Vol. 2, No. 1 (January 01, 2009)

What 2008 means for Azerbaijan in the world in 2009

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
The year 2009 opens as did its predecessor 2008 with Azerbaijan receiving criticism from some foreign governments and human rights activists for its decision to ban foreign broadcasts, Russian and Turkish television a year ago and British and American radio broadcasts now.  But during the intervening 12 months, Baku both achieved many other things and was affected by many other developments, all of which are certain to affect its international standing more profoundly than either of these decisions about the media.  
And while 2008 did not prove to be the kind of breakthrough year for Azerbaijan that many of its leaders and people had expected, it did mark a dramatic rise in Baku’s standing among governments around the world, an increase that in the year ahead almost certainly will prove a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, its rise gives Baku far greater opportunities for influence in the future than it has had up to now.  But on the other hand, this increase in status guarantees that Azerbaijan will be subject to new pressures and greater scrutiny from abroad than at any time in the past. 
The impact of 2008 on 2009 is perhaps best explored not holistically but rather in terms of the implications for the future of five specific actions the Azerbaijan government itself took and five discrete developments in the international environment which have affected Azerbaijan and forced Azerbaijan to respond.  Only after all ten of these are considered is it reasonable to talk briefly about what the next 12 months, which themselves will be filled with as many unexpected developments as the last, are nonetheless likely to mean for Azerbaijan and its relationship with the world.  
During the course of 2008, Azerbaijan took many actions which are likely to affect its standing in the world in the future.  Analysts and officials are certain to disagree both on the specific list and on the ranking of the events included on it, but nearly all those who have been keeping track of Azerbaijan over the last year are likely to agree on the following five actions, discussed below in terms of the date of their occurrence, as among the very most important. 
First, on March 14, Azerbaijan succeeded in getting the United Nations General Assembly to adopt a resolution on “The Situation in the Occupied Territories of Azerbaijan,” a decision that many in Baku viewed as a major triumph even though the non-binding measure was approved only 39 to seven with 100 abstentions.  That is because Azerbaijan secured passage even though the resolution which supported Baku’s position on the resolution of the Karabakh dispute was approved despite the opposition of all four members of the Minsk Group, including the Russian Federation and the United States.
Since that vote, Azerbaijan has sought to make the position of countries on this measure a litmus test of their standing with Baku, an effort that has forced many governments that abstained to declare that they back Azerbaijan’s views on territorial integrity as the primary principle for the resolution of the Karabakh dispute and that has simultaneously undermined the importance of the Minsk Group as a group while allowing Moscow to play an expanded role in promoting bilateral talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, even if it is not yet clear that the Russian government is in fact desirous of a final settlement of a conflict it has exploited since the beginning to maintain or enhance its own standing in the South Caucasus.
But having won this victory, Azerbaijan has raised the bar for itself, with many in Baku assuming that it will be able to achieve even more definitive international statements on its behalf and equally many in other countries viewing Azerbaijan as a rising power that is able to overcome the opposition of the major states in the Minsk Group.  That creates both opportunities for Azerbaijan and dangers either from overreaching in the future or from failing to achieve what its own people and others expect. 
Second, on October 15, Ilham Aliyev was re-elected Azerbaijan’s president with 88 percent of the vote, an election most observers suggested had been carried out far closer to international norms than had earlier polls, although many pointed to the failure of some opposition parties to field candidates against him as a form of protect as a problem.  Related to that development was the Azerbaijani parliament’s decision at the end of December 26 to have a referendum on March 18, 2009, on a constitutional amendment that would allow Aliyev or some other future president to serve more than two terms in a row, a measure that the current president’s supporters say is the essence of democracy because it allows the people of Azerbaijan to continue to support someone they have demonstrated they back but that his opponents suggest creates the risk that he will be president for life.  
After the election and even more in anticipation of a referendum that his supporters are certain will end with a victory, President Aliyev stands unchallenged at the top of the political pyramid in Azerbaijan.  On the one hand, that gives him the opportunity to take risks and pursue policies that a political leader more directly challenged would not dare make.  But on the other, it means that he and others in the Azerbaijani political system must work to promote the inclusion of more people in political process who will thereby acquire the skills to assume even more important positions in the future.
Third, on November 2, President Aliyev met with his Armenian and Russian counterparts in the Kremlin and signed the Moscow Declaration calling for more negotiations between Baku and Yerevan to find a solution to the Karabakh dispute, the first accord signed by both Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents since the 1994 ceasefire and one that effectively eliminates Stepanakert as a party to such talks, at least in the Azerbaijani interpretation of the document.
Among the consequences of this accord, perhaps the most important was the way in which the Moscow Declaration effectively reduced the importance of the OSCE Minsk Group, the protestations of all the participants to the contrary notwithstanding.  On the one hand, that puts greater responsibility on Baku and Yerevan to make progress on their own, something neither will find it easy to do given the diametrically opposed positions the two sides have on many issues.  And on the other, the document, by sidelining the Minsk Group, almost certainly invites individual powers from within that group, such as the Russian Federation and Turkey, and others outside it, including Iran, to play a larger role, moves that will at the very least complicate diplomacy on this issue in the year ahead. 
