Russia and Azerbaijan

An interview with H.E. Mr. Vladimir Dorokhin
Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Azerbaijan

September 28, 2011
Baku, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan in the World: What is the central core of relations between Azerbaijan and Russia and how has it evolved over the last 20 years?

Ambassador Vladimir Dorokhin: Over and in the course of the last 20 years, we have managed to build the most optimal model of relations, one based on the unconditional respect for the sovereignty and independence of each other.  After a rather complex path in the course of which we had some difficult moments, we have now reached an understanding that we should accept each other the way we are.  At present, we do not want anything beyond what Azerbaijan can give Russia; and Azerbaijan only wants from Russia what we can give within the system of our own international obligations.  

On all issues, Azerbaijan conducts itself without consultation with Russia.  Indeed, we neither expect nor want nor demand this.  At the same time, Russia follows its own course, one which we believe Azerbaijan takes as our sovereign right.  This may seem a very trivial point, but it took us some time to get to this point.  And in fact, Russia does not have this “clean” model of relations with every country.  Why that is the case is a separate question.  There may be objective reasons, including that Azerbaijan is developing in a way that makes it a force to be reckoned with.  But there are also subjective reasons, including not unimportantly that the Azerbaijani government clearly knows how to speak with Moscow and with the Russian government.  This has affected Moscow’s response to Baku.  Putin started to develop relations with Azerbaijan in this way, and Medvedev followed.  As a result, I think we have developed a good philosophy and a good balance in our bilateral ties.  Now, on the basis of that, I think we can move further forward in our relations being very confident that there will not be any unpleasant surprises on our southern frontiers with our very stable neighbour, Azerbaijan. 

AIW:  What is your assessment of the current status of bilateral relations?  Which direction of bilateral relations do you consider most successful; which directions need additional attention?  

Amb. Dorokhin: Our relations are developing in a very harmonious manner.  In the political realm, if one counts the number of bilateral meetings, including those at the high and highest level, as well as inter-parliamentary relations and ministerial visits, Azerbaijan probably does not have as high a set of statistics with any other country—except perhaps only with Turkey—as it does with Russia.  Russia is the most important trade and economic partner of Azerbaijan in the non-oil sector.  Indeed, today Russia provides the biggest market for Azerbaijani goods from the non-oil sector and is at the same time the biggest source of non-oil products that Azerbaijan imports.  We had a record turnover of 2.4 billion US dollars in 2008, and despite a decline during the economic crisis, this year we can see a rise to 2,7/2.8 billion.  Economic developments are always the key factor, and because the Russian market is so large, the potential for growth in this sector is limitless.  

Second, we have recently begun to encourage Russian Federation regions to become more involved in foreign ties and especially foreign economic ones.  Azerbaijan has not opposed this, and we have found out that in this special sphere, there is also a huge potential.  At the level of regions one can solve issues that are harder to address at the state-to-state level. 

Third, we of course have very special cultural ties, links based on the fact that we lived together in one state and had experiences in common.  Although we have now gone our separate ways—which is entirely normal and should not be dramatized—we retain mutual sympathy and respect for one another.  I say this in absolute confidence, for I have the experience of working with other countries as well.  And it is not with every country, post-Soviet or otherwise, that this positive element in relations can and has been kept.  With some countries, for example, we have longstanding debates about our past, something that luckily we don’t have in the case of Azerbaijan.  And this is a huge resource that we should fully make use of in the national interests of each.

Not surprisingly, the carriers of this positive element are found primarily among the middle-aged and older generations.  Thus, our task is to pass these positive views on to the younger generation, something that—if we do—will have a positive impact on our relations.  To achieve this, we need programs at the state level as well, and history tells us that countries pay considerable attention to such issues.  

The regions of the two countries can indeed achieve a lot in this direction, I mean youth exchange.  Informal linkages are needed, and we should encourage and support them.  As the ambassador of my country, I view such work as among our most important tasks.  Some progress has been made.  This month, for example, a Russian-Azerbaijani youth forum has been launched, attracting 70 people from each side.  Such cooperation and inter-linkage projects may indeed take many other forms as well—even including a Russian-Azerbaijani discotheque.  The emotions such events have the potential to generate can have very definite political consequences.                                           
AIW:  Now that you touched upon the cultural aspect of our relations, are there any other concrete projects carried out in this direction?  

