Vol. 1, No. 14-15 (September 1, 2008)

Azerbaijan after Georgia: Ten shattered assumptions of Azerbaijani foreign policy

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
No country, with the possible exception of the two immediate antagonists, has seen its foreign policy environment transformed by the recent war in Georgia more than Azerbaijan.  That conflict and the way in which both individual countries and the international community have responded have cast doubt on almost all the assumptions on which Azerbaijan's foreign policy have been based over the last decade.  And consequently both the government of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani people are confronted with the difficult and traumatic task of redefining not only the mental maps they have of the world around them but also redefining their foreign policy agendas.
Because these changes have come so quickly, because they are interrelated, and because there is no obvious or at least easily agreed upon response to any or all of them, it is far too early to say just what Baku will now do or even where both its immediate environment and the broader international community will land in a new angle of repose.  But it may be useful to specify ten assumptions on which Azerbaijan's foreign policy have rested and then look at the ways in which the events in Georgia have shattered them in order to be in a position to consider the challenges and choices the new environment poses to Azerbaijan.
Shattered Assumption 1: Georgia is sufficiently stable to allow it to be the primary path for the export of Azerbaijani and Caspian Basin oil and gas bypassing Russia.
The most obvious consequence of Russia's intervention in Georgia for Azerbaijan is its demonstration that Georgia is not a reliable pathway west for Azerbaijani and Caspian hydrocarbons.  Russia both through the actions of its own forces and its allies have blown up portions of the pipeline, destroyed a key railway bridge, and wreaked havoc in Georgian ports.  Oil flows have been disrupted, and Azerbaijan has already had to ask Moscow for greater access to pipelines flowing through the Russian Federation to Novorossiysk.  The assumption in Baku that Georgia was a reliable path that Azerbaijan could use to bypass Russia has been shattered, fracturing in turn Azerbaijan's assumptions about itself and the world. 
Shattered Assumption 2: Russia has accepted the 1991 settlement and will not use military force against its neighbors.
Western powers led by the United States have said for 15 years that Russia has accepted the 1991 settlement and will never use force to challenge it.  If Russia was a status quo power in the past, it is not now, and Moscow has exploited the misperceptions in the West to act against its neighbors first by subversion and then as in Georgia by naked military power.  Under Vladimir Putin, it has become a revisionist power, one whose leaders believe that they can and should use force to promote their goals and especially to punish their enemies.  Thus the assumption that Russia has entered the international community as a member which accepts the rules of the game, an assumption that many in Baku have operated on in many cases because they were encouraged to do so by Western governments, also lies shattered in the dustbin of history.
Shattered Assumption 3: The United States is sufficiently powerful to be a reliable and credible deterrent to any Russian misbehavior in the former Soviet space.
There is no question that the United States is the last remaining super-power, but for three reasons, as the Georgian events demonstrate, the US is not in a position to bring its power to bear in the post-Soviet space in ways that would block Russian action.  First and most disturbingly, the United States has spent most of the last decade talking about its strategic partnership with Russia, a self-delusion that has nonetheless created a class of people in Washington’s foreign policy establishment who will find a way to justify not challenging Russia on anything.  Second, the United States has acted in ways in the Balkans and in Iraq and Afghanistan that make it more difficult for Washington to credibly oppose the use of power by another state, if it has nuclear weapons, to advance its own interests.  And third, the current administration since September 11th has not only focused almost exclusively on combating terrorism in the Middle East but has neglected its allies in Europe and elsewhere and thus is not in a good position to mobilize a coalition against Russia.  For those reasons and for others having to do with European dependence on Russian oil and gas, yet another assumption of Baku’s foreign policy up to now lies discredited.
Shattered Assumption 4: The United States and the international community are so committed to the inviolability of borders that they will not permit any revision of them, especially by violence.
The United States and the international community are opposed to border changes in principle but not necessarily in practice.  Not only did the US and its allies ultimately welcome the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia but most recently they have supported the independence of Kosovo.  As a Wilsonian, the author believes that supporting the right of nations to self-determination is correct but he also is convinced that support for that principle means that one must be consistent.  If one isn’t, others will exploit that.  And what the Russians have done in Georgia – or at least why Putin and company assumed they could get away with it – is the product of recent history in the Balkans more than anything else.  Western and especially American failure to understand the implications of what was done there and to take action in the former Soviet space has thus shattered yet another Azerbaijani assumption. 
Shattered Assumption 5: Turkey can be counted on to back Azerbaijan against Russia. 

