relations will develop in the framework of partnership relations and strategic cooperation in 2011.

AIW:  How do you assess the activities of Azerbaijan in public diplomacy in 2010?

Suleymanov:  As noted, there is a room for improvement in the area of public diplomacy, and it is encouraging to see the Foreign Ministry focusing on capacity-building in this area.  I very much hope that these efforts, including the programs at the ADA, will continue also in preparing the cadre for Azerbaijan’s diplomatic corps.

Musabayov:  Public diplomacy, if anything, declined in 2010—especially in the second half of it—at least from my subjective point of view.  It seems to me that the dead-end which the conflict settlement process faced as a result of the unconstructive position of the Armenians has objectively put in place obstacles for the broadening of activity in the civil society sector as well.  Nevertheless, there were meetings among NGO activists, journalists and others in bilateral and multilateral settings, including in Moscow, Istanbul, and Izmir.  I myself participated in a majority of these meetings and can say that I observed a definite “stagnation” in them similar to the one in official talks.  Azerbaijan needs to find fresh and unexpected moves in order to increase its activities and make public diplomacy more productive.

Sadykhov:  In the course of the entire year at the level of the expert community and public organizations, Azerbaijan took part in the work of various international forums, congresses, conferences, and roundtable meetings.  An important event in this regard was the international symposium in Baku in October on “The South Caucasus in a Changing World,” in which more than 150 foreign and local experts took part.  The declaration adopted by that meeting underscored the leading role of Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus.

It is important that such meetings have a systemic character and assist the development of regional ties and cooperation and also promote the national interests of Azerbaijan.

AIW:  In your view, what challenges stand before Azerbaijani foreign policy in 2011 and what actions must Azerbaijan take in order to be able to respond to them?

Musabayov:  Questions about the Iranian nuclear program and the continuing dead end in talks about Karabakh will define the foreign political agenda in 2011.  The risks and opportunities in both are interconnected.  As Azerbaijan increases its defense potential, it will be in a better position should circumstances dictate a force majeure resolution.  It is important to develop to the maximum extent possible mechanisms of strategic partnership with Turkey and to support at a high level dialogue with Russia and other leading and neighboring countries in order to minimize risks and push forward the resolution of priority questions for our country.  In the first instance, this concerns the Karabakh conflict and the division of the Caspian.

Sadykhov:  Beyond any doubt, the main challenge standing before Azerbaijan and its foreign policy apparatus is represented by the continuing occupation by Armenia of Azerbaijani territories and the lack of a resolution of the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh.  It is also important not to forget the fact that the leading states of the world will again try to promote Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, which cannot fail to elicit an adequate reaction from Azerbaijan.  Naturally, official Baku is not indifferent to such a development and will take all diplomatic, political and economic steps to block this process.

As before, the threat of military actions against Iran initiated by the United States will continue, but the involvement of the US in military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the pragmatism of European countries will hardly allow that in the near term.  At the same time, official Tehran has displayed a sufficient level of flexibility in critical situations so as to ward off such an action anytime soon. 

I consider one of the serious threats in the region to be the sharpening of the situation in the North Caucasus.  Circumstances in the North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation remain extremely unsettled and explosive.  Azerbaijan, given its location, will work to cooperate more fully with both the official structures of Russia itself and with the leaders of the republics of the North Caucasus.  All this to a certain extent will help neutralize the challenges and threats emanating from this region.