Amb. Dorokhin: There is huge and I would say naturally evolving work going on even without the involvement of governmental bodies like the Ministry of Culture.  Russian artists, for example, are constantly being invited by your theatres and other cultural institutes to give master classes to Azerbaijani artists.  There are many other analogous contacts in other parts of the cultural realm.  And such cultural representatives find each other on their own, without the involvement of any government.  This work and these connections often do not attract much attention, all the more so because those involved don’t do it for propaganda purchases.  Instead, this is a natural process, and its very naturalness is the major characteristic of the cultural ties of our two states. 

AIW:  Speaking about cultural affinity, in what way do you think the Russian language contributes to the current state of relations between our countries, especially as compared to the role of language in Russia’s relations with other states in the post-Soviet space?

Amb. Dorokhin: It is hard for me to judge on the situation in Central Asia, because I haven’t served there, but I was indeed involved with Ukraine and know the situation there.  And I should say that we have deep political problems with Ukraine because of the Russian language.  Indeed, one of the questions which separate Russia and Ukraine is the question of the Russian language.  We do not have a similar dispute with Azerbaijan.  The Russian language has found its own place in Azerbaijan.  And what I value most is that it is not in pursuit of the Kremlin’s favour that the Azerbaijani government works to create conditions for the development of the Russian language in the country.  Instead, it is because the Azerbaijani government understands—in a very pragmatic way—that this bilingualism arising from the past is good for Azerbaijan and for its future development.  Today, nobody in Azerbaijan, forces anyone to learn the Russian language, but no one prevents anyone from doing so either.  There are favourable conditions created in the country both for those who want to read Azerbaijani-language newspapers, for example, and also for those who want to read the newspapers in Russian.  The situation in schools and universities is similar.  While this situation has evolved in a natural way, it definitely adds to the current status of bilateral relations between our countries and creates a favourable environment for their further development.  And Russia values this normal attitude towards the Russian language.  Nobody is afraid of it here; people take it as given.  And it is Azerbaijan itself, as well as Azerbaijani-Russian relations, which win from this development.                               

AIW: What is your assessment of Russia’s evolving role in the settlement process of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? 

Amb. Dorokhin: There is a lot to say about this issue.  There was a time when Russia was the only mediator in the process, with Kazimirov as its official representative.  Then the situation evolved in such a way that the Minsk Group was formed within the OSCE, with Russia—along with the United States and France—becoming a co-chair of this group.  The most characteristic feature of the latest period has been that the Russian mediation has reached an unprecedented level, with the Russian president personally involved in resolution of the conflict.  As you may know, there have been 10 meetings so far between the presidents of the two countries.  But again, even when the Russian president was leading the negotiations process, it was being done in coordination with the Minsk Group.  Both the United States and France were kept informed throughout.  The latest of those meetings, one held in Kazan earlier this year, did not meet the expectations of many.  At this point, we now need some time to assess the developments so far.  

As far as Russia’s real willingness and ability to resolve the conflict is concerned, one hears many different views expressed in the pages of Azerbaijani newspapers.  Russia’s position is, in our view, fair and correct and reflects both moral considerations, as well as purely political ones.  First, the moral considerations—the ones that I believe prompted our president to get directly involved—derive from the fact that Russia stood at the roots of the conflict which emerged in the country in which we all lived.  

Second, the political causes arise from the fact that the conflict restricts our relations with Azerbaijan, as well as with Armenia.  The conflict also has a negative impact on cooperation within the CIS.  These three relationships—with Azerbaijan, with Armenia and with the CIS—are priorities for Russia, and thus resolving the conflict is simply a matter of pragmatism.  

And third, the north Caucasus is currently one of the most troublesome of the country’s regions.  We in Russia understand that peace in the Caucasus can be achieved only if it is a comprehensive one.  Consequently, as we seek to resolve the problems in the North Caucasus, achieving peace in the South Caucasus will certainly have an additional positive impact.  

