Vol. 2, No. 10 (May 15, 2009)

Anarchy, hierarchy or neither: An indigenous Azerbaijani concept of national security

Jason E. Strakes
Research Fellow 2008-2009
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

The Republic of Azerbaijan is a country that is often said to occupy a precarious position in the international system.  First, surrounded by three former imperial cores and major contemporary powers – Turkey, Iran and the Russian Federation – it is commonly viewed as being subject to multiple pressures of competition for strategic influence.  Secondly, it experienced a seven-year civil and international conflict involving the neighboring Republic of Armenia, constituting an internal (1988-1991) and an interstate (1992-1994) phase resulting in approximately 30,000 deaths and 800,000 internally displaced – a level of violence matched in the former Soviet space only by the case of Tajikistan.  Thirdly, the war resulted in the continued occupation of one-fifth of the national territory by the forces of Armenia and an unrecognized government that receive both overt and illicit military support from Moscow.

And yet, apart from its central emphasis on Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, the National Security Concept promulgated in May 2007 is distinctive for its emphasis on linked domestic and external, non-traditional and transnational, rather than state-centric or conventional threats.  First, despite popular rhetoric of support for the U.S. Global War on Terror, it does not specifically name Washington as an ally, instead presenting participation in post-9/11 security operations as a necessary aspect of responsible support for international counter-terrorism and peacekeeping initiatives (National Security Concept of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2007, pp. 9-10).  At the same time, unlike Georgia, whose doctrine directly intends membership in NATO and the European Union, Azerbaijan’s partnership with these institutions constitutes cooperation for mutual benefit rather than full integration (National Security Concept of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2007, pp. 8-9).  In line with this definition, regional militarization and armament policies, rather than bilateral tensions with historic imperial powers (and Armenian patrons) such as Iran and Russia are identified as collective sources of potential insecurity (National Security Concept of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2007, pp. 6-7). 

As such, more prominent challenges are located in the “uncontrolled” territories and conflict zones comprising the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and by implication, the Caucasian de facto states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  The longstanding priority of Azerbaijani leaderships to preserve territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders (Brown 2004) is well represented.  Yet here, rather than the subversion of internal sovereignty by governments and armed forces which are unrecognized in international law and supported by foreign diplomatic and military intervention (as literally exemplified by the Russian counter-offensives in Georgia during August 2008), primary threats are said to emanate from havens for trans-border organized crime and illicit trade (National Security Concept of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2007, pp. 5-6).  The serious political instability of the early post-independence period, characterized by foreign-sponsored antigovernment actions and secessionist movements, also remains a major contingency (National Security Concept of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2007, p. 5).  Finally, the definition of threats is extended to explicitly non-military concerns: extremism, lack of human capital, overdependence on external aid, destabilization of the economy and environmental damage constitute as much of a danger to Azerbaijan’s national security as do opposing armies or terrorist groups (National Security Concept of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2007, pp. 6-7).

Yet, the completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) pipelines from 2005-2007 has virtually revolutionized international policy discourse on security issues in the Caucasus region.  This has prioritized the classical tri-polar narrative of competing Russian, Iranian and Turkish interests, along with continual speculations regarding energy markets and great power (U.S./Russia/EU) access to oil and gas reserves and transshipment routes – the Caucasian counterpart of the Central Asian “New Great Game”.  As a result, much public discussion of the foreign and national security policies of post-Soviet Azerbaijan is at worst atheoretical, or at best, dominated by realist geopolitical assumptions.  One leading American analyst of small state foreign policies suggests that the pursuit of Caspian oil has turned “otherwise weak nations such as Azerbaijan into international ‘players’” (Hudson 2006, p. 145).  Thus, the emphasis is always on the reactions of Azerbaijani policymakers to external forces, rather than how they perceive the nature of the international environment in which they are situated.

Given the focus on imperial ambitions toward small states, it is curious that prevailing views of the region would assume anarchy (power seeking) rather than hierarchy (status seeking) as an explanatory framework.  It has been suggested that the preoccupation of observers with the role of hegemonic influences in the Caucasus region is a byproduct of the varying reactions of regional and global powers to demands for external support by local leaderships in the post-Soviet period (e.g., Russia to Tar-Petrossian and Kocharian in Armenia, the United States to Shevardnadze and Saakashvili in Georgia, and Turkey to Elçhibey in Azerbaijan) (Jafalian 2004, p. 7).  Yet, it is arguable that Azerbaijan’s origins as a modern nation-state are rooted in reaction to imposed hierarchy.  The establishment of the two gubernias of Baku and Elizavetpol by the Russian Empire during the mid-19th century both established a defined Azerbaijani territory, and aided the founding of a bureaucratic elite united by a common language and religion (Çağla 2003, p. 119; Ismailov and Papava 2006, pp. 22-24).  This provided a basis for a unified Azerbaijani bourgeoisie to seek to build a polity that could compete with other nations, advocate for the autonomy of the Transcaucasus, and pursue independence vis-à-vis Russia and Armenia (Çağla 2003, pp. 122-123). 