One of the bedrock assumptions of Azerbaijani thinking is that Turkey will always be in Azerbaijan's corner in the event of a clash.  The events in Georgia prove that is not so.  Ankara's decision not to allow two American hospital ships to pass through the straits in order to provide assistance to Georgia shows that Turkey today is far more influenced by Russia than many in Baku had thought, and its suggestion that Russia and Turkey should become joint guarantors of stability in the Caucasus may have its roots in Ataturk's policies, which after all were pro-Soviet early on, but such a condominium would not mean that Turkey would protect Azerbaijan but rather that it would cover Russian pressure on Baku.  Again, another assumption shattered.
Shattered Assumption 6: Iran, thanks to American-led efforts to isolate it and its own domestic problems, does not pose any fundamental threat to Azerbaijan.
Not only has Iran lined up behind Moscow's actions in Georgia, but it has expanded its level of cooperation with Armenia in the intelligence and security areas and it has adopted a much harder line against its own ethnic Azerbaijanis in the North.  Iran may be in a box in some respects as Washington clearly wants, but in its immediate neighborhood – and Azerbaijan is part of that – Tehran possesses the resources, the motive and now the opportunity to cause trouble for Baku.  It is almost certain that Iran will seek to spark new challenges by the Lezgins and, working with Armenia, other minorities inside Azerbaijan as well as seek to use the large number of Iranians living in Azerbaijan to put pressure on Baku.  Azerbaijan's assumption to the contrary, one again encouraged by the United States, is likely shattered beyond repair as the Georgian events play out.
Shattered Assumption 7: Azerbaijan’s growing economic might will allow it counter any challenge posed by Armenia over Karabakh.
Azerbaijani officials from President Ilham Aliyev on down regularly insist that their country's growing economic might will allow them to build up their political and military power to the point that Baku will be in a position to rebuff any challenge by Armenia in the future.  There are three reasons why that assumption is now shattered.  First, economic power does not translate directly into military power.  One can purchase more weapons but that does not in itself mean that one has more power.  Second, Armenia now more than ever can count on Russian help.  Relative to Armenia, Azerbaijan looks very strong; relative to Armenia and Russia, it looks rather different.  And third, and again as the events in Georgia show, a modern military can be overwhelmed by numbers and by a power willing to sacrifice in order to achieve its military and political ends.  “Economism” was a mistake a century ago; it is still a mistake in strategic thinking.
Shattered Assumption 8: Azerbaijan as a source of oil for an energy thirsty Europe guarantees that it can count on outside support against any challenge.
Azerbaijani oil is Baku’s chief calling card to the world, but Azerbaijan is not the only source of oil and the Georgian events make its oil less attractive than it was before.  After all, if Azerbaijan has something the world wants but can’t deliver it reliably – and Moscow has demonstrated that it won’t be able to unless you make concessions to Russian demands – then Azerbaijani oil, however much other countries might like to have it is devalued.  Assumption eight is thus shattered as well.
Shattered Assumption 9: Azerbaijan's so-called “balanced foreign policy” is sufficient to give Azerbaijan the security and freedom of action its leaders want. 
Many specialists on international affairs have been impressed by Azerbaijan’s “balanced foreign policy,” its efforts to maintain ties with all sides rather than line up only with one.  Some would argue that the Georgian events show the virtue of that approach rather than undermine it, but that would be true only if one thing were true that clearly is not.  A balanced approach presupposes that the two sides are roughly equal in power, but Russian actions in Georgia show that for the immediate future, that clearly is not true – and thus the continuation of a balanced approach rests on an assumption that has been shattered too.
Shattered Assumption 10: Azerbaijan's international environment is sufficiently benign that it now can and should focus exclusively on its domestic problems.
If there has been one refrain in the comments of Western officials visiting Azerbaijan it is this: Azerbaijan should not worry so much about ensuring the continued viability of the state; it should focus on reforming that state, improving the quality of democracy there.  That Azerbaijan should focus on improving its domestic arrangements is beyond question, but it is for exactly the opposite reason that Western officials give.  Azerbaijan lives in a bad and increasingly dangerous neighborhood, and it must act in ways that will ensure that the country can survive as a more or less independent actor with a chance for long-term survival.  The notion that Azerbaijan can count on a benign environment has never been completely true; it now lies shattered with all of the others listed above. 
Many will see this list as overly bleak, but in the wake of Russia's violation of the rules, of the West’s failure to find a way to force Moscow to back down, and of the rising tide of calls for “looking beyond” what Russia has done in order to avoid “a new cold war” and to obtain all the “benefits” of East-West cooperation, Azerbaijan, its leaders and its people, will not be doing themselves any favors by acting as if they do not have to redefine their approach because the environment in which they must operate is a very different one than that which they have been assuming they could rely.