Given this, we believe that we have genuine and objective goals in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and that charges against us of playing at peacemaking rather than seeking a real settlement are without foundation.  Regardless of what anyone may say, Russia has a definite position on the conflict, one that it has been seeking to promote at various levels over many years.  

AIW: In one of your recent speeches, you mentioned that “now we can quite openly say that the leadership of the Soviet Union with Gorbachev at the head made a mistake [in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict].  It simply incorrectly evaluated this conflict and took incorrect measures.” What did you have in mind? 

Amb. Dorokhin: You know, I was surprised by how much reaction this statement generated, for it seems so obvious.  There is a great deal one can say about this, because the history of the conflict is very interesting.  At the time the conflict broke out, I was working as the adviser on Hungary, Romania, and Czech Republic in the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and thus was more or less close to politics.  The biggest mistake I was referring to in my recent statement is that the leadership in Moscow failed to recognise the level of the threat the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict represented.  Although the conflict in fact unleashed the process that eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, no one could see that outcome at the time.  Indeed, this possibility would have never even occurred to anyone at that time.  

I remember when the first news arrived about instability in the Nagorno-Karabakh, Pravda reported it only two days later, in three lines, and on the second page, a very evasive report akin to The Central Committee has discussed the issue and shall work on it further.  Hence, Politburo really believed at the time that these three lines could resolve the conflict.  Then the situation deteriorated further, with different advisors advising different moves and strategies.  As you know, Gorbachev could not even pronounce the word Azerbaijan correctly.  Hence, for him this was a case of the 15th or 20th degree of importance, and most of the decisions taken at that time were ad hoc and hurried without any strategic reflections.  But again, what is most important is that they misperceived the potential danger of the conflict in its inception.                      

AIW: What is the current state of energy cooperation between Azerbaijan and Russia and how the new gas discovery in “Absheron” has affected, or can potentially affect, this cooperation?

Amb. Dorokhin: The reality is that Russia is by no means a serious and big player in Azerbaijan’s energy market.  In the Contract of the Century, Russia’s Lukoil had only a 10% share, which for some reason it subsequently sold.  As a result, Russia in the form of the private Russian company Lukoil currently has only a 10% share in Azerbaijan’s Shahdeniz gas project.  And such a share is incomparable with the stake western companies as BP, Total, or Statoil have.  Of course, the 10% that Lukoil has do give it some influence over the energy policy through the voting in the shareholders’ meetings, but the key role in defining the country’s energy policy is played by SOCAR, that is, by the Azerbaijani government, and Russia does not play a defining role in this respect.  Why the situation developed in this way is a separate and a very interesting question, one worth a separate study.  

The second direction in which our energy cooperation develops concerns the start of Azerbaijani gas flows to Russia since January 2009.  Last year, Azerbaijan exported a billion cubic meters of gas to Russia; this year, we expect two billion.  Let us see how much gas will be exported in this direction next year.  You are willing to sell, we are willing to buy; and we have a contract through 2015 that allows us to do so.  And there is on the table a proposal by Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller that Gazprom in principle can buy as much Azerbaijani gas as Azerbaijan is willing to sell, even including all Azerbaijani gas.  To date, Azerbaijan has not responded to this, a situation we view as quite normal.  It is Azerbaijani gas and it is therefore up to Azerbaijan to decide such questions.  In addition, of course, there are consultations between our two countries on energy issues, but they are of an applied and practical nature and do not represent a strategically defining element in Azerbaijani-Russian relations.

Given all this, one cannot say that the energy sector is the one in which our two countries enjoy strategic cooperation.  In a certain sense and to a certain degree, we are even competitors, for both of us export fossil fuel internationally.  But one should not exaggerate the degree of this competition, for the amount of gas exported by one and the other is incomparable: Russia sells hundreds of billions cubic meters of gas and hundreds of millions tons of oil, while Azerbaijan certainly exports less.  Hence, no conflict can result from this.  

As far as the Absheron gas deposit is concerned, I don’t know how it will be used in future or whether its development might involve outside investors or alternatively whether all subsequent moves will be realised within the framework of the agreement with Total.  Moreover, even if there are opportunities for others, I don’t know whether Russian oil and gas companies—who are independent in their decision-making—will show an interest in getting involved in the project.  

