Vol. 2, No. 12 (June 15, 2009)

Azerbaijan’s balanced foreign policy and the Muslim world

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Most analysts have focused on only one aspect of Azerbaijan’s balanced foreign policy – its careful navigation of a course between relations with Moscow, on the one hand, and the West – Europe and the United States – on the other.  But what may prove to be ultimately an even more important manifestation of Baku’s approach is to be found in its development of relations with the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, ties that are defined by Azerbaijan’s status as one of the most secular states among Islamic countries and one of the most Muslim countries among secular ones.
On the one hand, Azerbaijan’s status as a country with one foot in each camp has allowed it to serve as a bridge between two civilizations often thought to be in complete conflict.  Indeed, given Azerbaijan’s increasing tilt toward Islam, it has become the pre-eminent example of a country which can be both secular and Islamic.  And on the other, this status has not only limited its freedom of action in particular cases but engendered concerns if not suspicions on the part of some in each camp that it is more a member of the opposite camp than is in fact the case.
Three developments over the last few weeks provide evidence of this balanced approach with the Muslim world: first, Baku’s successful mobilization of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in support of its effort to reclaim the occupied territories; second, its navigation of the complexities of Sunni-Shia divides both domestically and within the Muslim world abroad; and third, its increasing engagement with Israel, one that will result later this month in the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Baku.
At the end of May, Azerbaijan had a major diplomatic success in its work with the Organization of the Islamic Conference.  A ministerial meeting in Damascus adopted a resolution in support of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, denouncing the destruction of Islamic cultural monuments in the occupied territories and pledging the members of the OIC to provide assistance to Azerbaijan to overcome the results of the Armenian occupation.
While OIC member countries have been supportive of Azerbaijan in the past, the Damascus Declaration represents a new stage, but it also shows the ways in which Baku has pursued a balanced policy in this area.  On the one hand, the OIC noted the destruction of Islamic cultural monuments, a clear Muslim concern.  But on the other, the group cast its resolution in terms of the non-Muslim (but of course not anti-Muslim) principle of the territorial integrity of states.  Because it did that, Armenian complaints that Baku was seeking to transform the dispute from a national to a religious one fell flat.
But the Damascus meeting of the OIC had another consequence as well: It sent a powerful signal to the OSCE Minsk Group that Baku has additional diplomatic leverage that it can bring to bear if the European countries do not move more actively to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.  Indeed, one of the reasons that the Minsk Group may have become more active in recent months and Armenia somewhat more prepared to talk is the recognition that a failure to move forward will lead Azerbaijan to engage even more fully with the Muslim world, something the Minsk Group countries, Armenia, and one should add Turkey might view with concern.
The second development of recent months is more complicated but may ultimately prove more important.  Azerbaijan sits astride the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam in a double sense.  Not only is its own population traditionally divided between the two with the Shia outnumbering the Sunni two to one, but three quarters of the ethnic Azerbaijanis in the world live in Iran, the largest Shia country in the world.  And these divisions have created new challenges for Baku domestically and internationally.
Domestically, Azerbaijan faces serious challenges from Salafi Islamist groups and Sufi tariqats who view the traditional and moderate Islamic establishment in Azerbaijan as either out of touch or theologically unsound.  Because of the Soviet inheritance, one that involves among other things, widespread ignorance of the basic tenets of Islam, the radicals have been able to generate support.  Moreover, at the same time, Iran has been backing Shia radicals inside Azerbaijan.  All this has put the Azerbaijani government in a difficult position, forcing it to balance its own security concerns with the certainty that any harsh action against the radicals will not work to its advantage in parts of the Muslim world.
These complexities help to explain why the Azerbaijani authorities have moved in the ways that they have against radicalism in Islam at home, sometimes cracking down hard on extremists and sometimes presenting a more moderate and cooperative face.  And they also help to explain why official Baku has taken harsh measures and adopted legislation that have drawn fire from Western human rights organizations and some Islamic groups as overly tough even as they have received a sympathetic hearing from many governments, including Western ones, who view these actions as part of a broader war on terrorism.
But it is the third move in this area that reveals the careful balancing act Azerbaijan has pursued in and with the Muslim world.  On June 28, Israeli President Shimon Peres will visit Baku, the highest ranking representative of the Jewish state to do so.  His arrival not only reflects Israel’s assessment that Azerbaijan is one of its best friends in the Muslim world – there is no anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan, and the large Azerbaijani Jewish community in Israel has helped to tie the two countries together – but also is part of a larger effort by Jerusalem to press Azerbaijan to become even more supportive.
While Azerbaijan has had diplomatic relations with Israel for more than a decade and has been a major supplier of oil to the Jewish state and while Israel has had an embassy in Baku during much of that time, Baku has not yet opened an embassy in Israel.  Azerbaijan appears to have calculated that such a step would offend many of its Muslim partners, but Peres is certainly going to press Azerbaijan to change its position on this.  Indeed, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan has already said publicly that this will be a major part of the discussions during Peres’ visit.
Not surprisingly, Iran opposes the meeting and has threatened Azerbaijan with various kinds of pressure if it goes forward.  Baku has parried those threats, denouncing them as an illegitimate effort by Tehran to interfere in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs and using them as evidence of a stance many Western countries, including the United States in particular, are extremely pleased with.  Indeed, it seems clear that at least so far, Azerbaijan has benefited from Iran’s attacks more than it has suffered from them, yet another way in which its balanced approach has played to its advantage.
Some analysts have suggested that Azerbaijan’s balanced approach to foreign affairs is not so much a strategy as a reflection of the absence of one, an indication that its leaders will now move in one direction and now in another.  But in fact, as its relations with the Muslim world show even more clearly than its ties with Moscow and the West, it is a very clever strategy designed to leverage Azerbaijan’s resources, economic, ethnic, and religious, against its difficult geographic location.  And most important, it is one that those who seek to work against often find themselves contributing to its success.