Vol. 2, No. 18 (September 15, 2009)

Azerbaijan and Central Asia: From bridge on the Silk Road to partnership in a globalized world

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
Baku’s relations with the five post-Soviet states of Central Asia have evolved more radically over the last 20 years than have its ties with any other region of the world.  That is true whether one thinks in terms of the expectations of analysts and governments outside the region, the goals of Azerbaijan and its interlocutors in the region, or the aspirations of all five countries involved.  But these shifts have passed beneath the radar screen because many in the region and beyond continue to use a vocabulary which stresses continuity rather than change and which thus conceals rather than reveals what has been going on.

When Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991 and the five Soviet republics in Central Asia gained theirs, many governments and commentators did one of two things with regard to the relations these six countries were going to have.  Either they lumped all of them together given their Soviet experience, their Islamic cultures, and their Turkic languages (except for Tajikistan), or they viewed them as an updated version of the Silk Road that would in the 21st century carry Western models of economics and politics eastward and Eastern oil and gas in the opposite direction. 

Both of these perspectives, while they caught important aspects of reality, vastly oversimplified the situation in three ways.  First, they ignored the enormous diversity of these countries in terms of their history, culture, political style and aspirations, natural resources and economic opportunities, and, last but far from least, their very different geographic locations.  Second, they failed to treat these countries as subjects of their own histories, continuing the Orientalist tradition of assuming that their importance was a function of their being the objects of interest, attention and actions of others.  And third, focusing on the East-West axis, they ignored the North-South one, not only the continuing role of Russia but also the growing role of Iran and the Muslim Middle East more generally.

Most governments, including those in the region and outside, have moved beyond these misconceptions.  But in almost every case, they continue to employ language that downplays not only the complexity of the situation but also the role of Azerbaijan and the five countries of post-Soviet Central Asia relative to that of outside powers, including not only governments but also oil and gas companies as well.

If one looks at Azerbaijan’s relationship with Central Asia over the past 18 years, three things stand out.  First, Baku’s understanding of its ties with the region as a whole has fundamentally changed.  Second, its relations with each of the countries have evolved almost beyond recognition both because of that overall conception and because of its specific needs with each of them.  And third, Azerbaijan’s own sense of its place in the world and its commitment to a balanced foreign policy, one that requires it to navigate between and among various power blocs, mean that Baku’s aspirations for its relationships with the five countries of Central Asia appear likely to continue to evolve.
Azerbaijan’s Vision of Central Asia. Azerbaijan is not a Central Asian country, and while it is both Muslim and Turkic, it is both those things in very different ways from the countries of Central Asia.  It is thus a bridge between two worlds, between Europe and the East, and that given Turkey’s interest in promoting the development of a “Turkic world,” the West’s interest in hydrocarbons, and the exoticism of the unfamiliar which for many in the outside world both Azerbaijan and Central Asia were in the early 1990s and to some extent still are.  Immediately after recovering its independence, Azerbaijan accepted these outside definitions, but its own leaders quickly recognized that their country’s relationship with Central Asia as a whole was going to be more complicated.

On the one hand, Azerbaijanis who had looked at a map – and they were more numerous than those giving advice to them who had – could see that Azerbaijan was a bridge and a barrier along both east-west and north-south axes.  It could be a bridge between the West and Central Asia or a barrier between the two, and it could be a bridge between Russia and the Middle East or a barrier.  And many in Baku quickly recognized that those who wanted it to be a bridge along one path wanted it to be a barrier along the other, something that Azerbaijan’s elites recognized was not sustainable however much some countries were pushing the idea.

And on the other hand, Azerbaijanis recognized early on that the countries of Central Asia were both so fundamentally different than theirs – far more traditional, far more Islamic, and far less open, to name but three of the most obvious ways – that Azerbaijan could deal with it only by seeing it as different from itself and insisting that others do the same, again however much many outsiders were unprepared to do so or at least unwilling to accept the complexities that such an understanding requires.

As a result, over the last 15 years, Azerbaijan has shifted from viewing itself as part of Central Asia to seeing itself as a sympathetic and interested outside power.  For no other group of countries has the change in concept and hence of behavior for Azerbaijan been greater or with larger consequences.
Baku and the Five Capitals. These shifts have been most obvious as Azerbaijan has focused on its relations with the individual countries.  Relations with three of them – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have been driven largely by two issues: the unresolved question of the delimitation of the Caspian seabed and the production and especially the route for the export of hydrocarbons.  In each of these cases, not only have the interests of Azerbaijan and its interlocutor shifted – with Azerbaijan and the other countries involved in their thinking on the Caspian and as to their relative status as suppliers of hydrocarbons or as transit routes to world markets.  Relations with the two others – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – have been less intense precisely because neither of these issues is in play. 

Moreover, there has been a shift in generations in Baku, from a leader who dealt with most Central Asian presidents on the basis of their common experience as former heads of Soviet republics to one who has emerged as a national leader independent of that Soviet past.  On the one hand, that shift has led both sides to reconsider the nature of the relationship.  But on the other, this has meant that Azerbaijan has been able to view the countries of Central Asia as countries like any others instead of as “former Soviet republics.”

And perhaps most important, Azerbaijan by virtue of the skill of its leadership, the location of the country, and its commitment to a balanced foreign policy has outpaced all of the Central Asian states.  It is no longer in its own thinking or in their just one of the post-Soviet Muslim republics but a regional power, ready, willing and able to play international politics at a level and on a board far beyond the reach of most of the Central Asian states.  And that has had the paradoxical consequence that just at a time when many have downplayed the status of Azerbaijan as a bridge from east to west, it is now playing that role to the hilt, precisely because it has also maintained a balance north and south, something that no other country in the region and especially in Central Asia narrowly defined has been able to do.
Azerbaijan, Central Asia and the Broader World. Looking forward, Azerbaijan is in a position, as its own leaders and people recognize, to play a role in Central Asia far larger than anyone had thought, not simply as a transit route and not because of competition over oil and gas resources but because of its ability to attract the attention of powers further afield.  That is something both Azerbaijan and the countries of Central Asia understand, as shown by the increasingly frequent back and forth visits among them and by the deference to Azerbaijan that even the most senior leaders in Central Asia have shown.

Maintaining this position will not be easy.  The challenges Azerbaijan faces in the ever more interconnected and globalized world are enormous as are those within its own borders, but those who expected Baku to be only a bridge for others must now contend with the reality that it is in a position to be far more than that, a situation that others will challenge and that in the future, Baku will have to parry.  In short, the game of international relations goes on: Not the Great Game in which the peoples and governments of Eurasia are pawns for outsiders but one in which they are players too, something Azerbaijan’s government understood earlier than most and has definitively taken advantage of.