AIW: Would you then suggest that energy cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan is completely depoliticized?

Amb. Dorokhin: Certainly, Yes.  What kind of politics can one speak of when Russia currently holds only a ten percent share in Azerbaijan’s Shahdeniz project?

AIW: What is your attitude to and assessment of the Nabucco and trans-Caspian gas projects?  

Amb. Dorokhin: First of all, my attitude towards these projects is irrelevant, for these are not my projects; these are not our projects.  There is much speculation in press about this, of course.  The reality, however, is that if and when Europe returns to the normal pattern of economic development, all gas flowing through the currently existing pipelines and gas expected to flow through Nabucco and the South Stream will not be enough.  Given that reality, Russia and Azerbaijan will not be competitors in this respect.  And no one in Russia these days makes political statements regarding such a competition except for some journalists and independent experts.  Never over the course of two and a half years of my tenure as the Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan have I received the instructions from Moscow to go to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or any other relevant body and deliver the message that Russia does not view positively Azerbaijan’s support for Nabucco.  Never.  And I am certain that my president has never said anything to this effect either.  And by the way, your president has confirmed this in an interview he gave to Euronews. 

The trans-Caspian gas pipeline, however, is a different matter.  There is one very unpleasant aspect of that project.  We are currently involved in negotiations about the legal status of the Caspian.  There are still some five or six questions left open including the width of the territorial waters, the issue of the free passage of military ships, demilitarization, and the like.  There is also an article in the draft agreement which concerns the ways in which a trans-Caspian gas pipeline could be built.  There are two brackets in that article, one reflecting the position of three countries involved (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) and the other reflecting the position of two countries (Russia and Iran).  

The latter two argue that a trans-Caspian pipeline can be built only if all five littoral states agree that such a project will not have negative ecological consequences.  The former three, however, insist that a trans-Caspian pipeline can be built if the two states the pipeline is going to connect agree to do so.  The European Union knew perfectly well that this disagreement exists.  But despite that, the EU virtually asked Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to ignore Russia and Iran and to proceed.  Russia considers this position incorrect and not well thought-out, which is why Russia made a statement it made when the EU announced that it was going to enter into negotiations with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan about a trans-Caspian gas pipeline.  If the EU really needs the Turkmen gas, let us sit down and discuss this.  Perhaps, before starting the discussions about the actual pipeline, we should agree on the ecological issues and make a joint examination thereof.  For example, in the case of the Russia-sponsored North Stream project, the ecological question was one of the most important ones.  And Russia agreed on the toughest kinds of ecological standards and paid enormous amounts of money for different kinds of environmental examination carried out to that effect.  In this case, however, the EU doesn’t mention the need to consider the ecological issue.  This seems politically incorrect to us.  Again, whether this project will materialise or not is not our business.  We don’t want to start guessing about it; but again, even if it does materialise, it will not considerably undermine Russia’s position as a gas exporter to the international markets.                                          
AIW: Would you then suggest that Russia is not conceptually against the trans-Caspian gas pipeline?

Amb. Dorokhin: If the pipeline is going to be built in a way that will allow all five littoral states to agree, then Russia certainly has nothing against it.  When we were building the North Stream pipeline, we were required to take into account the opinions of every single country in the region, including Poland, for example.   

AIW: What is your assessment of the current status of cooperation within and prospects for the North-South corridor?

Amb. Dorokhin: Everybody says this is a very important project, referring to the huge amount of goods one could ship through this corridor.  And Russia believes in the potential of this project, too.  There are two directions in which the North-South corridor is supposed to go: one through Turkmenistan along the Caspian’s eastern coast, and the other through Azerbaijan along the Caspian’s western shores.  The pathway through Azerbaijan is shorter and thus economically more viable, but the work on the passage through Turkmenistan is going on faster.  The point is that the project we have is trilateral; that is, there are three states involved: Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.  And the most complicated part of work falls on Iran’s shoulders.  That is, while there are only some eight kilometres of rail line that need to be built on the Azerbaijani part and Russia has little to do to make this project work, Iran must build some 150 kilometres of rail line through mountainous regions.  It is not clear whether they actually are building it.  On some occasions, Iran suggests that the railroad is going to be completed within some two months, but at others, it becomes clear that very little work has been done at all.  Things have been dragging on like that for some six to seven years.  So, much depends on the Iranian side and on whether it will complete its part of the work.  There is probably a financial aspect to it as well.  

