Russia and Azerbaijan
An interview with H.E. Mr. Vasily Istratov
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
of the Russian Federation to Azerbaijan
September 18, 2008
Azerbaijan in the World: What in your view is the central core of relations between the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan?
Ambassador Istratov: One can answer that question quite simply: our countries are neighbors and even more than that have had a common history for much of the last several hundred years. Those experiences to a remarkable degree define the character of our relations. Our leaders have frequently pointed to our relations as those between the very good neighbors, and only a few days ago, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev said that the relations between our two countries are a model of relations between neighbors.
AIW: How have relations between Azerbaijan and Russia evolved during the post-Soviet period? How do you rate the level of these relations at present? What directions in bilateral ties have been most successful and where is additional attention needed?
Amb. Istratov: First of all, I am pleased to say that our relations have evolved in a positive direction. In fact, now it is possible to say that our ties are considerably better than ten years ago or even eight years ago. At an earlier stage, there were problems, in large measure because mistakes were made by both sides, but thanks to the efforts of diplomats, politicians, representatives of public opinion, and what is most important, the leaders of our countries, over the last eight years a great deal has been done for the establishment of stable and normal relations between our countries. And even over the course of the slightly more than two years I have been professionally involved in dealing with the Russian-Azerbaijani relations, a relatively short period, I have seen real progress.
It is of course impossible to say that politically relations between Russia and Azerbaijan have risen as far as they possibly can, but that they are developing successfully and that our countries are satisfied with their current level is a fact. One may argue that our political relations are ahead of our relations in other spheres. However paradoxical it might seem, relations between our law enforcement agencies are very good. Moreover, the ties between the defense ministries are developing quite successfully.
Cultural ties represent a direction which also continues to develop, something entirely natural because our peoples were in a single cultural space for so long and because culture does not depend on the efforts of politicians.
The same thing can be said about economic ties. In the course of the last two years, while I was here, we stopped trading gas which had constituted one-third of our trading relationship. But despite that, the trade turnover between our two countries grew the following year, and this year, it grew again. Of course, it is possible to say that politicians played a role in this, but only in part. In fact, the main cause is quite simple: our countries are neighbors who are interrelated, and to the extent that in both Russia and Azerbaijan, there has been significant economic growth, this leads to a growth in trade as well. That Russia is the basic trading partner of Azerbaijan with respect to imports is natural. And although there have been no breakthroughs in the last two years in terms of for example infrastructural development, bilateral trade continues to grow.
As to shortcomings, I would mention at least one. Though our presidents have recently pledged to reach a USD 2 billion level in bilateral trade, which is definitely good, the level of mutual investments is still very low. In fact, Russian investments in Azerbaijan are taking place and even growing quite rapidly, but they are coming not as Russian, but as for example Cyprian, British, or even Austrian. And again the reason is very simple: at present, we lack an agreement on the mutual protection of capital investments. This is connected with one very specific question which up to now has not been resolved and which prevents the Russian business from directly investing in Azerbaijan. That question has to do with the so far unresolved issue about the property of the current embassy of Azerbaijan in Russia. This issue is rather of technical nature, for there is a political will, but due to some legal problems the question is still unresolved.
AIW: Russia is one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. Why then did Russia vote against UN General Assembly resolution 10693, which was adopted in March of this year?
Amb. Istratov: The answer to this question is quite simple: Russia voted the way it did precisely because Russia is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. All the co-chairs voted against because in the unanimous judgment of the co-chairs, the resolution needed additional work. But because Azerbaijan presented it as a final version, the co-chairs voted against. By the way, all the co-chairs clearly stated that on the issue that is most important for Azerbaijan – that of its territorial integrity – they had not changed their position at all. Thus, I would say that the reasons for the vote were again more technical than political.
AIW: How do you think the recent events in Georgia will affect the evolution of regional and international security? Might these events trigger a fatal erosion of the fundamental principle of the supremacy of law in international relations?
