Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 1, 2008)

Azerbaijan on the cusp: Achievements of 2007, challenges of 2008

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Azerbaijan was extraordinarily successful in its foreign relations last year, and many have suggested that there is every reason for it to be even more so in 2008. While that is possible, both the successes it had in 2007 and the specific features of the international landscape of the coming year mean that Baku now faces far greater challenges ahead than it did in the past, challenges that if met will boost Azerbaijan into a new and higher place among the countries of the world but if not recognized and acted upon could easily call into question much of what it has achieved.

Even to list Azerbaijan’s most signal achievements in 2007 is to be impressed by what its government and people have been able to do: the fastest growing economy in the world according to the World Bank, the signing of an accord linking Azerbaijan to the West by rail and the coming on line of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, the hosting of Turkic leaders in Baku, the completion of its presidency of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the involvement of Poland and Japan in GUAM under its chairmanship, an expansion in the activities of the Economic Cooperation Organization, a bid for the Olympic Games, increased diplomatic influence in key countries and the United Nations, and the announcement of plans to expand the number of its missions abroad.

Last year was marked as well by more visits by Azerbaijan’s president and senior leaders to other countries and more visits by senior officials to Azerbaijan than had been the case earlier.  Such visits became so common that they were viewed as something entirely expected, as “part of the furniture.” Indeed, in 2007, Baku has become a regular stopping point for the leaders of other nations and international institutions, not a place they visit only once or not at all. 

Equally important in the short term and perhaps more significant in the years ahead, Baku dramatically expanded its ties with the millions of Azerbaijanis living beyond its borders.  In December, Azerbaijanis in more than 70 countries around the world took part in celebrations of their continuing ties to their homeland.  As a result, Baku now has some important new allies in other countries. It does not yet have the same influence some other diasporas have, but for the first time, Azerbaijan can participate in this competition.

And in addition to these and many other accomplishments, over the course of the last 12 months, Azerbaijan assumed a growing role in the international fight against terrorism, providing troops for battles abroad, information about terrorist activities in its neighborhood, and demonstrating its capacity to interdict threats to foreign missions on its territory.  The last of these steps was especially important. It underscored Azerbaijan’s maturation as a state, and together with everything else, it is why analysts in both Baku and Washington identified 2007 as the best year ever in Azerbaijani-American relations.

Baku then used these enhanced ties to work with its friends in the U.S. Congress and the White House to force the State Department to edit a document that tilted against Baku, and it showed growing diplomatic skill in its negotiations with the Russian Federation, the Minsk Group, and the countries of the region.  Even if Azerbaijan did not achieve all its goals – especially the liberation of the occupied territories – it laid the groundwork for doing so by developing the most sophisticated multi-channel diplomacy in its post-Soviet history. 

In short, as the calendar turned from 2007 to 2008, the government and people of Azerbaijan had much to be pleased about.  Such good feelings are not misplaced. But there are three sets of reasons – some related to developments inside Azerbaijan, others reflecting the political calendars of other countries, and still additional ones that are the direct product of what Baku achieved last year – that mean 2008 will be a more challenging and potentially fateful year than the one just past.

First, Azerbaijan faces a presidential election.  Regardless of how certain many are that President Ilham Aliyev will win that vote, the campaign will generate much discussion about what Baku has done in the world and where it should be headed diplomatically, and the aftermath will likely to be occasion for changes in one or more key positions in the government.  Both of these inevitably complicate the lives of those engaged in foreign policy, undercutting the certainties of continuity that allow the careful planning successful diplomacy normally requires.
Moreover, both the campaign and Azerbaijan’s recent diplomatic successes are likely to lead some Azerbaijanis to demand more changes at home or a redirection of its diplomatic efforts to those issues – first and foremost the recovery of the occupied territories – that most excite the public.  Demands for changes at home will mean that Azerbaijan’s top leaders will have less time to focus on foreign affairs and thus be less willing to take on new initiatives in the short term. And calls by politicians and the public for a focus on the recovery of the occupied territories will, as one American official described the impact of the Middle East on the Bush Administration’s foreign affairs, “suck all the air” out of everything else.

And finally, among the domestic changes ahead that will make the prosecution of foreign policy more difficult is one that is more diffuse but perhaps even more significant. That is the revolution of rising expectations that Baku’s diplomatic ascent has sparked among Azerbaijanis.  Given the success their country has had in the last year, many are certain to demand that it be even more successful in the future. Not only can that make judicious decisions on what the government should do more difficult, but it can lead to the kind of overreaching that is often fatal to diplomatic work.