Evidence can be also found within precedents of Azerbaijani national histories for a linkage between hierarchical perceptions of global power structures and national security.  During the years from 1450 to 1600 AD, the Azeri proto-states established by the White Sheep Turkmen (Ağqoyunlu) and the Safavid dynasty pursued diplomatic relations with the kingdoms of Western Europe in response to the military and economic threat posed by the growing preponderance of Ottoman Turkey (Mahmudov 2006).  Similarly, between 1918 and 1920, the leadership of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti) sought unsuccessfully to secure recognition of independence and military support from the United States in response to the territorial and ideological expansion of Soviet Russia (Hassanov 1993).  Finally, reversing the policies of previous post-Soviet leaders, in September 1993 President Heydar Aliyev extended a resolution for the reentry of Azerbaijan into the CIS to retain access to the security benefits of the status quo maintained by the Russian Federation, while simultaneously expelling Russian troops from the national soil (Library of Congress 1994; Alieva 2006, pp. 23-24).

Given this background, it is possible that the scholarly understanding of Azerbaijan’s security policies would be advanced by the application of alternative theoretical frameworks which interrogate the conventional wisdom in Caucasus studies.  In opposition to the anarchic condition assumed in realism, the theory of power preponderance suggests that the organizing principle of world politics is a multi-level hierarchy composed of great, lesser and minor powers (Tammen, et al. 2000).  The relative positions of states within the hierarchy are defined by the domestic components of national development.  The economic productivity, political capacity and population characteristics of the most powerful states enable them to project their political preferences throughout the international realm, thus minimizing their incentives to engage in conflict.  This therefore assumes that the state system is led by a single power and its coalition of satisfied states, unified by acceptance of the status quo and highly integrated by fixed military alliances, trade, communications, currency exchange and technology transfers.  The United States, NATO and EU at the global level, and the Russian Federation, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in their respective sphere of influence presently exemplify this condition.

At the same time, the lower levels of each respective hierarchy are “conditionally anarchic”, in that they are occupied by a certain number of dissatisfied states that abstain from or reject the conventions promoted by the leading power and its coalition.  These actors are still concerned with the dangers posed by “relative gains”, therefore often pursuing alternative diplomatic or military strategies (e.g., nonalignment, development of nuclear capability, support for insurgencies or terrorism) to oppose the status quo, although they do not possess the resources to directly challenge the preponderant power.  These premises are also logically compatible with propositions regarding the international relations of small developing or formerly socialist states.  The “subaltern realism” perspective posits that contrary to the assumptions of the Western realist tradition, the leaderships of developing nations often perceive the international system as a hierarchy presided over by great powers, while at the same time the domestic political environment is regarded as a struggle to maintain control of the state against anarchic popular forces (Ayoob 1998; 2002).  This places significant constraints on their ability to pursue autonomous national interests (Gleason et al. 2008).  A similar condition has been identified as being prevalent in post-communist states, as the Soviet dissolution initially left governments in many former Republics with a weak tradition of national sovereignty and a lack of capable administrative structures, including competent and technically sufficient foreign ministries and diplomatic services (Skak 1996, pp. 7-9, 21-30). 

Thus, political leaders in these settings are often preoccupied with suppressing internal instability and maintaining control, while also pursuing those external policies that enhance their ability to manage tensions and remain in office.  Azerbaijan has faced severe local insecurity since independence, experiencing a revolution, an internationalized civil war, ethnic secession and successful and attempted military coups (Fearon and Laitin 2006, pp. 12-16).  Therefore, the foreign policy and security strategies of such states are designed in order to maintain autonomy and gain leverage against dominant powers within the international hierarchy, as well as through “omnibalancing,” or the selective use of external support (i.e., foreign or military aid, alliances or direct security assistance) by stronger states to defend themselves against domestic threats (David 1991). 

The concept of a “multi-vector” foreign policy, in which states pursue a form of multi-polar balancing in order to preserve strategic independence while retaining the benefits of cooperation with more powerful states, has become common parlance in journalistic and academic discussions of post-Soviet international relations.  It might be suggested that multi-vectorism constitutes a form of post-Cold War nonalignment that avoids formal alliance commitments, while deriving benefits from economic and military affiliations or partnerships with both the great powers and their strategic competitors.  Within the past decade, it has been utilized in order to describe, as well as prescribe the diplomatic agendas and behavior of various countries, most prominently Kazakhstan (to which its origins are attributed), Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and by extension, Putin-era Russia.  However, it has at the same time rarely been articulated as a theoretical construct, having been applied for varying and inconsistent purposes (Kirbassov 2008).  Recent efforts to provide an analytical useful definition have identified the pursuit of multiple vectors as a pragmatic and non-ideological strategic activity engaged in by rational, self-interested actors (Hanks 2008, p. 7). 

The Azerbaijani variant of multi-vectorism, the “balanced foreign policy” (balanslaşdırılmış xarici siyasət) doctrine initially introduced by Heydar Aliyev, is identified as a cornerstone of the nation’s diplomatic relations (National Security Concept of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2007, p.p. 3, 12).  More significantly, it provides an observable example of how a strong, centralized leadership pursues an alternate (i.e., non-military) means of expressing dissatisfaction with the constraints imposed by hierarchical arrangements.  Finally, its logic implies a fundamentally different view from that currently endorsed by Western policy advocates.  This recognizes that rather than reinforcing independence and sovereignty, the strategy of using energy and transport assets (i.e., the East-West corridor) for complete integration into the U.S.-led political and security architecture via Turkey’s NATO membership would involve surrendering national autonomy and self-reliance (Gaudiano 2007, p.p. 4, 7).  Through its promotion of multiple balancing, the present Azerbaijani leadership has in theory rejected the security policy formula of local “calls for empire” adopted by other Caucasus states – or, the linkage of national consolidation and survival to the aid and intervention of external powers (Jafalian 2004, p. 1).                                               


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