Amb. Istratov: Unfortunately, one has to acknowledge that now after these events no one is better off than they were before. As to the question of the supremacy of law, the question immediately arises as to which law. The erosion of the supremacy of international law as laid down after World War II began somewhat earlier, not on August 8. One should remember the Kosovo precedent and not only that. Unfortunately, the situation after August 8 did not become better because the leadership of Georgia did not live up to its obligations on the status of peacekeepers and the use of force in the region.
As a result, the situation changed, and our president Dmitry Medvedev has repeatedly stressed that the world became different place after August 8. However, the way in which it became different is not yet clear. We are still in the process of comprehending the scope of changes brought in by the recent events in the Caucasus. What is clear though is that things became different not only in Georgia, around Georgia, and within the region but far more broadly as well. It became clear that the unipolar world that existed after the end of the Cold War turned out to be unworkable: it was incapable of dealing with crises in various parts of the world, including the South Caucasus. That is one of the conclusions that were made as a result of the Georgian crisis.
But I repeat yet again, the process of recognizing the direction in which we are moving after the Georgian events is not over. It will be quite complex, difficult and take longer than a week, a month, or perhaps even a year. And like with any development, there will be both positive and negative consequences. Let’s see which of them predominates as we take a step forward and perhaps a step back. One can only hope that the international community and the countries of the region will be able to use the current situation in order to make the maximum number of steps forward.
AIW: How do you think the recent events in Georgia will affect the further development of relations between Russia and the countries of the South Caucasus in general and with Azerbaijan in particular?
Amb. Istratov: The events in Georgia have made Russia’s interest in ties with our partner Azerbaijan even greater. And because Azerbaijan is the largest country in what was earlier called the Trans-Caucasus, it has played a major role in the region earlier as well and that too increases the mutual interest of Russia and Azerbaijan in developing relations.
AIW: What is your assessment of Turkey’s recent call for a Platform of Caucasus Stability and Cooperation? What do you see as its chances for success? Might it in the future replace the OSCE Minsk Group as the venue for peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia?
Amb. Istratov: Let’s begin at the end. No one is seriously thinking about doing away with the Minsk Group, even if someone proposes a supplement. The Turkish initiative is interesting but it is not entirely new; a similar idea circulated in the 1990s. The question arises, of course, as to who would be the participants, as one should not ignore one of the regional countries’ discontent about its being left aside the proposed framework. One way or the other, this proposal should be understood as one of the first attempts at comprehending the way the post-August 8 situation changed in the region. The attempt is indeed interesting, as sheer details of it allow arguing that the world has indeed changed. That same idea in 1990s looked slightly differently, and was less viable at that time. So I assume there will be discussions to explore how this platform might develop. At least, there has so far been no one saying that it is impossible.
AIW: Why has this proposal attracted more attention as a possibility than its earlier versions?
Amb. Istratov: The events of the beginning of August are responsible. A decade ago, this idea would not have been offered except after consultations with Washington. Now it has been proposed independent of the Untied States. I am not saying this is the single new element, but it is undoubtedly an important component.
AIW: What is the state of energy cooperation between Azerbaijan and Russia? What influence have the Georgian events had on this sector?
Amb. Istratov: Energy cooperation between our countries is important because both of us are exporters of oil and gas. And consequently, as exporters, we are on the same side relative to importers. As recently as two years ago, Azerbaijan was both an exporter and an importer, but now it is an exporter alone. As a result, relations between our countries are changing. Indeed, the fact that at present Russia, instead of suggesting buying gas from Azerbaijan or rejecting gas to it, offers to buy the Azerbaijani gas indicates that our countries now are partners in an entirely different sense than they were some three or four years ago. As to the impact of the Georgian events on this, it is still difficult to tell. They will definitely affect it but just how is still unclear.
Frequently, we hear talk about diversification. But that term has two meanings: diversification from the point of view of the consumer and diversification from the point of view of the producer. The consumer needs a maximum number of incoming channels while the producer needs a maximum number of outgoing ones. But to identify the vector which will predominate here is still impossible. I have my own views but it is still too early to share them.
AIW: What is your assessment of the current level of cooperation concerning the North-South corridor and how do you see this project developing in the future?