Second, there are some important changes abroad that will affect Baku’s ability to advance diplomatically. Azerbaijan is not the only country with elections this year.  Georgia already has had such a vote, and in coming months, the Russian Federation, the United States, and Armenia will conduct them as well, with a change at the top nearly certain in all three.  Such turnover will make it more difficult for these countries to engage diplomatically for the same reasons that the election in Azerbaijan will have that effect here. And while this turbulence might offer some short term opportunities, it more likely will lead to a slowdown in activity as these countries too go into a wait-and-see mode.

In addition, the international economic situation in the year ahead is likely to be increasingly problematic. Not only will an economic slowdown in the United States and several other countries have an impact on demand for Azerbaijan’s chief export, but shifts in the relative economic position of the major players in international trade will force Baku to look in some new and unexpected directions, again changes that will require careful consideration and thus likely lead to a pause in some sectors of diplomatic activity.

And there are the uncertainties of conflict in the Middle East.  Continuing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the possibility of a military confrontation with Iran, and the all too real threat that the world will not be able to get through another year without the kind of terrorist attack that will suddenly reorder the diplomatic map are going to complicate the lives of Azerbaijan ‘s foreign and security policy elites. Depending on how things develop in this regard, Baku may find itself under pressure to do more from its foreign partners or pushed by its own elites and people to change course in order to minimize the impact of these dangers on the country’s domestic life.

And third, as so often in life, Baku’s signal achievements in recent years and especially in 2007 have brought in their wake some new problems. In addition to greater expectations at home for uninterrupted success, there are three that Azerbaijan will have to face this year and well into the future. First of all, as Azerbaijan has become more important internationally, it has generated expectations in many capitals that it will be able to carry an ever greater part of the load of the work of the international community.  That puts enormous pressure on its inevitably limited diplomatic capacity.  More and more often, other countries will want Azerbaijan to participate or take the lead in one or another sphere.  Baku will have to make choices, and those choices in turn will be limited unless it both expands its capacity and develops a more coherent national security and foreign policy apparatus.

That is not something that is going to be easy to do especially in the short term: It takes decades to “grow” an ambassador or a national security advisor, and unfortunately given its impressive recent successes, Azerbaijan does not have that much time before it must field a much larger foreign policy team.

Second, not all of Azerbaijan’s neighbors or interlocutors are entirely happy about Baku’s diplomatic ascent. Some like Turkey may welcome it, but others have more negative views and are certain to become more active both diplomatically and in other ways.  Neither Yerevan, Tehran nor Moscow is entirely happy about Azerbaijan’s achievements. And all of them have levers they can employ against Baku, some of them diplomatic, some economic, and some involving other means.  

Countering those efforts without falling into carefully laid traps designed to make Azerbaijan look incompetent, authoritarian or paranoid will not be easy. 

And third, and this may prove to be the most difficult challenge, although it is one that many Azerbaijanis already understand and know what to do.  As an increasingly significant player in international affairs, Azerbaijan will attract more attention from other countries and from their media. Much of this expanded coverage will be positive and welcome, but some of it could be negative and harmful.

In the past, the Azerbaijani government could take actions at home relatively confident that few abroad would pay attention.  Now, as Baku has risen in prominence and as the international media have gone global 24/7, it does not have that luxury.  If they take an action at home that governments or human rights activists elsewhere believe is a violation of fundamental human rights, the government and people of Azerbaijan are going to suffer politically and diplomatically as a result.

On the one hand and most immediately, Azerbaijan’s diplomats must become more skillful in explaining what is taking place in their country and capable of responding to the inevitable criticism important countries attract. But on the other, Baku needs to recognize, as the recent criticism of certain actions against journalists showed, that its success in the world will depend not only on the skill of those at the top and in the foreign ministry but also on the way in which the Azerbaijani officials at all levels act.

If Azerbaijan’s leaders and people recognize these challenges and act in ways that will allow Baku to present the best possible face to the world, there is every chance that Azerbaijan will continue its march from the margins of the international community to the very first ranks.  But if its leaders and people are not able to do so, then Azerbaijan will face the prospect that it will not be able to do so, however many friends it has attracted so far and however much oil it may be able to export now and in the future. 

The year ahead thus promises to be even more interesting than the one just past.  Azerbaijan is clearly on the cusp of great things, with the possibility for further progress very real but the downside risks to its newly won status equally and all too obviously present.