Vol. 2, No. 14 (July 15, 2009)

Challenges ahead for Azerbaijan’s diplomats

Robert Austin, Dr.
Munk Centre for International Studies, the University of Toronto


Aslan Amani
Post-Graduate Student in Government
London School of Economics and Political Science
Azerbaijan is one of only a few countries where diplomats have their own day.  On July 9th, Azerbaijan celebrated National Diplomats Day to mark the 90th anniversary of the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.  Given its location, Azerbaijani diplomats face some tough challenges, including outside interest in oil, the conflict with Armenia, and problematic relations both with the Russian Federation, the center of its former imperial master, and with Iran, more than a third of whose population is ethnically Azerbaijani and whose government would like to export its Islamic revolution north to a country that is two-third Shiite Muslim.

In addition, its two other neighbors present challenges: Georgia is struggling with its own geopolitical problems, and the strong alliance Azerbaijan has with Turkey cannot obscure the reality that the two states share only an 11 kilometer border.  As one Baku analyst puts it, “Azerbaijan has geographic ties with its enemies but not with its friends.”

Given this situation, President Ilham Aliyev has adopted as his motto, “a diligent balance.”  As Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov has pointed out, “the diplomatic elasticity required by the difficulties of achieving a modus vivendi in this complex part of the world, would have to be balanced against the country’s top foreign policy priority – re-establishing its territorial integrity.” 

That requirement of course both reflects and increases the challenges diplomats face, especially since many of them like their countrymen more generally share a deep distrust of Russia and Iran.  For example, one senior Azerbaijani politician told us openly that Russia is the key to a peace deal with Armenia.  Another Baku expert said he could not understand how Russia could pretend to be impartial as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group when it “continues to maintain a base inside Armenia.”

Moreover, Azerbaijan has successfully attracted investment from Western sources, joined several European organizations, even though it has disclaimed interest in becoming a member of NATO, and has built strong partnerships with Ukraine and Georgia, two countries that are among those least liked in Moscow.  This kind of balance suggests Baku hopes to have good relations with both Moscow and the West, something some in both places and in Baku find difficult to fully accept.

Underlying these geopolitical concerns are clashes of economic interests in and around Azerbaijan.  Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas has led its member countries to seek the development of alternative pipeline routes that will bypass Russia, something Moscow does not want them to achieve lest it lose its largest and most powerful lever against them.  But so important is this for the West that both the European Union and the United States have thrown their weight behind the Nabucco project, which – if it is completed – could bring some 10 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe from the developing Shah Deniz field.

Russia’s latest countermove in this chess game was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s lightning visit to Baku during which he secured Russia’s right to purchase 500 million cubic meters of gas from Azerbaijan.  Some viewed this as a setback for Nabucco, but others suggested it was part of Azerbaijan’s balanced foreign policy, a step designed to appease Moscow without changing the fundamental dynamics of the situation. 

Given Russia’s new assertiveness in the region, it appears likely that Azerbaijan’s diplomatic tasks will grow even heavier, especially if President Aliyev is now in a position to remind Moscow of Azerbaijan’s strategic importance and thus achieve what Baku would like from Russia while not having to give up Azerbaijan’s ties with the West.  How long Baku will be able to pursue this “diligent balance” remains to be seen, but in the pursuit of that, Azerbaijan’s diplomats will have a key role to play.