Amb. Istratov: The North-South corridor is an extraordinarily attractive idea especially given the countries at each end, Europe on the one hand and the countries of the Persian Gulf, India and Pakistan and even further afield, on the other. The potential volume of this route is also enormous and certain to grow. Consequently, the main question is whether the countries involved will work in unison together or compete. There, the chief difficulties are not connected with Russia or Azerbaijan. One should also stress that the North-South corridor is not an alternative but an overland supplement to the sea trading route.
AIW: How do you see the CIS evolving after the Georgian events and Georgia’s decision to withdraw from this organization?
Amb. Istratov: The CIS suffered from Georgia’s withdrawal, but it will not cease its existence as a result. How one evaluates the implications for the organization depends on the way one views it. If one considers the CIS only as a mechanism for a civilized divorce, then the departure of Georgia may be viewed as something that is likely to be a trend. But if we talk about the CIS as a place for cooperation on the territory of the former USSR, then the space of the USSR exists and will continue to exist regardless of whether politicians want it or not, just as there are countries in which one could still feel the imperial borders that ceased to exist in 1918 or countries where it is still clear where the 1939 borders extended regardless of decisions politicians make at different forums. Viewed from this perspective, the CIS will continue to exist.
Just as in the European Union, people speak about different rates of integration, so we in the CIS speak about different levels of cooperation. Some are closer, others less so. Within the CIS, there are some arrangements for only two or three countries, and there are others for all the members. Such variety will always exist. And consequently, the departure of one of the countries will not strongly affect the picture for all the others. I recall, for example, that Azerbaijan entered the CIS relatively late, and nevertheless, the CIS existed without Azerbaijan. I am not saying that all were happy about that, but nonetheless the organization existed. Thus, just as the CIS existed without Azerbaijan, it will exist without Georgia if Georgia will leave it.
AIW: You have compared the CIS with the European Union. Do you see the future of the CIS resembling that of the European Union?
Amb. Istratov: The CIS if indeed it ever develops in the way the EU has will not do so quickly. But just how it or indeed the EU will develop is far from clear and predictions are thus quite difficult to make.
AIW: What in your view ought to be the next steps in relations between Azerbaijan and Russia?
Amb. Istratov: Nothing dramatic is required; we simply need to continue to move forward along the course which we have been following in recent years. And then we will step by step – and quite quickly – come out on a new level of cooperation and find new directions of cooperation as well. Our countries need one another and actively cooperate, as anyone can see with an unaided eye. In the first two months of his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev found time to come to Azerbaijan, and now, despite the beginning of an election campaign Ilham Aliyev found it possible to fly to Moscow. Thus, our cooperation continues regardless of objective complications such as these. This shows the level of mutual interest which exists.
As far as specific steps are concerned, I would mention the need to agree on the three parts of our borders which have not yet been delimited. That question is the single knot in our relations which must be untied. But at the same time, this step is a largely symbolic one and will not affect our relations very much. To resolve this and any other problems, the chief thing is the political will of both presidents. That exists, and this is no small thing.
AIW: Based on your extensive diplomatic experience, what advice would you give to Azerbaijani diplomats on how to improve their chances to defend and advance the interests of Azerbaijan abroad?
Amb. Istratov: First of all, one needs to approach the country one is working in or on with sympathy. Over the course of my 17 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was first involved with the Supreme Soviet and with the Duma and I related to them with sympathy. Then I was involved with the United States, and I related to the US with sympathy, then to Ireland, then again to the United States and now toward Azerbaijan. Without this, one will not achieve anything. If one approaches another country professionally but without sympathy, nothing good will come of it.
One also needs to attempt to understand people. I always tried to understand and sympathetically relate to Americans. And now I try to understand and with sympathy relate to Azerbaijanis. One needs to try to understand people’s mentality, which may be both so different from and so similar to one’s own, and one can do this best by considering those aspects which unite people.
A diplomat also has to study languages, and that is a shortcoming I suffer from because in fact I have not mastered Azerbaijani. For more than two years, I’ve made several attempts but beyond a very minimum level, I have not been able to advance, and as a result, I blame it on my age. But one must study languages.
One also must study the culture and history of the country one is working in. But the chief thing, I would say, is to approach one’s task with an open heart and the desire to make things better because a diplomat by definition should try to improve things.