AIW: What is your assessment of the current role the CIS plays and its future prospects?

Amb. Dorokhin: The most correct thing one could say about the CIS is that it is a dynamically developing area.  In what direction it is developing and what state it is going to end up in, however, is difficult to say, for there are different processes going on within the CIS, something we call multi-speed integration.  We think that is entirely normal.  You also know there is a customs union within the CIS, one uniting Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belorussia; and there are also more ambitious plans to establish a common economic area among these three states, a sort of mini-EU within the CIS.  Several Central Asian states show an interest in the Customs union as well.  How that process will go and how the customs union—which began operations on July 1 this year—will function is yet to be seen.  

In addition, we have an ambitious plan to establish a common state with Belorussia.  We already have a constitution and some joint documents.  The process is not an easy one, but nobody has taken this issue off the agenda.  Then, we have EurAsEs in the economic dimension of the CIS, which involves other forms of integration.  Hence, everything within the CIS is in motion; everything is in process.  No one can predict what is going to happen in five or ten years.  

In any case, however, two things are clear about Russia’s position: On the one hand, Russia views the CIS as a priority.  If at some points some in Russia thought that Moscow no longer needed the post-Soviet states and should start looking towards the West and the US, now we have come to realize that we need to be friends with our near abroad.  And on the other, we have developed in recent times a tolerant attitude toward our partners in the former Soviet space and are not trying to impose our will on anyone.  That being the case, I believe that the CIS will be a positive zone, especially if we manage to resolve the conflicts on its territory, including the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  

AIW: Do you then think the CIS has lived up to expectations people had originally?

Amb. Dorokhin: There were times when people viewed the CIS as the facilitator of a civilised divorce.  There were also those who viewed it as a new form of cooperation and integration among the former Soviet states.  Deng Xiaoping was once asked his opinion about the impact of the French Revolution.  He responded by asking when the revolution had taken place.  Told it was 1789, he responded saying that that was only 200 years ago and therefore it was too soon to judge.  Viewed in this way, I think it is too soon to make a judgment about the CIS.  Personally, I did not expect that we would drift apart as far as we have.  I assumed that we would at least retain a common military.  But despite the dashing of those hopes, the CIS has created the conditions for a civilized divorce, although now we see that some states have chosen to get back into a marriage and a family once again.  Some are even building a common state.  Whether this will in fact work out or not remains to be seen. 

AIW: What, in your opinion, should be the next steps in relations between Azerbaijan and Russia?                        
Amb. Dorokhin: There are currently no issues in bilateral relations that demand urgent attention.  Our relations are developing on a stable basis.  Last year, we resolved the important question of our state borders.  It is not accidental that it took us very long to arrive at this point: the negotiations lasted for 15 years.  For to come to this understanding, we needed to accumulate experience, including the positive experience of bilateral relations, and to generate trust in relations with each other.  This is therefore a very important historical moment, one difficult to overestimate especially in terms of the formation of Azerbaijani statehood.  And Russia is the only neighboring country with which Azerbaijan actually has this kind of agreement.  

Now, our relations develop on a stable basis.  With so many Azerbaijanis living and working in Russia and so many families connected in other ways, our relations touch upon and reflect the interests of specific concrete people.  

AIW: Given your diplomatic experience, what would you advise young Azerbaijani diplomats as they begin their diplomatic careers?

Amb. Dorokhin: Azerbaijanis have already shown themselves prepared to stand up for their national interests.  They never feel embarrassed with anyone or about anything.  This is a very good quality.  There is thus only one thing I could recommend, which is universally applicable to diplomats from any nation; that is, while a diplomat certainly has many things on his mind, he must recognize that he serves the interests of his nation and state.  And the more fully a diplomat recognizes that and recognizes the direction these interests require, the better it will be for him and for his country.