For Baku, this almost certainly will mean that its “balanced” foreign policy will be challenged in new ways because the Azerbaijani government will have to measure and then balance the influences of Russia and the West but many other, often competing influences as well.  That will put new burdens on the foreign policy apparatus in Baku and make it imperative that President Aliyev’s plans to expand that apparatus both within Azerbaijan and in embassies abroad go forward at a rapid pace.  
Fourth, on November 14, the Azerbaijani parliament votes 86 to one to pull its peacekeeping unit from Iraq where it had been since 2003, a decision followed shortly by the announcement that the Azerbaijani and Russian defense ministries had signed an expanded cooperation agreement and one that suggested to some analysts that in the wake of the events in Georgia, Baku’s “balanced” foreign policy was tilting away from the West and toward Moscow, even though Azerbaijan subsequently committed itself to send units to Afghanistan sometime in 2009.
And fifth, on November 14-15, the presidents of six countries and senior representatives of 16 other states met in Baku for an energy summit – the fourth in a series that began in Vilnius several years ago – an event that reinforced Azerbaijan’s relations with the oil and gas exporting countries of Central Asia and one that President Aliyev suggested underscored Azerbaijan’s geopolitical status as the key crossroads of east-west and north-south energy flows from Eurasia to the outside world. 
In addition to these actions, Azerbaijan was profoundly affected by five broader international developments, some of which reinforced the consequences of these decisions about its foreign policies and others of which undercut them.  First of all has been the world financial crisis including the dramatic decline in the price of oil, Azerbaijan’s major export.  That has reduced the amount of money Azerbaijan has for the future, but it has also shown that Baku’s stewardship of its oil earnings in the past has provided it with more of a cushion than many other countries in similar straits now have.  Whether that will be enough, of course, depends on how long the crisis continues and how low the price of oil remains.
Second, the Russian invasion of Georgia changed the security calculations of all countries in the region, including Azerbaijan.  For the first time since 1991, the use of military power across international borders is now thinkable, something that may tempt some in Azerbaijan to use force against Armenian occupiers.  And also for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, governments must view militaries not simply as structures which promote national integration but as an important component for national defense.  That in turn means greater spending on military equipment and personnel and a greater voice for military personnel in national security decision making.
Third and fourth, the Turkish government has pursued a rapprochement with Armenia, challenging one of the fundamental assumptions of Azerbaijani foreign policy, and the Iranian government has assumed a larger regional role, raising the stakes for Azerbaijan’s relationship not only with Tehran over the question of ethnic Azerbaijanis in the south but also with other regional players who may be able to count on support from Iran.  How far either Turkey or Iran will go and how much they will affect Azerbaijan is one of the key questions that may be answered in the new year.
And fifth – and possibly the twin developments that have the potential to be “wild cards” in 2009 – both the Russian Federation and the United States chose new leaders in 2008, leaders whose approach to Azerbaijan may be very different than their predecessors.  Having succeeded Vladimir Putin as Russian president, Medvedev appears ready to pursue an even more expansive approach to the former Soviet space than his predecessor, less ideological perhaps but more concerted.  That will present new challenges for Baku to which its leadership will have to respond.
But more dramatic are likely to be the changes resulting from the election of Barak Obama as president of the United States.  While his statements during the campaign about 1915 have attracted more attention than they probably deserve – history suggests that such comments tend to be a staple during American election years but not at other times – Obama is going to be a very different American leader than George W. Bush, the man he succeeds, in at least three ways: He is likely to be less focused on oil than Bush has been.  He is certain to be more focused on democracy and human rights.  And he is likely to be less driven by personal ties with foreign leaders than the current occupant of the White House. 
How all these things will combine in the year ahead is impossible to predict, but there are several obvious consequences.  First, Baku is going to find itself both the beneficiary and the victim of its own successes in 2008.  It will have more opportunities to play a role in international affairs than ever before, but it will be scrutinized and possibly criticized for actions and policies that most other countries have chosen to ignore in the past.  The former is something that Azerbaijanis will take pride in; the latter is something many of them may find difficult to accept.
Second, even though Baku is certain to continue to pursue what President Aliyev calls its “balanced” foreign policy, the meaning of that balance is shifting, not only because of the changed power relations of the countries which have been players in the South Caucasus in the past but also because of the entrance or re-entrance of other powers that Baku has generally been able to ignore in this calculus up to now.  That will require a more complicated balancing act, one that will challenge both the Azerbaijani government and the Azerbaijani people in new ways.
And third – and again this may be the most important cautionary note – 2009 is almost certain to feature unexpected developments that no one in Baku or elsewhere is planning for.  Azerbaijan has had a cushion in the form of its oil wealth and its remarkable stewardship of same.  Now, that cushion is smaller than it was, and consequently, the risks of being wrong in what is an increasingly dangerous world are greater, a challenge that the Azerbaijani government is far from alone in now having to face.